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24/7 fire wardens cost our development £60,000 a week

Residents of a development of six buildings in east London are struggling to cope with escalating waking watch costs. Here, a leaseholder tells us their story.

This is a guest post by Philip Chapman. All views expressed are Philip’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

As a leaseholder of a flat I’d been following the developing cladding scandal closely last year – I was only too aware of the horror stories affecting some buildings, but I felt confident that my building wouldn’t be implicated.

Take the Which? leaseholder cladding survey here

That was seemingly confirmed when my building, part of a development of six, received an ‘A1’ rating on the EWS1 form in March 2020, which specifically confirms that ‘there are no attachments whose construction includes significant quantities of combustible materials’.

With that result confirmed, the apartment next to mine was successfully sold.

But in September 2020, a letter arrived advising me the development had been registered for the Building Safety Fund, I assumed it was an admin error – after all, we had the A1-rated certificate stating the walls were fine. It wasn’t until the following week that our managing company wrote again to inform us that the exact same assessor had now decided to downgrade our rating to B1.

‘B1’ means that there are combustible materials in the external wall, but that the fire risk is ‘sufficiently low’ for no remedial works to be required. I was frustrated that the same assessor could change their mind so easily, but not overly concerned as banks accept ‘B1’ grades as adequate for lending. I was also reassured that no eye-wateringly high repair bills were coming my way.

In December, the frustration returned: we were told our freeholder was arranging yet another inspection. I couldn’t understand why they were still looking into it, but reassured myself that it was a modern building built by two respected construction companies surely there was nothing to fear.

A small army of fire wardens

My trust had been entirely misplaced. On 1 April 2021 we were told that the building was covered in flammable insulation and that its cavity barriers were missing. Within hours, a small army of waking watch (fire wardens) arrived: 21 marshals patrolling the development 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Naturally, all leaseholders asked the same question: how much is this costing us? We were told not to worry and that the building’s reserve funds were being used. But when we finally arranged a video call with the building managers, a cost of £51,000 per week was revealed. More than £204,000 a month.

There was stunned silence followed by gasps as one resident quickly calculated we had already spent £153,000 since they started.

The reserve fund we have paid into for seven years will soon be wiped out, and then we can expect the increased service charge demands to arrive.

For many in our development, this is the final straw. Some have been furloughed since March last year, unsure if they even have a job to return to. Others have already been made redundant and are relying on food banks.

We don’t have that sort of money

My neighbour is an NHS nurse who volunteered to work at the Nightingale hospital. He simply cannot afford these extra costs, and now faces the reality of losing his home.

The mental health impact is huge. Every time we step outside our front door, we are confronted with yellow high-vis jackets, emblazoned with ‘Fire Marshall’ across the back – it’s a constant reminder of where our hard-earned money is going, and of the horrendous situation we find ourselves in through no fault of our own.

5 major costs the cladding crisis is piling on homeowners

We have been warned the waking watch will be here for several months. Many leaseholders simply do not have that sort of money available and are distraught at the thought of potentially being made homeless with children to look after. 

As we approached the May bank holiday, some neighbours on our chat group sarcastically joked about what bad news we might get – referring to how we were originally told about waking watch just hours before Easter. Sure enough, bad news arrived on Friday 30 April….

An additional four marshals had been introduced, along with an extra manager to oversee them. The new cost between us is £60,480.

One of our unemployed leaseholders volunteered to do the job themselves to save everyone else some money – they were told they were not qualified. This can’t carry on – eventually the only option will be bankruptcy. There are 750 homes here, but they will remain unsafe because we do not have the money to pay for ongoing interim measures and remediation.

This was a guest post by Philip Chapman. All views expressed were Philip’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

As this crisis continues to have a devastating financial and emotional impact on flat owners across the country, Which? is undertaking a survey of affected leaseholders in order to further highlight the issues they face.

We’re encouraging as many people as possible to fill it out before Tuesday 18 May 2021.

Have you been affected by unaffordable waking watch costs? Take the survey and let us know in the comments.

Comments

If your building is, at it seems, seriously defective in materials and construction then it is in all of your interests to take suitable precautions … but….

