April 12, 2021

Pensioners face £150,000 fire safety bill at Cestrian Court, but McCarthy and Stone isn’t reponsible (nor is FirstPort)

Cestrian Court is face huge bills for historic build safety costs, including a waking watch fire warden service … but no one is to blame so leaseholders face the bill

Pensioners at Cestrian Court in Chester-le-Street, Co Durham, are looking at bills for £150,000 to put right historic build defects even though the site was only built by McCarthy and Stone in 2008.

The building appears to have fire compartmentation defects in the loft. These were also cited as defects at Gibson Court, in Hinchley Wood in Surrey, also built by McCarthy and Stone, which burned down and resulted in the death of Irene Cockerton, 87, in September 2011.

FirstPort fined £360,000 over fatal fire at Gibson Court – Better Retirement Housing

The property management company FirstPort was fined £360,000 today over the fatal fire at Gibson Court on September 30 2011. More here The full sentence is not available at this time. The following statement has been provided to Campaign against retirement leasehold exploitation / LKP by FirstPort chief executive Nigel Howell.

FirstPort was fined £360,000 for mismanaging the site and received strong criticism from the coroner.

The problems at Cestrian Court appear similar.

The Fire Precautions Review commissioned by FirstPort is published here:

The report reads:

“Breeches in compartment walls separating roof voids between flats; these were primarily at the junction of the wall and roof where fire stopping materials had become dislodged and at lower levels where holes in concrete slabs over corridors had not been fire stopped, however there was one area where the compartment wall has a large opening in it of approximately 1.5m squared.”

The building was signed off as safe by the housebuilders’ warranty provider, the National House Building Council – in fact, a company limited by guarantee that acts as a buildings’ insurance broker – which states “its primary purpose as raising the construction standards of new homes in the United Kingdom, and providing consumer protection for homebuyers through its 10-year Buildmark warranty”.

Irene Cockerton, who died in the Gibson Court fire, riding a tandem with her husband Bill

The NHBC and its close relationship with housebuilders has been repeatedly criticised throughout the building safety crisis – primarily cladding – that is now wreaking havoc in the entire sector of newly built flats, and particularly high-rises, following the Grenfell fire.

As with Gibson Court, the freehold is own by the interests of Vincent Tchenguiz, through his so-called Tchenguiz Family Trust in the British Virgin Islands, and managed by FirstPort, which was for years Peverel until a name change after the Cirrus rigged-bidding scandal.

Cooee! Peverel becomes FirstPort and is heading for ARMA-Q … But will it be welcome? – Better Retirement Housing

Like the unwanted guest at a party, Peverel has put on some outlandish new clothes and now seeks to crash ARMA-Q. It is rolling out its new FirstPort brand, which means when you click on the Peverel website you are passed on to a new site.

FirstPort commissioned a “passive fire safety review” which repeatedly references: “This defect is considered not to have met the guidance at the time of construction”.

Nonetheless, the bill is heading for the pensioner leaseholders.

The build defects at Cestrian Court have implications for the entire retirement housing stock.

BetterRetirementHousing.com / Leasehold Nowledge Partnership have raised the issue with McCarthy and Stone, FirstPort and the NHBC, copying in housing minister Stephen (Lord) Greenhalgh, local MP for North Durham Kevan Jones, and our patron MPs Sir Peter Bottomley, Justin Madders and Sir Ed Davey.

In particular, we have asked the following:

1/ How many other retirement sites are facing huge bills for historic build safety defects?

2/ Is McCarthy and Stone paying to put right any historic build safety defects: at freeholds it owns; sites where it owns the headlease and older sites where it has sold on the freehold?

3/ Is the NHBC making any contribution to address the costs of historic build safety defects in retirement housing that it signed off as safe?

4/ Why are these build safety issues, apparently addressed in previous fire safety reports, only being addressed now? Does this indicate mismanagement?

Although we have had responses from McCarthy and Stone and FirstPort, we have yet to receive a reply from NHBC.

Adam Batty, McCarthy and Stone company secretary, (in full below) stated:

“The development [Cestrian Court] had all the necessary building regulation approvals when it opened. It also had a 10-year warranty from the NHBC.

“We are not aware of any claim regarding construction or fire safety issues that was brought by residents, First Port or Fairhold during the warranty period. Furthermore, we were only contacted by First Port in January of this year, more than 12 years after we ceased to have any legal interest in the development.”

