Residents’ safety the ‘priority’ for council amid £20m bill for fire safety issues at London building

50-52 Bedford Road in Clapham
By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter

Protecting people living inside a London building plagued with fire safety concerns is the “number one priority” for landowner Mansfield District Council as it grapples with a potential bill of nearly £20m.

This is the message of the town’s Labour mayor Andy Abrahams, who has spoken out to reveal resolving the situation is an “incredibly important issue” for the authority.

The council owns the building in Bedford Road, Clapham, as an external investment, having officially bought it for £5.95m in January 2017.

It was acquired by the Mansfield Independent Forum administrations led firstly by Tony Egginton and then Kate Allsop as a way of propping up council services.

A document published in 2018 revealed annual income from the building – which has 40 apartments across three blocks and business space on the ground floor – is more than £300,000 per year.

But concerns were revealed in 2018 following an independent assessment conducted in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

It found issues “inside the walls” that would make it difficult for a fire to be contained, with the walls, floors and ceilings of each flat to be ripped out so the building can be rebuilt internally.

Now Mr Abrahams has spoken to the Local Democracy Reporting Service for the first time since the issues were made public.

He said the authority is going through a “long and protracted journey” to bring the issues right.

He says he hopes the council won’t need a “full legal battle” over the issues and insisted protecting people living inside it is the council’s main focus.

“This is an incredibly important issue for the council,” he said.

“We are a responsible district council that will always do everything to make sure the health and safety of the residents in Lambeth is our number one priority.

“We’re going through the long and protracted journey towards trying to resolve this through meditation and, hopefully, this won’t have to go through a full legal battle.

Andy Abrahams, Labour mayor of Mansfield

“The costs associated with a legal battle would be long and drawn out.”

Council papers show £18.75m has been budgeted between 2022 and 2025 to resolve the issues, while a Freedom of Information request has confirmed a further £943,956 was spent on the property between 2018 and 2022.

The early expenditure was for “investigation works, enhanced security at the property and insurance premiums”, including installing a 24-hour ‘waking watch’ in the event of a fire breaking out.

The authority insists these measures mean the building remains safe to occupy prior to wider works taking place.

But the building also raised alarm bells with firefighters when the London Fire Brigade issued a separate fire safety deficiency notice last year.

This found “a number of” breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, including the absence of 60 minutes’ fire resistance protection for escape routes in corridors, lobbies and stairs.

50-52 Bedford Road in Clapham, London

There were also deficiencies in the fire resistance of materials used in protected routes and entrance doors and issues with fire exits in the basement car park – which need a key fob to operate.

In its recommendations, the fire brigade said repair work and actions to fix the problems should be carried out by May 2024.

Repair work will require residents in all 40 flats to leave their homes for up to a year so reconstruction work can take place.

Residents in the building have previously spoken of repeated delays leaving their lives “in limbo” but the council insists it has kept them up to date throughout the entire process.

It is unclear at this stage whether any further cash will be needed for the project in the 2025/26 financial year, and the authority has not yet set out its full, three-year budget until 2026.

However, the council currently faces a budget black hole of £1.9m for 2023/24 and is drawing up proposals to help fund the gap through potential service reviews and savings.

Cash used from similar external investments – including a Doncaster Travelodge, a Manchester PureGym and a Glasgow Volkswagen garage, all owned by the council – have helped to prop up services in the past.

The Doncaster Lakeside Travelodge. Image credit Google

Kate Allsop, the former Mansfield Independent Forum mayor who ran the council when the authority officially bought the building, said her group made these investments at a time of austerity and public sector cuts.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service last month: “Investing outside the district brings a large amount of revenue into the district and means people in London are paying for services people in Mansfield receive.

“The money the council gets from the Government is minuscule so, if you want the services you need, you need to be creative. That’s what we were.”

She also said the authority took “professional” advice when purchasing the Clapham property, with the official sign-off to allocate the funds made in October 2014 under her predecessor Tony Egginton.

The former executive mayor of Mansfield Allsop.

Last month, he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he “cannot recall” details of the investment but insisted the purchase was made to bring “secure income into the authority”.

However, Mr Abrahams says this local government funding model was “unsustainable”.

He says his administration has moved away from the strategy since he took on the role in 2019, while the Government has also backtracked on a policy which initially encouraged the practice.

“Because of ten years of austerity, councils all over the country were asking how they can protect their services,” Mr Abrahams said.

“The answer was trying to find investments so they don’t have to cut services, driven by a Government policy.

“I always thought that was an illogical way of trying to fund local government.

“Effectively, everybody all over the country is looking at someone else’s area to try and find an investment that will make funds to support services in their own area.

Mansfield District Council’s headquarters

“Somebody might pick off a bargain somewhere but it’s an unsustainable way of financing local government.

“When I took over, I said I would look for investment within Mansfield. This was at the same time when the Government said the same thing and stopped councils doing it.

“And of course, investments can go wrong, there are probably thousands of cases across the country where there might be issues.”

The authority says it is “exploring all avenues” to recoup any of the costs incurred through this process.

This will include any relocation fees for the 40 households at Bedford Road, with work expected to start in May 2023.

However, unanswered questions remain from the two companies behind the creation of the building.

It was put forward by The Harris Partnership and Oakapple Properties Ltd – a now-liquidated subsidiary of Leeds-based developer The Oakapple Group.


Council facing £20m bill to fix fire safety concerns in apartment building it owns in London

Former mayors defend investments after council’s nearly £20m bill for London building revealed

Unanswered questions from company behind council’s London building with £20m fire safety concerns

A press release published on The Harris Partnership’s website in March 2014 revealed its Reading office was in charge of “planning, construction and fit-out designs”.

The Oakapple Group was in charge of bringing forward planning applications.

The Harris Partnership was asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service whether it is aware of the building’s fire safety issues.

It was also asked what materials were used when fitting out the building, what regulations it followed to ensure fire safety was protected, and how the building’s compartmentation was designed.

The organisation missed numerous deadlines to respond.

However, The Oakapple Group did respond to similar queries about how the building was planned.

Philip Taylor, the group’s chairman, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This situation is not one we are aware of, and we have had no involvement in the process which has resulted in this outcome.”

When questioned on what this statement meant, a company spokesperson said Oakapple has “had no involvement” with any party since the fire safety concerns came to light.

However, the organisation did not comment on whether it was involved in issues that led to the problem coming to light in the first place.

The spokesperson said: “Oakapple has had no involvement with any party on the fire safety issues identified after the purchase by the council.

“We cannot, therefore, comment on these subsequent events.”

Neither organisation answered questions on the sign-off process, nor did they outline what safeguards were provided during planning and construction to protect fire safety.

But when similar questions were put to Lambeth Council – the planning authority that first approved the development in 2013 – it confirmed sign-off was made by a private, independent assessor.

The Labour-led authority outlined how the building was assessed on standards and regulations relevant at the time.

And it has confirmed changes to regulations since the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017 have meant more emphasis was placed on fire safety for high-rise residential blocks.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)