Residents complain after paying thousands of pounds for ‘unnecessary’ fire wardens
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Residents in Cardiff Bay are paying thousands of pounds for fire wardens which they claim might no longer be needed.
Two wardens are paid each day to walk around outside the seven blocks of flats at Victoria Wharf, near the International Sports Village.
Their job is to sound the alarm in case a fire breaks out on the outside of the walls of the flats. Residents say they cost £2,100 each week in service charges.
The management company at Victoria Wharf said wardens are needed due to surveys showing fire safety issues with outside walls—but residents claim these surveys are flawed.
Peter Larwood, chair of the Victoria Wharf residents association, said: “We didn’t believe these surveys were factual. We believe they are flawed.”
After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, high rise apartment buildings across the UK were checked for similar fire safety issues. As well as combustible cladding, other problems include missing fire breaks to prevent the spread of any fires throughout a building.
Fire breaks are often included both inside and outside buildings. Fire breaks inside split buildings into compartments, containing any fires within those compartments. Fire breaks outside prevent any fires from spreading across the outside wall.
At Victoria Wharf, surveyors found problems with missing fire breaks both inside and outside. Long, expensive work has now finished to install adequate fire breaks inside the building, but supposedly missing fire breaks on the outside wall and flammable polystyrene insulation mean residents are still paying hefty insurance premiums and costly fire wardens.
However, Mr Larwood believes the outside walls are actually safe, contrary to what the surveyors found. After extensive research, he found documents revealing the surveys could have missed the fire breaks and showing the polystyrene was made to be flame-retardant.
He claimed Podium, the company which surveyed the walls, did not carry out a ‘borescopic survey’. This means inserting a camera fixed onto the end of a flexible tube into a hole in the wall, to inspect parts of the wall otherwise difficult to see.
He said: “You don’t know it’s missing because you didn’t look in the right place.”
Podium did not respond to a request for comment or questions about whether a borescope inspection was carried out. Mr Larwood believes further inspections using a borescope would indeed reveal fire breaks are included within the outside wall system.
If fire breaks were revealed, this could mean the costly fire wardens were no longer needed to patrol around the apartment buildings, and could also mean greatly reduced insurance premiums. The premiums increased tenfold to £650,000 a year in 2019, Mr Larwood said, and many residents are left struggling to pay and are running out of money.
The residents association is now asking a further survey be carried out, this time using a borescope. But the problem is that decision rests with FirstPort, the company who manages Victoria Wharf.
FirstPort manages the maintenance of the buildings as well as amenities and communal parts shared by residents. The property management company did not build the apartments and does not own the buildings, but is the main point of contact for residents on fire safety. Residents pay service charges to FirstPort such as for insurance, cleaning and fire wardens.
A spokesperson for FirstPort said two surveys have already been carried out by unconnected professionals, and a third survey would mean “significant and unnecessary costs”.
The spokesperson said: “We understand how difficult the uncertainty has been for residents and homeowners at Victoria Wharf and we are working closely with the residents association, speaking to them regularly to provide updates.
“We have explained to them that the two surveys previously conducted were done by unconnected professional companies who did not review each other’s findings, and so are completely independent.
“We have also had a third professional check over both survey reports, and they agree that there is no requirement for a third survey, which would result in a significant and unnecessary cost to residents.”
In response, Mr Larwood said the residents association would continue pressing for a full borescope survey.
He said: “These are genuine concerns raised by Victoria Wharf residents association on behalf of leaseholders that FirstPort is wantonly willing to ignore. This matter will not be dropped.”
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.