McCarthy and Stone also stated “There is no suggestion that McCarthy Stone was at fault for this fire [at Gibson Court].”

In fact, because the roof at Gibson Court was burned out coroner Richard Travers said at the inquest “one will never know if adequate works had taken place”. He also criticised the ““pitiful, flawed and inaccurate” annual fire risk assessments by Peverel Retirement (FirstPort).

In addition, Bryn Strudwick, fire investigation manager at Surrey Fire and Rescue told the court:

“I think if the curtains had been put up in the in the correct way and performed as they were designed to, I think we would have been looking at a slower fire spread along the roof”

“The evidence I have heard would lead me to say that almost definitely these fire curtains were not fitted correctly and were damaged”

Building ‘failed’ in fatal fire that killed Irene Cockerton, inquest hears

Gibson Court residents were “let down” by the building after a fire ripped the roof space and destroyed flats within less than 90 minutes, an inquest heard. The fire, in the early hours of September 30, 2011, was caused by a television in a first floor flat before spreading and causing the building’s roof to collapse on to flats at the Hinchley Wood development.

The retirement builder is the managing landlord at 450 sites that it built since 2010, including “a small number of schemes above 18 metres” (high-rises).

“Where our audits have shown that additional fire safety measures or remediation is appropriate for these schemes, we have taken swift action and are implementing the changes. Importantly, we are funding all of these costs; it is not our intention to ask any of our homeowners to pay for this work– which we believe is the right thing to do.”

Robin Young, chief operating officer at FirstPort, (in full below) responded:

“The concerns you reference at Cestrian Court were first identified in the FRA conducted in 2020. We are currently investigating why previous FRAs did not identify the issue as a concern …

“Given that this concern was not identified in previous FRAs, we have also commissioned a second provider to conduct the assessment again to verify these findings before any remediation work is undertaken.”

The local fire authority for Cestrian Court has issued an enforcement notice and work must start within 90 days. In the meantime, Cestrian Court has a waking watch warden scheme in place, the cost of which will likely fall on the leaseholders.

“We have also adapted the fire evacuation procedure for the development, including a 24/7 fire warden, and have explained to residents why this change has been implemented.”

FirstPort denied that the issues of Cestrian Court matched those of Gibson Court:

“On your suggestion that this may be related to the tragic situation at Gibson Court in 2011, I would like to assure you that these are not the same issues as identified at that property.”

BetterRetirementHousing / LKP is awaiting a response from NHBC.

Elderly woman’s fire death was tragic accident – coroner

An elderly woman killed after a fire destroyed a retirement home died as a result of a “tragic accident”, a coroner has ruled. Irene Cockerton, 87, died after a fire started two doors away from her flat at Gibson Court, Manor Road North, Hinchley Wood, in the early hours of September 30, 2011.

Death of elderly woman in retirement home fire was ‘accidental’

An inquest has found that the death of an 87-year-old woman in a Hinchley Wood retirement home fire was accidental. Irene Cockerton was found dead in the wardrobe of her room after the blaze at Gibson Court, in Manor Road North, on September 30, 2011.

Response from McCarthy and Stone

Dear Sebastian,

Thank you for your email, which John Tonkiss has shared with me.

At McCarthy Stone, we manage and are the landlord on 450 retirement communities around the UK, which is every development we have built and opened since 2010. That is the year we ended our relationship with third party managing agents and landlords, including First Port and Fairhold, and we have since been responsible for managing and maintaining all new schemes.

We are now the managing agent and landlord on all new developments, supporting and caring for more than 20,000 older people. This includes undertaking fire safety audits across all of our retirement communities.

The vast majority of our developments are around three or four storeys high. We have a very small number of schemes above 18m. Where our audits have shown that additional fire safety measures or remediation is appropriate for these schemes, we have taken swift action and are implementing the changes.

Importantly, we are funding all of these costs; it is not our intention to ask any of our homeowners to pay for this work–which we believe is the right thing to do.

With regard to Cestrian Court, this development opened in 2008. As it opened before 2010, it is operated and maintained by Peverel, who are now called First Port. The freeholder is Fairhold. Together they are legally responsible for running and maintaining this development and we have not been involved since construction.

