Residents of Citiscape, the 95-flat private high-rise residential block in Croydon’s town centre, have been denied all access to their homes and possessions for nearly six weeks and have now been told that it could be at least another two months before they are allowed back into the building.
The building’s owners say that structural engineers have warned that the whole edifice is at serious risk of complete collapse in a gust of wind.
Citiscape is the Croydon building which was found to have Grenfell Tower-like flammable aluminium-based cladding. When its owners refused to pay the £2million bill for the removal of the cladding, a year-long legal battle followed. The residents lost.
With the Tory government failing to honour its post-Grenfell disaster pledges to provide funding towards making such blighted buildings safe, the situation was only resolved in April 2018 when the builders, Barratts, put up the money for the removal of the fire risk. The building had been completed in 2002, and so was long out of the guarantee period which would have required the builders to pay for this work.
Yet that was only the start of the problems for residents, many with young families, who live in Citiscape, on Drummond Road, close to Surrey Street and the Centrale shopping centre.
The removal of the cladding revealed large structural cracks in the building, which prompted the immediate evacuation of residents on the first two floors in the first week of September. They were soon followed by their neighbours from the rest of the building, as the risk of collapse increased.
And Barratts have been picking up the bills again, again when they have no legal responsibility to do so. The building firm has been paying an estimated £250,000 per month for temporary accommodation for the displaced residents.
“We were put in hotels as far away as Wimbledon and Clapham,” one Citiscape tenant told Inside Croydon.
“The residents in the lower floors were sent to Latitude by Park Hill, with parking available at Centrale (not reasonable for those with children or in mobility scooters), while their belongings were put in storage in Redhill.
“I live on one of the upper floors, so there was not any urgent need to empty our flats initially. Now, we have been told we have to be out for six months, too, and that we should find our own accommodation or go through the Insurance Claims Accommodation Bureau. ICAB was taking a long time to call us back, so we went our own way. It’s been a struggle to find available accommodation. You can imagine the situation: how many two-bed flats with parking are left in Croydon?”
The situation appears to have escalated in the past 10 days, however, with the building in a security lockdown, “due to advice of the structural engineers”, according to letters sent to residents.
A small group of residents, some needing to access personal possessions left behind in their homes, such as prescription medicines or official documents required for the renewal of visas, went back to Citiscape on Saturday to try to get into the building, but they were firmly refused by a platoon of heavies in hi-viz jackets.
“We cannot access our own flats to remove our belongings. This is especially distressing to those that need medication or with small children,” the resident said.
Some have decided to take the managing agents, FirstPort, to the High Court today to obtain an injunction to allow access to the flats. “We’ve been provided with no reports on the state of the building, just a letter pointing at a generic structural fault.
“Even if we’re not successful at the High Court today, it will make FirstPort show all the reports they have on the issue. They keep denying their existence but, to be honest, would you spend this amount of money rehousing people without reports?”
Denied sight of the independent structural reports, there’s growing cynicism among around what really lies behind the building owners’ somewhat heavy-handed approach to the situation. Some believe that the owners may even be considering having the six- and nine-storey building condemned as unsafe so that it can be demolished to make way for a property three or four times taller, and therefore much more lucrative for the developers.
Citiscape’s freehold is owned by Proxima GR Properties, a company held in the family trust of multi-millionaire property mogul Vincent Tchenguiz.
Together with his brother Robert, Tchenguiz has an estimated net worth of £850million. Tchenguiz is thought to own 300,000 freeholds in Britain, including 10 Hilton hotels.
With increasing pressure to build ever more homes, and rising land prices, Croydon Council has recently been considering planning applications for residential towers in the town centre as tall as 40 or even 50 floors high, providing more than eight times as many apartments as are to be found in Citiscape.
It was the first week of September when the evacuation of the lower floors of Citiscape happened, with those living on the third floor and above receiving a letter from the building’s managers, FirstPort Property Services, which told them not to have visitors or more than 10 people in their flats.
It warned that they, too, could be asked to leave their homes “should there be winds of a level likely to cause structural damage”.
The letter added: “We would like to emphasise the reason for taking this action is to ensure the safety of residents and to identify and remedy any issues with the building as soon as possible.” For those in the worst affected, lower floor flats, it was estimated then that works to make the building safe would last six months.
But in a letter and FAQs document updated and circulated at the weekend, FirstPort no longer offered a potential return date for residents, and instead said that, “We do not yet have confirmation from the specialist engineering teams on how long that work could take.”
