Flat-owners faced £2m bill after being wrongly told cladding was unsafe

Bell Flower Lodge in Harold wood

Residents who bought flats in Bell Flower Lodge, Harold Wood, were mistakenly told their cladding was unsafe and would have to be replaced. - Credit: Archant

Homeowners in a Harold Wood apartment block were mistakenly told their cladding was dangerous and would have to be replaced.

For months, residents at Bell Flower Lodge, on the Kings Park estate, believed repair work costing up to £2m would be needed.

But a reinspection found the cladding was actually safe.

Owners said they were “over the moon”, but feared the same could be happening to others, saddling them with unnecessary, life-changing bills.

“If we had just accepted the report, we were told it could have cost us about £2m,” said one.

The fire consultancy which mistakenly said the cladding was unsafe said Covid restrictions and weather conditions had impacted its findings.

Missing report

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Bell Flower Lodge was inspected in January to get a fire safety rating, introduced on all tower blocks after the Grenfell tragedy, known as an EWS1.

Inspired Property Management, which runs the block, said documents containing specific details of the building’s cladding systems were “missing”.

It therefore hired a company called Façade Remedial Consultants (FRC), based in Hampshire, to conduct a “drill test”, taking samples of the cladding to identify it.

The £10,000 test, for which residents must pay, identified a wood-effect cladding up the side of the building as High-Pressure Laminate (HPL), with a fire safety rating of D - “medium contribution to fire”.

“We believe there is a risk of rapid external fire spread which is unacceptable,” said FRC, adding that the cladding should be replaced.

Darker cladding around the fourth-floor flats was also found to be Class D HPL, which needed replacing.

Bell Flower Lodge in Harold Wood

Bell Flower Lodge is right outside Harold Wood train station. - Credit: Archant

Discrepancy

As Bell Flower Lodge is under 18 metres, the only support available would be government loans, which could push owners into negative equity.

But Daniel John, from the residents’ committee, said owners spotted an anomaly.

FRC said the fourth-floor cladding was HPL, but a 2018 letter from developer Countryside Properties had said it was “fibre cement”.

If Countryside had misled them about the cladding, residents believed it should pay to fix it. But if it was telling the truth, FRC had to be wrong.

Countryside disputed FRC’s findings, saying the fourth-floor cladding was Class A, “non-combustible” cement and the wood-effect cladding was HPL, but was a fire-tested Class B model.

Residents asked Inspired for a second opinion in April.

When the missing drawings were found and supported Countryside’s claims, FRC offered a second inspection, free of charge.

Bell Flower Lodge inspection

The Romford Recorder attended the second inspection by Façade Remedial Consultants (FRC), which confirmed the cladding was safe. - Credit: Archant

Second Inspection

The Recorder attended the reinspection on Friday, May 14.

This time, FRC removed one panel from each cladding system and checked for manufacturers’ marks.

The job – which took one man three hours – proved the cladding used was as Countryside had said.

A revised report has now said no remedial works are needed.

“Had they just done this in January, we would have had the report in February and would have been able to sell our flats and made the stamp duty deadline,” said Daniel.

“This has cost people tens of thousands of pounds.”

Daniel John

Flat-owner Daniel John said the mistaken first report had prevented he and others from selling their flats during the stamp duty holiday. - Credit: Archant

How did it happen?

FRC said Covid restrictions had blocked it from accessing the fourth-floor cladding via people’s homes in January, so it had to use a cherry-picker.

It said the height and the wind speed on the day meant it could not safely remove any panels, making a drill test “the only feasible method of limited investigation”.

Asked how this test had identified a cement cladding as HPL, managing director Dorian Lawrence said its operative had drilled through an aluminium rail and used an endoscope.

FRC said it had been able to remove one of the wood-effect panels at a lower level during the January visit, but that panel had not had any identifying stamp.

It said it made “a reasonable assumption” that that cladding was Class D based on its appearance.

“The serious health and safety issues involved in these investigations require us to err on the side of caution in any assessment, especially such as this where the normal as-built information is not available and the panels do not bear product information,” said Mr Lawrence.

Julia Lopez MP, who has supported the residents, said the new report was “really good news”, but there was “still more work to do for other buildings.”

Inspired Property Management did not respond to a request for comment.

For more, read:

Residents 'stuck' in flammable flats can't sell homes

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