”21 marshals patrolling the development 24 hours a day, seven days a week……, a cost of £51,000 per week was revealed.

A question worth asking is why it is costing the equivalent of £126 000 a year for each “marshall”. I wonder what their actual pay is. And exactly what qualifications are needed and why cannot appropriate residents be trained to do what should be a simple job.

Ben says:
14 May 2021

Their pay is around £10-£11 per hour. The rest is management fees… oh, and 20% VAT. IT is more like £35 PH when everybody takes their cut.

Assuming they work 35 hours a week that makes nearer £90 an hour. Perhaps the number of wardens employed is incorrect?
However, that was not to detract from your plight. I hope the remedial work necessary is done but am not holding my breath it will be soon.

Alastair says:
14 May 2021

Have we lost sight of common sense ? This is ridiculous, there is NO need for these Marshall’s (who would be useless in the event of a fire and call 999 and get out). The building is NOT that flammable. How do I know ? I saw it on fire when a balcony caught fire and then burnt out the entire flat. Injuries none. Other flats affected none. Grenfell they got the wrong advice. Fire get out not stay in your flat. Simple and this madness has to stop. Put in central smoke and heat alarms give everyone a smoke mask and sign a waiver. All that is needed.

I’d also suggest sprinkler systems in kitchens should be mandatory in all multi-occupancy buildings. That is where most fires start, the large majority from cooking appliances, so quench them before the damage spreads.

Jack says:
16 May 2021

The Grenfell advice was wrong in hindsight bcos the cladding didn’t do what it was designed to do, hold back the fire spread. Besides that even if everybody got out the building still burnt uncontrollably. We would still be faced with this dangerous cladding issue.

Phil says:
16 May 2021

There was prior warning that the ‘stay put’ advice was wrong at Piper Alpha, WTC and Lakanal House. All instances where people who followed the official advice died awaiting rescue that never came.

Quite clearly a racket going on with these fire-wardens. Some outfits, probably the usual suspects, have spotted an opportunity for some easy money.

In his introduction, Philip wrote: “One of our unemployed leaseholders volunteered to do the job themselves to save everyone else some money – they were told they were not qualified. ”

Some training and a rota system might provide a low cost alternative to exploitation of people who already have enough problems.

Indeed, and what sort of “qualified” person only earns ~£11/hour?

In the high risk industries I know, a “qualified” person has attended and passed suitable training.

Em says:
16 May 2021

True – but most security staff who have had training are still on minimum wage. I’m not saying that is right, just fact.

Em says:
16 May 2021

The suggestion of arranging training for volunteer fire wardens is a good one. But they still have to be paid a living wage.

Without payment there is no contract. Without a contract there is no liability. A no liability arrangement will not satisfy an insurance company or the safety regulators. And then there are the regulations concerning minimum wage … .

QED

I am a member of a society with unpaid volunteers (mostly recently retired) do potentially dangerous work on publicly accessible land on behalf of the owner. They receive relevant training and refresher training. Some have specialist training, for example to use a chainsaw and they are not allowed to bring their own saw because that has no current safety certificate. The landowner provides insurance cover and the society has public liability insurance. Volunteers are only allowed to work when one of the supervisors is on duty. I don’t get involved with the practical work but do some of the paperwork.

The training required for waking watch takes 90 minutes and can be done online. In addition the wardens need to know the layout of the buildings and how to set off the alarms. This can be easily done.

..and a B1 states that there is flammable materials but no remedial work is required, so not sure why a waking watch would be required in the first place?

Em says:
16 May 2021

… do you want a scientific answer. The formula:

B1 + CYA = WW

gives “Waking Watch” as one of a number of possible solutions

where CYA represents “… the bureaucratic technique of averting future accusations of policy error or wrongdoing by deflecting responsibility in advance”.

Wikipedia goes on to explain further:

“It often involves diffusing responsibility for one’s actions as a form of insurance against possible future negative repercussions. It can denote a type of institutional risk-averse mentality which works against accountability and responsibility, often characterized by excessive paperwork and documentation, which can be harmful to the institution’s overall effectiveness. The activity, sometimes seen as instinctive, is generally unnecessary towards accomplishing the goals of the organization, but helpful to protect a particular individual’s career within it, and it can be seen as a type of institutional corruption working against individual initiative.”

