Despite condemning office-to-flat conversions, Croydon Council has been using three such buildings to provide temporary housing. A year after a Fire Brigade inspection found the blocks unsafe, improvement works have still not finished, leaving residents forced to live on a building site
Hundreds of people, including some families with young children, living across three tower blocks on London Road have been living with fear of a major fire breaking out, after all three buildings were served with enforcement notices by the London Fire Brigade following safety visits a year ago.
All three blocks are managed by Croydon Council.
The council was served with the enforcement notices on Concord House, Sycamore House and Windsor House in September 2018. They were ordered then to bring the properties up to proper safety standards before the end of March this year.
But workmen have been on site even this week, with builders’ tools and flammable materials left lying around the corridors of the block. The LFB has given the council an extension to September 23 this year to complete the works to a satisfactory standard.
Residents who have contacted Inside Croydon say, “We feel we are living in a fire trap.”
One of the buildings, Windsor House, at 1270 London Road in Norbury, is situated right above a petrol station.
The council has been using the three blocks – previously offices, but converted into bedsits and one-bedroomed flats – since 2015, and has publicly described the buildings as “quality accommodation for homeless people”.
In July 2017, the council signed new leases or extended its lease for the buildings through to 2057.
“The council has also taken over from contractors the buildings’ day-to-day management, including repairs,” a statement from the council’s propaganda department said at the time.
“We took on these buildings to give people avoiding homelessness good-quality temporary accommodation, and this contract means that we will continue to do so,” was the pledge made by Alison “Lying Cow” Butler, the council’s £48,660 per year deputy leader and cabinet member for housing.
Butler, and other senior figures within the Labour-run council, have rightly been very critical of profit-hungry developers and landlords who have used Tory law changes to enable them to avoid many usual planning restraints and buy up old office blocks and convert them into hundreds of often under-sized and over-priced flats.
Butler and her mates justified taking on Windsor, Concord and Sycamore houses because it enabled them to provide 338 housing units for people – often families with young children – who would otherwise have to endure many weeks living in costly and usually inadequate B&B accommodation at the council’s expense.
In July 2017, when announcing the new leases, the council’s propaganda department stated: “The council will save around £5million in comparison to the previous lease by paying 30 per cent less each year under the new deal struck with the buildings’ landlord Cheyne Social Property Impact Fund, which bought the sites in December  from the previous freeholder.”
The council originally took the buildings on in 2015 and 2016, according to its own press release, “to cut its use of expensive and less suitable nightly bed and breakfast accommodation for people avoiding homelessness”.
According to the council’s finance chief, Councillor Simon Hall, the longer leases “guarantees a better deal for Croydon taxpayers by delivering an annual saving of around £450,000”.
Except that what the deal did not deliver was safe accommodation for the people living there.
Of course, when the council provides emergency accommodation to homeless people in Bed and Breakfasts and cheap hotels, they are required by law to find them a permanent home within six weeks.
Some of the people living in the flats and bed sits in Sycamore, Concord and Windsor houses have been there for more than two years, still awaiting housing allocation. And for the past year, their homes have been a building site.
Given that the council has been placing homeless families in Windsor, Sycamore and Concord houses since 2015, it appears that they have done so without conducting the sort of routine fire safety checks which has seen Croydon hit private landlords with hefty fines for putting their tenants’ lives at risk.
The London Fire Brigade issued enforcement notices which found that the council buildings had failed on several important safety issues.
- “Failure in the effective management of the preventive and protective measures”;
- “Failure to provide and/or maintain adequate and clearly indicated emergency routes and exits that lead to a place of safety”;
- “Failure to ensure that the premises and any facilities, equipment and devices are maintained in an efficient state, in effective working order and in good repair”;
- and also “Failure to establish an appropriate emergency plan”.
This latter failure by the council was issued in respect of Windsor House, the building next to a petrol station.
Inside Croydon understands that LFB officers conducted a no-notice re-inspection two weeks ago, after being alerted by concerned residents to on-going issues surrounding the uncompleted works and practices of the contractors on the site.
The LFB has given Croydon Council an extended deadline until September 23 to complete the works.
