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Exclusive: Camden launches High Court action against Chalcot PFI companies

Legal action raises questions over wisdom behind use of PFIs

28 November, 2019 — By Tom Foot

THE Town Hall last night (Wednesday) launched legal action against a group of companies in a desperate bid to claw back £130million blown on the Chalcots towers evacuation.

Lawyers for Camden Council are attempting to sue five firms that worked on the estate’s five blocks in Adelaide Road under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal.

High Court legal documents detail how the council thinks “multiple fire safety failings” breached building regulations and insist the PFI companies are liable for the full costs of the ­dramatic evacuation in June 2017.

Thousands were forced to leave their homes at short notice on a Friday evening after the problems were found. The council wants payback for work to remove “combustible” cladding materials, replacing “inadequate” fire doors, and repairing dozens of “other serious defects”. They also hired fire safety marshals and security guards to oversee the buildings for two years.

Today’s CNJ front page

The claim reveals how the full extent of problems discovered in the high-rise blocks only became known because of a renewed fire safety focus in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, and not when the renovation of the estate was complete.

Eileen Short, chairwoman of the national Defend Council Housing campaign group, said: “The history of PFI across the board has been a disgrace. It was particularly toxic in housing and in the few cases it was pushed through it was a disaster for tenants. It allowed councils to wash their hands of responsibilities of tenants, while they kept on taking the rent money. It left tenants with no proper checks. There were no proper checks on what developers were doing.”

She added: “Shame on the councillors for hoodwinking tenants into the PFI at the Chalcots. “Tenants desperately wanted improvements done and they were blackmailed into it. “Good on the tenants at Chalcots who are still trying to resist and stand up for themselves.”

Camden bent to the demands of Tony Blair’s Labour government which ruled there would be no direct investment in council housing. PFIs – a fundamental plank of New Labour policy – saw groups of construction and investment companies win long-term public sector contracts to refurbish and maintain housing blocks and also NHS hospitals.

Chalcots tenants were told their homes were unlikely to ever be refurbished unless they agreed to them being managed by Partners for Improvement Camden (PfIC) which eventually won a £150million deal to refurbish and maintain the estate.

In the aftermath of Chalcots, the council has vowed to use its own clerks and check work themselves before it is signed off as completed.

The companies the council has lodged legal claims against are PFiC – now dissolved – and its sub-contractors: Rydon Construction, Rydon Maintenance, heating contractor United Living and management consultancy Faithful + Gould.

The High Court legal documents outline in detail the eye-watering £130m outlay, including £2,796,441 on alternative accommodation and £1,314,498 on one-off cash payments and food vouchers given to residents.

The removal of dangerous cladding cost £12,483,882, while fire doors replacement was £3,897,312. The cost of putting replacement cladding on the towers is “likely to be in excess” of £22.25m while the cost of replacing windows will be more than £33.5m.

The government has already given Camden Council £80m to fund the replacement of the cladding, but this “only covers part of the costs and still leaves us with substantial losses that we are determined to recover”, the council’s legal document said.

An internal inquiry into the evacuation had looked at “one million pieces of evidence”, according to the council. It has not investigated the serious questions about how and why the PFI deal was set up, and a New Journal investigation, the Chalcots Inquiry, has pledged to hold the Town Hall to account – however long it takes.

A Camden Council spokesman said: “We were let down by PFiC, Rydon and other contractors. The PFI agreement for refurbishment and maintenance of the Chalcots Estate was entered into in good faith and fundamental to this was our expectation that the Chalcots towers would be safe for our residents. We should not have been put in a position where we were left with no option but to evacuate residents from their homes on a Friday night. The costs of supporting residents during the evacuation and the level of work required at the Chalcots made a major impact on our reserves. Clearly, it would not be right for residents and, by extension, the public purse, to foot the bill for what has been a private contractor failure.”

Rydon, United Living and Faithful + Gould did not respond to requests for comment yesterday (Wednesday).

Estate revolt over new windows

THE Town Hall has been told it is responsible for “apathy, disinterest and resignation” of many “angry and disillusioned” residents on the Chalcots estate who have lost faith in local democracy.

Anthony Royle, who stepped down last week after two years representing tenants in the Bray tower, has written a stinging report about how a replacement windows programme has been pushed through despite “uniform opposition” among people living in the towers.

Windows on around 800 homes on the Chalcots are to be changed during two years of works but the selected “tilt and turn” designs are opposed by 85 per cent of the estate, according to a survey.

The proposed designs will mean that entire walls will have to be knocked through while pipes and radiators will have to be re-routed.

Mr Royle said officials had responded to opposition to the council’s plans by taking a “hard line” against tenants and reps they had initially promised to co-operate with.

He added: “Two years ago, when I took on this role, I hoped to be able to make a contribution by putting time into consultation and consensus building. People are now disillusioned, angry, frustrated, and the prospect of two years of being entombed in a shrouded building covered with scaffolding, while living on a building site, is a prospect that is far from ideal. “It is a dismal, depressing prospect. But Camden seems determined not to listen to views of representatives.”

Around two dozen residents of the Chalcots delivered a deputation to a full council meeting on Monday night, warning of “serious unresolved health and safety issues” on the estate and criticising “consultation failures”. Burnham resident Matt Jenkins, representing the group, said residents wanted “like for like” replacement windows and recommended “the project is paused to allow for a thorough review”.

Chalcots residents take a deputation to Monday’s full council meeting

Hasan Shah, also from Burnham, reminded the meeting about the death of an 18-month toddler who fell from a ninth-floor tower block in Haringey last month, adding: “The tilt and turn has been the highest point of accidents and deaths in the country. We have told this to Camden, plus we have had the two biggest fires in the country in blocks with tilt and turn windows. “Chalcots does not want what Camden officers want.”

Belsize Tory councillor Steve Adams told the meeting: “I feel that councillors have been excluded from sensible conversation and this is quite serious. I have written to the leader requesting information about whether she has confidence in the process. I have had no response, no reply.”

Housing chief Cllr Meric Apak told the meeting: “In terms of consultation, it is important to understand the rationale behind the methodology. What is important – we need to understand what residents want from the windows. “It is that which should inform us what type of window we should install. This is what we have consulted on. I am being honest and genuine. The question that we have asked wasn’t on the type of window, but on what you needed out of these windows.” Camden Council is due to sign a contract with Wates Construction in the coming weeks.

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