Hence why volunteer fire wardens are not welcomed by CYA institutions.

Having received ample measures of CYA management training I can confirm that more paper is the usual protection against the infliction of supplementary pain and a fat ring-binder is the symbol of executive authority.

I remember the huge effort and multiple binders that we produced to show an “effective” H&S policy. As you intimate John, the emphasis seemed to be on what you said more than what you did. A bit like a mission statement.

I am in favour of H&S and Quality Systems, but think paperwork took over. I wonder what Currys’ documented Customer Service policy looks like?

Em says:
16 May 2021

The explosion of paperwork and processes many of us are burdened with today can be traced back to the 1960s NASA programme to put men on the moon within ten years. The success of that mission led to a consultancy bandwagon of: “What works for NASA will work for you too”.

And here we are today. People seem less keen to learn from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when Tiokol engineers refused to sign off the launch due to the O-rings, which were not specified nor tested for use at near freezing temperatures. But their manager helpfully signed off the launch so that all the paperwork was in order. What could possibly go wrong?

As theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (who was dying of cancer and could speak his mind) said in his conculsion to the investigation: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

In IT, I fight a constant battle with people who can’t see beyond the end of their process manual. “For security, you must change your password every thirty days.” Never mind the back door is open – we don’t have a policy for that.

In its own way, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and its consequences are testimony to the pitfalls of reliance on theoretical sign-off [by exception and on sampling] without valid inspection and test procedures. Probably one of the UK’s biggest safety disasters since the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Construction Design and Management Regulations, and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations [noted for risk assessments] came into force.

The original structure was no doubt safe and fully compliant with the Building Regulations, at the time, but a subsequent decision to add cladding for insulation and cosmetic reasons was, presumably, grossly mismanaged. It’s sole public benefit – albeit at a dreadful human toll – is that it has exposed the fallibilities of the construction industry which has clearly been getting away with bad specification, procurement and project management for years.

I believe as well as defective (maybe misrepresented) cladding and its formation the building structure was defective in fire barriers – presumably either from new or if modified. It may not have been compliant when new.

I was under the illusion that local authorities were responsible for a) ensuring building design met the Building Regulations applicable at the time and b) were responsible for inspections and verifications to ensure the design was adhered to and any problems dealt with and agreed.

An independent oversight is essential, paid for by the developer, so it should provide income for LAs and at least not be a cost. If, as it seems, this does not happen or is not properly applied then we should change it. No reason why the work should not be contracted out to responsible and expert people, but employed by the LA and at arms length from the developer/builder with financial liability if they fail in their role.

Indeed, the absence of firebreaks would not have come to light if the building had not gone up in flames. I was under the same impression as you about building control requirements; perhaps there have been changes, including self-certification or non-local authority approval. I would hope the final Grenfell Tower report will make some sound recommendations to ensure independent compliance with proper inspections at each stage and on every level of high-rise buildings.

For the leaseholders of blocks affected by the present External Wall Survey requirements, I don’t think the government has responded appropriately other than saying the costs of remedial work should be met by the owners or developers. The fact that this issue has also shown that there could be a lack of internal fire prevention checks in communal areas and between dwellings, and that some balconies are not of fireproof construction, is an unexpected consequence that would also not have come to light without the scrutiny now being given to such residential blocks. Why it is accepted that the risks should fall on the present leaseholders is beyond my comprehension; it is hardly a maintenance problem but a structural deficiency for which the freeholder should be held liable and for that person or company to pursue against the original builders.

If there was a decision by government to deregulate or privatise building control for dogmatic political reasons then the government should accept full liability for the consequences.

Phil says:
16 May 2021

I did read that at the time of the Apollo programme 80% of NASA’s employees were engineers. By the time of the Challenger disaster that same proportion were managers.