Now, it seems, the building is so unsafe that it is too dangerous to allow workers on site to carry out the repair works required.
The letter, from Paul Atkinson, FirstPort’s “operations director”, said, “We understand how disruptive this must be to your lives and are sorry this has been necessary, but please be assured we continue to work for the best available solution whilst ensuring your safety. We are all grateful for the immediate financial support provided by Barratt that has allowed a safe and rapid evacuation of the building whilst the necessary investigations take place…
“You will recall that following the identification of localised cracking in the concrete structure of Citiscape in September, specialist engineers advised that all residents needed to move out of the building pending further analysis and modelling that would take several weeks. A solution was proposed at that time to put in place temporary propping supports to ensure the building was made safe.
“Following further work and analysis by structural engineers, this propping work had to put be on hold last week following advice that all access to the building should be stopped as a safety precaution.
“Based on this new analysis the engineers have this week been devising a new approach to safety propping after which they will be able to complete further inspections to identify a long-term solution. These revised propping plans are now developed but are more complex and extensive than originally planned.
“To complete the safety propping, specialist teams will enter the building through the windows on each floor, installing lines of structural props in rows. The work will take place across every floor of the building and in all apartments, with supports placed on average at 1.5 metres apart.
“We have been advised that this initial phase is expected to take up to six to eight weeks. The installation of the temporary supports will ensure the structure is secure while a longer-term solution for the building is identified. This work is vital and has to happen both for safety and to allow further detailed inspections.
“Throughout this time nobody will be able to enter the building.
“Unfortunately, given the close proximity of the supports, please be advised that it will not be possible to remove any furniture from the building while the works take place. We hope to enable retrieval of household items and personal effects once the initial work has been completed but this will need to be confirmed once the building supports are in place.
“Until further inspections and revised load modelling have been completed it is impossible to determine the longer-term solution, and all parties will need information before confirming what happens next. We ask for your continued patience whilst we work for the best possible solution.”
The residents, however, feel that they are being denied direct access to important information, and that they are being fobbed off by FirstPort. “They are being far from helpful,” a resident told Inside Croydon.
“They do not pick up phone calls, only answer emails, and at the minimal hint of blame they respond with a ‘do not abuse us or we will not deal with you again’. It is getting ridiculous.”
Local MP Steve Reed OBE, who intervened 18 months ago to try to resolve the cladding issue, is due to meet with FirstPort and some members of the resident association. There has been little or no assistance from Croydon Council. A day nursery in a building next to Citiscape has been told there is no need for it to be evacuated, and according to the council, Citiscape building is safe.
“Moneywise we are OK,” the resident said.
“Barratts have been paying for our hotel accommodation and a daily allowance to cover food and laundry. Now that we have to move into flats, they offered a move-out payment, a move-back-in payment and rent paid for up to six months.
“We do not know what is going to happen after six months but the works are clearly going to take longer than that. With the issue of not being able to access our belongings, lovely FirstPort is now saying we can use that allowance or the move out money to buy whatever furniture or winter clothes we need. That is not reasonable.
“Alison Butler was not too helpful when I spoke to her,” the resident told Inside Croydon. “She was only concerned about tenants that might have their tenancy agreements finished and will not be able to find new flats, as they would need to be rehoused at the council’s expense.”
As the very stressed resident told Inside Croydon, “FirstPort are difficult to fight, and being leaseholders, we have zero rights.
“But we have been out of our homes since September 7 with no explanation of what is happening and, honestly, I am fed up.”
It was in June 2017 that the Grenfell fire saw 71 people killed in a residential tower block elsewhere in the capital. That August, the residents of Citiscape in Croydon had the cladding on their homes analysed and shown to be similarly, dangerously combustible.
The official report into the Grenfell disaster is expected to be published tomorrow. Fortunately, no one living in Citiscape in Croydon has died or been badly injured because of the use of flammable cladding, or because of the way the property was built.
But Citiscape shows another side of the misery that the de-regulated private property sector can serve up.
First, Citiscape residents were threatened by their landlords with having to find £30,000 for the removal of the dangerous cladding outside their homes.
Now, some are having to contend with having their lives placed in indefinite disruption and no access to their homes.
For the heavily mortgaged freeholders of properties within the tower block, they are confronting a real fear of losing everything they own, as flats that were selling on the private market for around £350,000 have been rendered completely worthless.
And all the while, it seems, the local council and the government stand idly by, providing no help or support, disinterested and irrelevant. Such is life in Croydon in 2019.
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