A London council is ready to test the national cladding replacement programme by suing contractors for costs it says are not covered by government.
Camden council has submitted claims to the High Court to recover costs from the contractor PFIC (Partners for Improvement in Camden) and its principal subcontractors, who previously held responsibility for refurbishment and maintenance of the high-rise Chalcots Estate, under a private finance initiative agreement (PFI) with the council.
If successful the action – being taken in the High Court’s technology and construction court division – could see other councils and social landlords suing builders over related costs.
PFIC is currently in liquidation. Sub-contractors named in the submission are Rydon Construction Ltd, Rydon Maintenance Ltd, Faithful + Gould Ltd, and United Living South Limited.
The claims seek to recover costs Camden council has incurred as a result of it stepping in to address multiple fire-safety failings at the high rise Chalcots Estate and the related evacuation of residents in June 2017 after post-Grenfell fire checks assessed the five blocks as unsafe.
In October last year, the council secured £80m from the government to fund the replacement of cladding on the Chalcots Estate.
But the council says this sum only covers part of the costs and leaves the authority with substantial losses.
The council confirms the claims are submitted following two years’ examination of historical agreements, contractual responsibilities, and works completed during the period in which it had a contractual relationship with PFIC.
This review, the council says, left it clear as to where responsibility lies for the range of fire-safety defects at the Chalcots, which led to the evacuation and its associated costs.
A 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.”
Costs the council is suing to recover are in relation to the evacuation, the employment of fire marshals and security staff during the evacuation and beyond, its repairs to make good inadequate internal fire stopping, inadequate fire doors and other serious defects inside the Chalcots towers, and the removal of combustible aluminium composite material cladding from the blocks’ outer façade.
The costs of the supporting residents during the evacuation and level of work required at the Chalcots made a major impact on the council’s reserves – with the council saying it would not be right for “the public purse” to foot the bill for what was alleged as a private contractor failure.
While the claims are processed, Camden council confirmed it will continue to work with principal contractor Wates to complete work on the Chalcots Estate.
Post Grenfell, the council has overhauled its approach to fire safety, appointing a director of resident safety, a first in the UK; introducing a resident-led fire-safety panel; enhanced fire risk assessments; and improved internal processes to ensure issues are effectively recorded, processed, and acted on for online publication.
Of the 160 high-rise council blocks wrapped in similar aluminium composite cladding to Grenfell, 34 have been fixed, and works are under way on a further 82.
Works are yet to start on the remaining 44.
The government announced £400m to help fund the removal of dangerous cladding, but Camden’s action indicates that may not be enough.