After a significant refurbishment of nine blocks for Salford City Council under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) consortium Pendleton Together, by Together Housing and Keepmoat Regeneration, the work was checked and signed off by the Council's appointees.
Following the Grenfell Tower blaze in London, the blocks were assessed by building surveyors, Trident, and the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, which resulted in the cladding and associated insulation on all nine blocks being deemed dangerous. The cladding used was almost identical to that used on Grenfell Tower. The cladding and insulation combination later failed subsequent safety tests.
So far, the first three storeys of all nine tower blocks have had the cladding replaced by cement boards. However, this is still covering the original insulation. Work has recently started to remove all the cladding and insulation from one block, Plane Court, with the promise of this being carried out on all nine tower blocks affected across the estate over the next two years.
When the refurbishment was being carried out, Keepmoat managed to work on more than one block at a time. Why then is it that this work will take so long, given the wait residents have already had to endure to date? Residents do not see any urgency in the actions being taken, not much logic in how they are currently proceeding.
Plane Court has almost been completely stripped and now has no rain proofing or insulation. There have been no replacement materials anywhere on site. As the seasons change and the weather becomes colder, what is going to happen to the residents of this block?
So why, given the promise that these vulnerable blocks would have the dangerous cladding replaced as a matter of urgency, is this work being carried out with such a laissez-faire approach?
Only a small amount of scaffolding is being constantly erected and broken down as workmen move slowly around Plane Court. The choice of block on which to start the work is puzzling, as Pendleton Together and Salford City Council stated that they would prioritize the taller blocks first as they were the ones out of the reach of the Fire Services appliances.
Although Spruce Court and Thorn Court are the tallest blocks, they do have two staircases, one at either end of the building. Hornbeam Court and Whitebeam Court only have one staircase in case of emergencies. The current work does not seem to conform with what had been stated as the priorities. In the meantime, Fire Marshals provide a 24/7 service patrolling the blocks and car parks.
Amid all of this, however, residents are greatly concerned about other aspects of the refurbishment work, particularly around windows and window safety. Currently there is concern that Juliet Balcony windows/doors, where fitted in lounges are dangerous, with some evidence of glass falling out and windows cracking. As a safety measure, residents are told that they may open these windows on an inward tilt, for ventilation only, but they can open the other windows inwardly.
People living on the ground floor do not have Juliet Balconies, but sliding patio doors instead. They have been told that these 'should not be opened', even in the recent hot spell – which leaves residents with no ventilation to the lounge. Some residents have received tenancy warnings for having their windows open, contrary to Pendleton Together's request. However, it is clear from walking around the estate that there are far more offenders than those receiving such warnings. Why are some residents singled out for this and not others?
It is ironic that Pendleton Together have put metal barriers around ground floor windows in case windows fall out above and informed residents not to open sliding patio doors or enter the space as it is deemed dangerous, while Pendleton Together's gardeners enter without a hard hat or other such protection to cut the grass.
The windows are so dangerous and yet window cleaners are abseiling down them to clean them. Surely this is putting the window cleaners at risk? Are they aware of the issues? The windows are either safe or they are not. There needs to be some common sense and consistency in the production of what have to date been wholly authoritarian and random policies and procedures. Pendleton Together and Salford City Council need to address this with immediate effect.
A lot of residents have sleep disorders combined with mental health issues and it is helpful in maintaining regular sleep patterns to ensure that good ventilation is available, more so due to the recent very hot and humid weather. Some people living here also smoke and now cannot control the odour of stale cigarettes properly unless they can open their windows. This situation has been going on for some time already and this is leading to residents ignoring the restrictions because of previous hot weather and the prolonged nature of the problems.
It must be stressed that parents are very worried about the safety of their children and what may happen with windows, which may fall out or, if cracked, could shatter with serious consequences. The same concerns apply to older residents with balance problems and dementia. There are also those who may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs (prescribed or recreational). There is the potential for such people to attempt to escape by using a window, believing it to be an emergency exit.
