RETIREMENT flats in County Durham could have been a “tinderbox” in the event of a fire because of a “litany of defects” in the building’s fire safety measures, an MP has said.

Kevan Jones told the House of Commons that it was “lucky there had not been a national tragedy” at Cestrian Court, in Chester-le-Street, where a number of structural defects had come to light in recent months.

The North Durham MP said when he reported his concerns to County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, it found that the fire alarm system was not working.

And the fire brigade immediately escalated a “stay put” policy, advising residents that their flats were fire-proofed so they should remain inside in the event of a fire, to “immediate evacuation”.

Speaking at an adjournment debate he led on Tuesday night, Mr Jones said: “Since construction 11 years ago, residents have been under the impression that “stay put” was the best policy to save them in the event of a fire.

“That was on the misguided assumption that the fire would be contained.

“With no fire-proof doors, gaps in cavity walls and loft spaces with missing or dislodged fire safety structures, that advice might have had fatal consequences.

“Residents were not protected, and we have been lucky that we have not had a national tragedy at this building.”

He said pensioner residents had to foot the bill for thousands of pounds of work to rectify the problems and to employ a waking-watch to patrol the building 24-7 and alert them to any fire until that work was completed.

Mr Jones, who was made aware of the issue when a resident contacted him in February, accused developer McCarthy & Stone of “shoddy standards” and said it had “washed its hands of the situation”.

He said the individual flats had been sold to residents and the building is currently managed by FirstPort, which now owns the lease.

Mr Jones called on both companies and The National House Building Council to take responsibility for Cestrian Court and compensate residents.

The Northern Echo:

“I expected McCarthy & Stone, as the builder of the retirement community, to show an interest in rectifying its possible mistakes.

“I believed – foolishly – that it would be horrified at the risks that it might have inflicted on the residents through a litany of fire safety defects and that it would contact FirstPort, the new operator, to co-ordinate ways in which to rectify the situation.

“I was therefore disappointed when it simply said that the operation of the building had been passed to a new provider and that the warranty period on its construction work was up - it basically washed its hands of the situation,” he said.

“Companies such as McCarthy & Stone portray the dream of a retirement for the elderly through glossy brochures and TV adverts, but all they have sold in my constituency is a potential nightmare.

“If a fire had taken place in that building, there would have been a need for some prosecutions.”

He added: “The remedial works at Cestrian Court have now been done, but the cost has fallen on the residents, and that cannot be right.

“It is also causing a huge amount of distress to those individuals, knowing that for the past 11 years they have been living in a building that could have been a tinderbox.

“I urge the National House Building Council and the two companies I have mentioned to put in place a scheme to compensate my constituents.”

The Northern Echo:

The MP urged the McCarthy & Stone – or the Government and fire authorities - to check the company’s other developments across the country are safe.

“I would hate to think that one of its other homes might go up in smoke, leading to the tragedy that we have, I think, very narrowly avoided at Cestrian Court,” he said.

The Minister for Housing, Christopher Pincher, said the Government believes more retirement properties are needed across the country with the “right quality, care levels and social networks” and that relevant safety reviews are ongoing.

He promised to look at the specific issues raised by Mr Jones, adding: “We have, however, introduced substantial reforms through the Building Safety Bill, which, with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, will strengthen our building safety regime.

“We have also taken action to ensure that care homes and residential places are safe, because we all want those living and working in retirement communities to feel safe.”

Mr Jones said in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy there had been much focus on the height of buildings, when discussing the important of containing the spread of fire in buildings, but that other factors such as protection or lay-out must also be considered.

The safety of our homeowners is our top priority

In response, a McCarthy & Stone spokesperson told The Northern Echo: “McCarthy Stone built Cestrian Court in 2007.

"First Port and Fairhold took over its operation and maintenance when the building opened and we have not had any involvement in the development since then.

"Cestrian Court had all building control and fire safety approvals at the time it opened. The development also had a 10 year building warranty from the NHBC and we note this issue was not raised by First Port during this period.

“The safety of our homeowners is our top priority.

"Since 2010 we remain as the landlord and managing agent on all new developments and retain all management responsibilities.

"On all the developments that we manage, we take full responsibility for their robust maintenance and take appropriate action whenever necessary."We hope First Port and Fairhold will take similar action to support its residents at Cestrian Court, and ensure a safe and secure environment for the community living there.”

A spokesperson for the management company said: “We understand how difficult this has been for residents and have been doing everything we can to support them throughout the remediation process, including through providing regular updates, payment plans for those that needed them and the development manager being available on-site to offer assistance.

“As the property manager, we did not build the site, nor are we the building owner. The issues at Cestrian Court relate to a defect dating back to the original construction of the building, and although we liaised with the original developer to try and find a solution to the building defect, unfortunately they declined to help with this.

“Regrettably, this meant that leaseholders were asked to contribute towards essential remedial works, which have now been completed.

“The decision to implement a ‘stay put’ policy in the event of a fire was made in consultation with independent fire service experts.

"To ensure the ongoing safety of residents at Cestrian Court, the building’s Fire Risk Assessment will continue to be reviewed on a yearly basis, which exceeds the best practice recommended in the Local Government Association’s ‘Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats’ document.”


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