Residents ‘may not be evacuated’ as cladding could cause ‘large-scale fire spread’ at Hatfield’s Queensway House
PUBLISHED: 16:53 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:01 28 August 2020
After the Grenfell disaster caused 72 deaths in 2017, Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council communicated to residents at a Hatfield tower block that there was no risk that anything similar could happen.
But a leaked excerpt from a Queensway House report – obtained by the WHT – now tells us a different story. It contains warnings from Herts Fire Control that the cladding would cause a “large-scale fire spread” and there is a risk residents may not be evacuated.
This follows the council marking the building for demolition and regeneration, after residents voted for this option, and the installation of 24/7 fire wardens when the fire doors were deemed unsafe last year.
The excerpts recommend that two types of cladding need to be removed “urgently” and states the yellow cladding – a non-ACM phenolic foam insulation with rendered finish at the entrance – could put firefighters and residents at the “highest risk”. It adds that its removal is a priority.
The report says: “Should the communal landings be affected by fire and smoke, there is also a heightened risk that residents may not be able to evacuate.”
Similarly, metal non-ACM Polyisocyanurate (PIR) cladding – which at Queensway is a Kingspan Ecosafe – is also seen by Herts Fire as needing removal urgently in line with new safety guidance.
Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, WHBC did send samples of the cladding as a “precautionary measure” to be tested. The cladding was confirmed to be a different type to that in Grenfell, and was deemed fire resistant.
A WHBC spokeswoman has responded by questions over not raising this sooner with residents, by saying: “This risk is mitigated by the waking watch service – which ensures residents can be evacuated swiftly in the event of a fire – and the removal of cladding up to the third floor.
“As the risk is being carefully managed, with measures in place and agreed by the Fire Service, we have not wanted to cause residents any undue concern.”
And after the WHT raised further safety concerns in 2019 – as did many residents at the time – about the structural integrity and fire risk to the building, WHBC responded by saying: “As a precautionary measure, we removed the cladding that was fixed to the block and are working with our architects to design a replacement solution.
“We are putting all possible fire protection measures in place for residents at Queensway House and urge residents to contact our resident liaison manager to discuss any specific concerns they have.”
WHBC added via the spokesperson this week: “We have written to residents on many occasions to update them on fire safety works, including our plans to remove the external cladding from the building – some of which was completed last year.
“Since [sending the cladding away] the building industry has reviewed the materials and design of cladding and we made our decision to remove it based on that information.
“The Fire Service has been consulted throughout and is satisfied that the safety measures we have in place – including the 24/7 waking watch – are sufficient to protect residents whilst we work to remove the remaining cladding and continue to help residents relocate to alternative accommodation in advance of the planned re-development of the block.
“Our top priority is to ensure residents feel safe in their homes and, should they have any concerns whatsoever, we urge them to get in touch.”
Herts Fire have responded to our enquiries based on this new information, by stating: “Our Fire Protection Team works with local authorities and housing providers across Hertfordshire, including Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, to ensure the safety of both residential and non-residential buildings. Where fire safety issues are identified we work with those responsible for the building to ensure that safe systems are put in place.”
WHBC said they had decided to install fire wardens 24/7 after further testing of flat front doors – which were installed from 2016 – concluded they did not to meet “full fire resistance standards” but did not reference cladding at the time.
Two 24/7 fire wardens – which are costing the borough council £5,184 a week – were also not available according to residents when a fire alarm was caused in November 2019 by a cafe located at the base of the flats.
A WHBC spokeswoman said, after it was notified by residents, the council met with the senior manager of fire wardens provider Abbey Personnel.
“Abbey Personnel advised us that a member of their staff was present,” she said.
Council officers have previously highlighted to the cabinet that maintaining the nearly 60-year-old building would be costly but replacing the yellow and metal cladding needs to be done regardless of whether the building will be demolished, the leaked excerpts did reveal.
The council also thinks the 66 properties – made up of 22 bedsits and 44 one bed flats – would be unsuitable for the borough’s future housing needs.
The WHT also asked about sprinklers, which were set to be installed but the council has decided against this due to the demolition. “This project was going to be hugely disruptive and expensive – residents have been made aware.”
A review of cladding by the government called ‘Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings’ released in January 2020, and cited by the excerpts from the WHBC report, also raises similar concerns about Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) combined with phenolic foam, which failed a safety test when combined with a fire retardant polyethylene filler.
Queensway House in Hatfield is using non-ACM cladding but tests run on ACM have revealed serious fire issues, which have informed concerns about non-ACM cladding.
The report adds on ACM phenolic that: “This combination of materials therefore presents a notable fire hazard on residential buildings over 18m. It is also necessary to consider the risk from fire spread of these wall systems to health and safety in relation to a residential building of any height.”
The report, released in January 2020 by the local government ministry, also shows that PIR failed safety tests when combined with ACM and unmodified polyethylene filler and fire retardant polyethylene filler
This PIR insulation in wall systems with these materials therefore presents a significant fire hazard in residential buildings.
The report also stresses that both ACM and non-ACM in the Expert Panel’s view could be potential hazardous in buildings and has updated guidance, prompting the review by WHBC.
There are 16 leaseholders and 11 tenants left in Queensway.
The council is looking to the legalities of releasing part or all of the report for a Cabinet meeting on September 8.
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