The windows in some bedrooms and kitchens create other problems for residents in that they must reach across worktops and window sills to be able to open them. Some residents don't use these windows because they fall out when they do. Others have faulty locks, faulty internal opening mechanisms and have been advised to keep them shut. This may seem like a reasonable request from someone who doesn't have to live there, however, in the recent hot spells temperatures in these flats have reached potentially dangerous levels.
Quoting the advice of some far away national agency doesn't help those overheating in properties with large glass areas, facing the sun for much of the day. In these cases, the request to keep windows closed is wholly unreasonable and other measures should have been put in place.
It would appear, from recently showcased proposals that the current plan is not to change or repair the windows until the new cladding and insulation solution has been installed. There are some residents who have had cracked glass window panels in their flats since they moved back into them following the refurbishment. Nothing has been done for these residents who have reported the problems via the correct channels but have had little or no support in rectifying them. How long before these panels smash altogether showering the area below with glass shards?
This situation gives rise to several areas of concern: actual risk from windows and to residents, and what control measures are in place. Salford City Council should answer fully and directly to residents as the Council ultimately has a duty of care to these residents who are people of Salford...
What remedial action is being taken in respect of the safety of our windows pending the outcome of the widely reported court case? There seems to be no sign of that duty of care towards those with identifiable needs currently being re-housed in tower blocks with scant regard for their safety.
Why has Salford City Council changed its policy regarding children and people with disabilities living in tower blocks, particularly those with a history of self-harm or mental disorders living in tower blocks without height restrictions?
What provision is in place for people needing support from Mental Health Services in tower blocks to help alleviate their anxieties regarding this whole situation? This would include cases of dementia, which is a growing issue, or self-harmers who are often hidden among inner-city social housing?
Why are elderly and disabled people not restricted to the ground and first floors where they can be helped to escape the building? How have re-housing conventions or bylaws, previously held by local authorities, now been relaxed to accommodate less caring housing providers?
I believe that Salford City Council and Pendleton Together are not addressing the above questions and therefore failing in their duty of care...
All windows and window frames in every high-rise block should be checked and a 100% review of properties carried out rather than a casual 10% to see what is failing following the refurbishment.
Residents' concerns should be taken more seriously, because as we saw with Grenfell Tower, people died when authorities didn't listen to them! Large numbers of residents were constantly informing Pendleton Together of the deficiencies in a lot of the work undertaken by Keepmoat. But these concerns went both unbelieved and unactioned with residents seen as ungrateful or habitual complainers.
* All repairs should be carried out immediately, reducing risk and serious injuries. There should be no waiting until it's their turn for their blocks cladding to be removed, before safe repairs can be done, thus putting cost and convenience for the installers above the safety of residents.
* Safety locks for windows, reducing risks of accidental falls or self-harm.
*Revise policies of how flats are allocated for families with children living with them.
* People with disabilities, not just mental but physical too, should be placed on lower floors to assist with access and to reduce the risk of jumping through self-harm.
* Safety film on windows
* Keys for every window in every flat, not just one key per flat.
* Revise the kitchen layout in flats, where people with disabilities cannot reach and open windows, due to obstruction by the kitchen sink and window ledge.
Grabbing/reaching devices were promised for people who had difficulties, but as with everything else, this seems to have been forgotten about. As we are all aware, most fires start in kitchens and, if you cannot reach to open windows, the acrid smell of burning can be a bigger danger than the fire itself.
The housing provider has lost the good will of residents through their many failings and deafness when it comes to the residents' concerns. There now needs to be more openness and transparency around Fire Inspections and Risk Assessments.
Access to the Trident report, submitted to the Council on all work carried out during the refurbishment by Keepmoat, was promised to residents by Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett, and Keepmoat, that has long since been ridiculed as 'Cheapmoat'.
Access to the report would go some way towards redressing the additional fears of a growing number of residents that the reason for its non-disclosure indicates additional problems with the buildings that make repairs cost-prohibitive.
Access to the report was originally promised a year and a half ago. Residents believe that a lot is being decided in secret, behind closed doors, and that it may be the Council's intention to demolish all the high-rise blocks in Pendleton rather than invest good money after bad.
The second part of this feature is now on the Salford Star website - click here
Words by Graeme Langton