North Bank Sheffield

RESIDENTS OF the North Bank building in the city were told they would need to evacuate yesterday, but the building management firm managed to ‘avoid closure’ before a second evacuation occurred.

In early December, the North Bank on Wicker Riverside was served a prohibition notice by South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS), with five floors evacuated and residents given emergency accommodation. The evacuation of the sixth to 10th floors came after SYFRS had undertaken an inspection, and found ‘issues’ relating to both smoke ventilation and fire escape procedures.

Block management company Love Your Block had flagged up problems to SYFRS during the routine inspection, with other issues established including cavity wall and cladding problems. The company’s Paul McCormack said that ‘we are doing absolutely everything that we can to support the residents, and are having multiple conversations with [SYFRS] and the council’. SYFRS said it had been a ‘difficult decision’ to make so close to Christmas, but adding that ‘safety was a priority’.

In November, SYFRS confirmed it would deploy a fire safety team to inspect all of the region’s high rise residential tower blocks by the end of 2021. The plans for ‘all high-rise residential tower blocks’ saw its team – funded by a government grant – start to inspect all buildings 18m or taller or with six or more storeys ‘as part of a programme launched in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire’. The inspections will assess fire safety measures in each block.

Residents of North Bank were offered emergency accommodation, with resident Ryan Spence noting that ‘the building has failed every single fire regulations it turns out and every person from the sixth floor onwards to the 10th floor have been forced to leave tonight or face arrest’. In total, 35 of the 10 storey block’s 132 flats in the upper section were affected, though at the time it was said that the upper floors could ‘be reoccupied when a full evacuation alarm system is in place’.

An waking watch is patrolling lower floors until the system was ‘up and running’. Later in December, a new fire alarm system was fitted and a waking watch installed at a cost of £2,000 per day, posted on every floor until the system was fully installed. The government’s £30m to fund waking watch costs ‘will be used to pay for both the costs of the waking watch and the new fire alarm’, but the block is ‘still understood to have cladding issues’ that could cost ‘tens of thousands’ to ‘put right’.

More recently last month, residents were able to return home before Christmas thanks to the government’s waking watch funding, but faced bills for the watch until February of thousands of pounds’ as the waking watch will need to be funded ‘until at least’ then, while the rest of the fire alarm system is fitted. Its installation was delayed due to both Christmas and the COVID-19 restrictions.

Yesterday it was reported that Love Your Block had told residents they need to be evacuated again ‘for the second time in just over a month’ because the company ‘could not raise enough money to continue paying’ for the waking watch. Noting that SYFRS were ‘aware of the situation’, Love Your Block added that SYFRS was set to be issuing another emergency prohibition notice accordingly.

In a letter to residents, Love Your Block’s managing director Paul McCormack stated: ‘I am sorry to have to give this news. Despite our best efforts to raise funds to pay for the waking watch, there remains a substantial shortfall in cash needed to pay for this service that has already been provided. The company providing the waking watch have offered to maintain service until noon on Monday after which they will withdraw their wardens.

‘[SYFRS] are aware of the situation and they will issue an emergency prohibition notice on the whole of Wicker Riverside immediately thereafter. We continue to pursue the service charge debtors in the hope of obtaining sufficient funds, but the payments from private leaseholders have reduced to a trickle so unless Nine Developments Ltd pay their debt, it is inevitable that the building will close on Monday.

‘We wanted to give you advance warning so that you can plan to vacate the building on Monday afternoon. This will affect all flats, even those on the upper floors that already have an alarm fitted. To give a glimmer of hope, I am pleased to share that the fire alarm quote is now available. Funding for the alarm will come from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

‘We hope to have the alarm in place by mid-February which should then allow the building to be reoccupied. If we receive payment of sufficient service charges before noon on Monday, we will let you know immediately.’

However, Examiner Live has now reported that Love Your Block did manage to pay some of the costs and avert yesterday’s planned evacuation, though residents have discussed their fears of a ‘weekly’ eviction threat due to the issues. The building management firm is ‘now struggling to fund’ the waking watch, and until the new fire alarm system is installed the building is at risk of being ‘shut down’.

Leaseholder Jenni Garratt commented: ‘A warning was sent on Friday that we would need to prepare for evacuation today, but basically the can has just been kicked down the road. We’re now in the process of waiting for the fire alarm funding from the government, which will remove the need for the waking watch. But, because we need a patrol for each floor, it’s costing the building £15,000 a week and that’s charged to leaseholders.

‘So, as we’ve been paying this extra charge since December we’re finding that the money is leaving our account faster than it’s going in and, if there’s no money to fund the waking watch, the building gets shut down."

Leaseholders have paid over £3,000 on top of service charges since December, she added: ‘The building landlords owe £128,000 but have been able to pay a few thousand so that the building didn’t need to be evacuated on Friday. It certainly doesn’t pay off their debt but it gives us an extra week to raise more funds to keep us going – we’re essentially in a situation where, week-to-week, we face evacuation if funds for the waking watch can’t be raised.’

Love Your Block confirmed that while it is ‘currently arranging’ the alarm installation, ‘insufficient funds’ might force the building to close, with a spokesperson commenting: ‘Following installation of the first phase of the fire alarm system that allowed residents to return to their flats on the upper floors before Christmas, we are now arranging installation of the second phase covering the lower floors.

‘A waking watch remains in place on the lower floors until the alarm can be fitted - however the service charges are facing a severe shortage of funds that means that the waking watch is at risk of being revoked. We secured funds to cover debts of about £90,000 by 5pm on Friday to avoid closure of the building today, but unless overdue service charges are paid in full, the risk remains that there will be insufficient funds to keep the building open.

‘The finances are being monitored continuously and we are pursuing all options to urgently collect overdue service charges.’

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