Although the enforcement notices were issued in September 2018, it was not until last November – two months later – that the council’s builders moved on site to start what was supposedly urgent works, including installing regulation compliant fire doors on the corridors and on each flat or bedsit, and remedying the sub-standard fire exits for some of the buildings.
Families living in the blocks, some of whom have chronic health issues, relate that they were originally led to believe that they would be re-housed while the building works took place.
This practice was described by council housing officials as the people being “decanted”.
Yet these transfers never took place, and the residents have been forced to live on a building site ever since.
Repeated emails and notices from council officials, in correspondence seen by Inside Croydon, have stated that the builders would seek to keep disruption to a minimum.
But as one very worried mother told Inside Croydon, “How can major works not have a massive impact on resident?
“My eldest son is asthmatic, so do you think the dust and fumes form the substance they use is not disturbing his health? I do not sleep at night, and these works are only making things worse.
“We are living in a fire trap,” she said.
“The fire escape route from our flats is blocked by old bike sheds, which make it too narrow for residents to run in the event of a fire. It is also dangerous because there is not enough room to run away from the building. The emergency fire door does not fully open outside of the building.”
One of the three buildings, Sycamore House, at 799 London Road, in Thornton Heath, is made up of 63 studio flats over four floors. Residents here received letters from the council in October last year – two weeks after the LFB enforcement notices were issued – which dissembled, “Croydon Council is carrying out an ongoing review of fire safety in its buildings.
“As part of the review, we intend to carry out improved fire safety works in your buillding. Until this work begins we have introduced interim safety measures such as night patrols and London Fire Brigade is satisfied there is no increased fire risk to you or your neighbours…
“…This building work will take several months and would be disruptive to all residents so we will need to find you suitable alternative accommodation while this happens.”
The inadequate fire doors and poor emergency escape routes will have been evident when Croydon Council first took the properties on in 2015-2016. As would the absence of sprinklers.
As another resident told Inside Croydon, “They have just not been honest with us from day one. That first letter came after they had been ordered by the Fire Brigade to carry out the works. They tried to make out that everything was fine, and they were carrying out some kind of review, which was simply untrue. It was a deliberate attempt to mislead us.
“Remember, this was little more than a year after the Grenfell fire. Yet to this day, we are still living in this unsafe building, together with hundreds of others.
“The promises to consider installing sprinklers or to move us out of the buildings while the works were going on have all come to nothing. We don’t feel safe living here, it’s no place to bring up young children.
“We have a slum landlord, except we can’t go to the council to complain because the council is our landlord.”
Residents claim that the council has committed several breaches of its own policies. While they have taken complaints to their ward councillors, their situation has not improved.
“Fire doors have been removed, hazardous materials left unsupervised and substances spilled and left overnight. There’s no regards for our health or well-being,” said one mum, who lives with her husband and two children across two bedsits. She alleges that there have been other breaches of safety regulations in respect of checks on the block’s gas supply.
“There are a lot of vulnerable people in this block. Yet there’s machinery operating here all day long, starting from eight in the morning and going through to 5pm. When we complain, they victimise and discriminate against us.
“Why is the Croydon council treating us like this? Why is our well-being and safety not paramount to them? Are we not human beings, don’t we have rights?”
According to a Fire Brigade spokesperson, “In the weeks leading up to the completion date for the enforcement notice, we will contact the responsible person for the building to receive a progress update. After the notice has expired, we will carry out a full inspection.”
The Fire Brigade could, if they become concerned that the conditions in the blocks are unsafe for people to live in, issue a prohibition notice – one stage up from the enforcement order, which would force the building owner to find alternative accommodation for the tenants – or even prosecute the council.
A spokesperson for Croydon Council told Inside Croydon: “We are improving fire safety measures for residents at our three temporary accommodation blocks, including new fire doors and new signage, as part of our ongoing review of fire safety in council buildings.
“London Fire Brigade says our interim safety measures, from extra night patrols to portable sprinklers, mean there is no increased fire risk to residents, whom we have kept informed throughout the process. We are working to keep disruption to a minimum and continue to update residents during these works, which are on track to meet the latest timescales and requirements set by the LFB.”
Residents to whom we have spoken, and have shown the council’s statement, say that it is simply not true.
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