The development had all the necessary building regulation approvals when it opened. It also had a 10-year warranty from the NHBC. We are not aware of any claim regarding construction or fire safety issues that was brought by residents, First Port or Fairhold during the warranty period. Furthermore, we were only contacted by First Port in January of this year, more than 12 years after we ceased to have any legal interest in the development.

McCarthy Stone has a number of issues with the detail of the review conducted by First Port in July 2020 and we disagree with its findings. We responded fully to First Port when they made contact. It is the responsibility of the managing agent, landlord and freeholder to maintain their developments and take appropriate actions where they consider it is necessary, as we have done and are doing across our 450 retirement communities.

I note you have copied First Port into this email trail, and I am sure they will respond to you shortly.

We also wish to clarify two further points in your email below. You note the fire in 2011 at Gibson Court, which is also managed by First Port. There is no suggestion that McCarthy Stone was at fault for this fire.

You also note that no response has been given to a homeowner at Cestrian Court who wrote to us. A resident emailed us on 10 February and we acknowledged this email on the same day. A full response will be sent shortly. We trust this response is helpful.

Adam BattyGroup General Counsel & Company Secretary

Response from FirstPort

Dear Sebastian,

Thank you for your email. We understand this is a concerning situation for all the residents of Cestrian Court. Please be assured that we are doing all we can to support them, through this investigation and any subsequent outcomes. We are keeping residents regularly updated with the latest information and progress. We have a dedicated team responsible for building safety concerns, who are working closely with the operations team for this property.

At this stage it would be premature to discuss costs as we are still conducting further investigations, as well as tender and consultation processes for any required works. However, I hope the following email provides a useful summary about the current status at Cestrian Court.

Firstly, I want to emphasise that the safety of our residents is our utmost priority. A Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) is conducted every three years, commissioned by FirstPort as the property manager but carried out by suitably qualified independent professionals.

The concerns you reference at Cestrian Court were first identified in the FRA conducted in 2020. We are currently investigating why previous FRAs did not identify the issue as a concern. As a result of the areas highlighted in the FRA, we instructed a full intrusive survey to identify any further potential risks and to make sure that any suggested remediation work is correct and necessary, as well as understanding the timescale for implementation. This is to prioritise resident safety while also being clear about the potential financial impact on homeowners.

Given that this concern was not identified in previous FRAs, we have also commissioned a second provider to conduct the assessment again to verify these findings before any remediation work is undertaken.

The findings from the FRA in 2020 were also shared with our partner fire authority who we work with to receive independent advice on building safety for the properties we manage. The authority agreed that our approach in seeking additional information was reasonable. However, the local fire service at Cestrian Court has since issued an enforcement notice (EN) that states the works must be started within 90 days. We have also adapted the fire evacuation procedure for the development, including a 24/7 fire warden, and have explained to residents why this change has been implemented.

This is understandably very unsettling news for homeowners at Cestrian Court and we have been working hard to keep them informed. Besides the worry of any fire safety issues, we understand that for residents the costs for the works will also be of great concern.

As a result of the EN, we are required to commence at pace with a Section 20 consultation process required for any Major Works before the remediation can take place. This will include a tender process to ensure that multiple quotes are obtained, and the best price achieved for any works required.

At the same time, we are continuing with the independent investigations to determine why this independent fire risk assessment’s findings and recommendations differ from previous assessments. We have also approached the original developer of Cestrian Court to ascertain further information. We want to be sure before any works take place that we are both keeping residents safe while also not undertaking any work at their cost unnecessarily. We will of course be continuing to keep residents updated.

On your suggestion that this may be related to the tragic situation at Gibson Court in 2011, I would like to assure you that these are not the same issues as identified at that property. We take our responsibilities very seriously and we work hard to ensure all our residents are kept safe in their homes. I hope you will be assured from the information detailed above that we are taking all the necessary steps to make sure Cestrian Court is a safe place to live. We understand the worry and potential impact of these costs for residents and, as you will see, we are ensuring that the advice of independent and suitably qualified specialists is used to determine the most appropriate course of action for the property as quickly as possible.

Kind regards,

David

David Young

Chief Operating Officer

FirstPort Limited


This report by the London Fire Brigade on fire safety in care homes also references the importance of divided roof spaces:

Fire safety failures in over half of care homes audited in new Brigade report

Serious fire safety failures have been found in care homes across London by our Brigade inspectors. There were 177 care homes visited to gauge the level of fire risk across the capital in a one-off series of in-depth inspections.

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