When fire ripped through the wooden balconies of Samuel Garside House, Barking Riverside, in June 2019, it forced 79 families to flee their homes. By the time it was out, it had destroyed a total of 10 flats and damaged many more. By sheer luck, no one was hurt, partly because it happened during the day, but mostly due to the heroic actions of residents who ran from flat to flat alerting their neighbours.
The immediate disruption to family life, lost treasured possessions, and mental trauma suffered by the affected residents and their neighbours was just the start. Residents have since been forced to spend more than two years struggling to get the blocks made fire-safe.
Samuel Garside House, and blocks of similar construction in the area, are less than 18 metres high. This means they fall outside many government directives on cladding removal brought in after the Grenfell fire in 2017.
Before they started their protests, residents of Samuel Garside House together with other blocks on the estate with flammable balconies and cladding had to first unpick a complex series of corporate relationships in an attempt to identify who held responsibility and where their demands should be targeted. This included those in the nearby Caspian Quarter.
The Corporate Maze
Like Samuel Garside House, the Caspian Quarter flats were developed by Bellway, a high-profile construction company – and one which failed to identify that installing wooden balconies would create a fire hazard. Bellway is one of the top ten home builders and declared half £500 million in pre-tax profits this year.
Bellway remediated the balconies at Samuel Garside House and three similar blocks without cost to the residents. But they are refusing to do the same to the Caspian Quarter properties, resulting in huge bills to residents, who are having to foot the £1m bill for remediation.
The freeholder for the flats is an off-shore company called Adriatic Land. Adriatic has the head lease, and a company called Barking Riverside Limited (BRL) is the freeholding superior landlord.
BRL is itself a joint venture company, 51% owned by housing association London & Quadrant and 49% owned by the Greater London Authority. The local council, LB Barking and Dagenham, and National House Building Council (NHBC) are also involved in the negotiations.
Another company, Encore, acts as the managing agent.
Creating a web of companies is one method adopted by landlords to make it hard for residents to get justice when a dispute arises. Bureaucracy is multiplied to the advantage of the landlord. The solution proposed by some residents is to transfer the properties into council ownership where lines of accountability would be both simpler and under democratic control. Residents are also exploring the Right to Manage legislation, which transfers the right to manage the block from the landlord to the residents.
Not Paying Up
Inevitably, residents in Caspian Quarters are being expected to foot the bill for remedial works. One described feeling under extreme pressure to do so knowing that she is severely constrained when it comes to re-mortgaging or selling her home. She and others will not be able to move on with their lives until the buildings’ safety defects have been addressed. Residents have been told it will be two years before work starts, and then only if all the money has been collected in.
Resident Peter Mason said:
“Bellway, the company that built the homes, has so far washed its hands of all responsibility. It built the homes, took the profits, and expected that to be an end of the matter. It has so far refused to cover costs in Caspian Quarters, even though Bellway has covered the cost of remediation on other estates.”Peter Mason, CHAIR OF THE RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION
Residents formed a Residents Association to collectively pressure the companies involved to resolve the issue. They are adamant that Bellway, not the residents, should be made to pay.
Other options are available. The council could carry out remedial work and bill central government. This could involve the compulsory purchase the blocks from the freeholders.
Alternatively, NHBC, Adriatic, or Bellway could cover the cost of remediation. All these alternatives would allow the work to start immediately and free those currently trapped in bureaucracy.
With progress agonisingly slow, some residents have opted to step up pressure by withholding the remediation element of their service charge. In doing so, they join a growing group of tenants and residents organised by SHAC engaged in rent or service charge strikes in protest at their landlord’s failure to engage effectively.
Strike On! Housing Association Rent and Service Charge Strikes Meeting
At 6.30pm on Monday 20th December, SHAC will be holding an open, online meeting about why tenants and residents are increasingly take rent and service charge strikes. We will discuss what risks are involved and how they can be minimised. Register here.
18 November 2021
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.