Petra says:
17 May 2021

A few weeks ago my son went on a course for fire Marshall training for buildings such as these. He would be working 12 hour shifts 7 days a week for only £10.00 per hour on a self employed basis. Some companies are not only exploiting the vulnerable householders but their staff also.

It is hard to judge the degree of exploitation involved in this sort of employment. On the face of it a potential income of £840 per week [gross] looks good but there are drawbacks with self employment contracts [loss of employment rights, no entitlement to minimum wage, poor or negligible conditions of service].

As jobs go it is possibly quite satisfying [meeting and chatting to the residents and largely self-managed] if you can stay awake long enough to be alert and active, although it is likely to be a solitary occupation for much of the shift period, especially overnight. It is however a responsible job and requires total diligence. I think the pay is about right but the hours are wrong and probably irresponsible given the special purpose of the role.

There does seem to be some racketeering going on in the waking-watch business that is taking advantage of the lack of better employment opportunities during the coronavirus emergency and costing the residents too much. The residents are also not well-served if their watchkeeper is tired or inert at critical times. I assume there are check-points and time-recording arrangements in the buildings under watch to make sure the patrols are properly performed and critical items inspected in order to maintain fire-resistance. The patrols could also be under continuous CCTV surveillance.

Kevin says:
17 May 2021

Can anyone explain why are the owners of the freeholds paying for these repairs?? The freeholders have traditionally always made it very clear that “you only lease” and we own the building!

Kevin – In my view, the freeholders ought to be meeting the cost of making their buildings safe for occupation and the government appears to support that in principle. However, the property sector is sticking to the general lease provisions that require all the costs of maintenance and repair to be met by the leaseholders. To the extent that those costs arise as a result of the occupation of the buildings – like wear and tear of decorations and fittings, cleaning, security and maintenance – that is a reasonable position, but the present crisis has nothing to do with the use being made of the building or the actions or inaction of occupiers: it is a direct result of inherent defects in fire safety construction either when the property was built or when it was altered by direction of the freeholder or their predecessor.

Every agent within the upper hierarchy of the ownership of apartment blocks – owners, developers, builders, lenders, building inspectors, property surveyors and insurers – is trying to make sure that their firm or organisation will escape any financial liability and they are pushing it onto the people who currently occupy or let out the accommodation who were in no position to be aware of, or to understand, the implications at the time of their purchase.

Many of the properties affected by the need to rectify fire safety deficiencies will have been transferred from their original owners to new companies. When acquiring the title to those buildings the new owners acquired any historical liabilities, but, understandably, they don’t like that and are trying to push the liabilities back onto the leaseholders. They claim that their only income from the buildings is the ground rents of the individual dwellings paid by the leaseholders [unless they also happen to let the units out directly] and ground rents are traditionally quite low; the expectation is that the underlying asset will appreciate in value and produce a substantial profit as and when it is sold.

While the government has uttered supportive words to the effect that the owners of the buildings should meet the costs that are currently falling on leaseholders, they have desisted from making that happen. They have provided a fund of £5 billion to meet the cost of cladding removal and remediation but a lot of other defects have been discovered as further investigations and more detailed surveys have been carried out – including problems like a lack of structural fire breaks between compartments of the buildings, failed or missing door seals, inadequate emergency escape provisions and warning systems. These expenses will not be met through the government’s fund and until they are dealt with the building will be blighted; lenders will not approve mortgages and insurers will impose special terms [very high premiums] or extra conditions [like the ‘waking watch’ requirements].

I would hope that the overwhelming majority of the high-rise residential buildings will be free of any of these deficiencies but until they have been fully inspected, tested and cleared they cannot be given a satisfactory release that will enable individual dwellings to be sold or the property to be insured on normal terms.

I have tried to explain how we got to where we are today but I cannot see a clear way out of the situation while the present professional and political stand-off persists. Unfortunately, and for sound reasons, Which? is not in a position to take any substantial role in tackling this problem and there is no unified body representing the interests of the leaseholders. Before long this will impact on rentals as leaseholders face the mounting costs and have to recover them from their tenants and that will affect the supply of housing and the fluid operation of the economy in large towns and cities. I wish the government would see that and act responsibly; perhaps it does and is frightened of the consequences.