Campaigners and politicians have called on the Government and Tower Hamlets Council to act following the withdrawal of a controversial planning application for a residential high-rise with one fire escape in Canary Wharf which raised fears of another Grenfell type tragedy.
The planning application to build the The Cuba Street tower, a 51-storey residential high-rise with a single fire escape was pulled last month following public backlash and concerns raised by London Fire Brigade. Developers Ballymore are revising the application.
The Cuba Street tower was allowed to have a single staircase under government building regulations as the block was to implement a stay put strategy in the event of a fire. Grenfell Tower had a single fire escape stairwell and a similar stay put strategy when it was engulfed by fire in 2017, killing 72 people.
Tower Hamlets has the highest number of tower blocks with safety defects in London. Thousands of leaseholders in the borough face soaring bills and service charges for remedial works to their blocks.
Harry Scoffin, campaigner for the Tower Hamlets Justice for Leaseholders group, told Eastlondonlines he was ‘shocked’ a building 51-stories high could have one fire escape. He called on the council to implement a code of values that would incentivise developers to build high-rise residential blocks with two fire escape stairwells.
Scoffin added: “Tower Hamlets Council have a responsibility to stop doing the bare minimum and what national regulations compel them to do, instead they need to become a national leader on the issue and lobby government.”
Liberal Democrat councillor for Shadwell, Rabina Khan told ELL: “Now is the time for government to change the planning code which stipulates you can have one fire escape stairwell in a high-rise residential block.
“As we are the borough with the highest number of towers, I think we need to think about the council mandating a second fire escape on high-rise planning applications without risking a legal challenge.”
Tower Hamlets council is bound by building regulations set out by central government. Councils have to meet housebuilding targets set out by the government or they could face penalties. This means councils have to approve planning applications for a set number of homes each year or face being put into special measures.
Last May, a fire in Ballymore-developed New Providence Wharf, located in Canary Wharf, reinforced concerns around fire safety in the borough. The block had one fire escape stairwell and a stay put fire escape strategy in place when it set ablaze. A faulty ventilation system in the block meant escape routes filled with smoke. The London Fire Brigade referred to the ventilation system acting like a “broken chimney”. Firefighters had to knock down every door in the block to ensure no one had collapsed as a result of smoke spreading throughout the building.
Cuba Street tower was set to be fitted with sprinklers which was deemed a suitable mitigation strategy. Following the New Providence Wharf fire, the reliance on systems such as sprinklers and ventilation has been in cast into doubt as they have not worked as expected.
Speaking to ELL, an independent Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf, Andrew Wood said he called on fellow councillors to commission an independent report on fire safety in the borough following the blaze at New Providence Wharf. Wood said only one Labour councillor was supportive of this idea. While a report conducted by the council was commissioned and published, an independent report was not commissioned.
Karryn Beaumont, a leaseholder with properties in New Providence Wharf and New Atlas Wharf told ELL: “One lady in [New Atlas Wharf, where she herself lives], has a bag packed ready to grab in the event of a fire. She is extremely worried.”
New Atlas Wharf, which was developed by Persimmon, has a number of critical fire safety issues including flammable cladding, missing cavity barriers and timber decking. The block currently has a waking watch in place. This is where trained staff patrol all floors and external areas of a building to give warning in the event of a fire.
Remedial costs are estimated to be £10.5 million. A remediation plan for the building is still being drawn up. One proposal could see all bricks in the building being removed which would diminish insulation in the block.
Beaumont says she too faces thousands of pounds worth of remediation bills and service charges.
Beaumont told ELL: “We have huge potential financial liabilities so we cannot financially plan for anything. We could have bills in New Atlas Wharf of over £100,000.”
Last week, dense, white sheeting was fitted around the exterior of New Providence Wharf. The sheeting has blocked daylight from coming into residents’ homes and has vastly diminished insulation in the building.
In addition to the remediation bills and service charge increases, insurance rates have skyrocketed. Leaseholders with shared ownership are liable for 100 per cent of remediation costs. Leaseholders cannot sell or remortgage their properties. While Ballymore have agreed to pay for all waking watch costs in New Providence Wharf, Persimmon has only contributed £72,000 towards waking watch costs in New Atlas Wharf.
Many affected properties are clustered in the Isle of Dogs area. Tower Hamlets Council called the area the “fastest growing place in the UK”. The area has been identified by City Hall as an ‘opportunity area’, defined in the Mayor’s London Plan as “significant locations with development opportunities to accommodate new homes, jobs and infrastructure of all types”.
Since 2008, over 13,000 new homes have been built in the Isle of Dogs. The area is densely populated and homes the Landmark Pinnacle which is 75-stories high and is the tallest residential building in Europe.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, leaseholders in homes with unsafe cladding have been unable to sell their homes while receiving hefty bills to cover remedial costs. After years of government inaction, the Building Safety Bill has relieved some of the mental and financial strain on leaseholders. Last month, Michael Gove declared that no person living in a building higher than 11 metres in England will be forced to pay for dangerous cladding to be removed from their building. While leaseholders have welcomed the bill, it fails to cover internal fire defects such as cavity barriers which affects many residential blocks.
The Building Safety Bill currently in the House of Lords does not mandate a second staircase for high-rise residential blocks. The bill also fails to put the financial onus of non-cladding safety issues on developers, leaving leaseholders to pay for these costs.
Speaking in Parliament, Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar and Limehouse said: “[Does] the government have any plans to introduce a threshold height at which two staircases are required to provide both means for resident escape and firefighter entry?”
A spokesperson for Ballymore told ELL: “As part of the planning application for our Cuba Street development, Ballymore received comments from the London Fire Brigade requesting clarification around aspects of the application. We are more than happy to provide that clarification and will continue to work closely with the LFB and local authority towards presenting the scheme for planning approval in due course. Like all Ballymore developments, the Cuba Street scheme will be built in full accordance with approved and emerging guidance and British Standards.
“Ballymore has committed significant investment towards covering the cost of cladding remediation and are working to ensure leaseholders bear no cost. Works are underway across our developments and will be completed as quickly as possible. We will continue to do all we can to minimise disruption for residents as works are completed.”
A spokesperson for Persimmon told ELL: “Persimmon committed a year ago that leaseholders in any high rise development we built will not have to pay to remove cladding or relevant remediation. We have been working with the Management Company as they develop their plan for the building. We hope the works start as soon as possible and will continue to work with the Management Company to make sure our commitment to leaseholders is met.”
ELL has contacted Tower Hamlets council for comment.