'I've lost everything': Buyers fear ruin as homes are deemed a fire hazard

Vista Tower has failed a fire safety inspection

In 2016, Vista Tower was converted from offices to flats. Now fire inspectors have alleged that the conversion breached fire regulations, threatening the safety and financial security of residents like Sophie Bichener (right). - Credit: Google Streetview / Sophie Bichener

First-time buyers fear they will be bankrupted after their apartment block was deemed a fire hazard.

Inspectors said breaches of building regulations in Vista Tower, Stevenage, threatened to trap residents inside in a fire.

One leaseholder said: “This should never have been signed off as a safe building.”

Building managers have applied for government aid but if the bid is unsuccessful or does not cover all repairs, owners face huge bills.

The 1960s office block in Southgate Road - opposite Stevenage fire station - was converted into flats in 2016.

“I just thought I would get on the ladder, find something that I think will increase in value,” said Sophie Bichener, 28. “In reality, I've lost everything.”

Her service charge has already increased by almost 200 per cent after a string of building snags, including plumbing problems, she said.

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The Herts fire brigade confirmed it had attended nine floods at Vista Tower in three years.

Now her service charge could spiral even further, potentially ruining her.

Vista Tower stands opposite Stevenage fire station

Vista Tower, which stands opposite Stevenage fire station, has failed a fire safety inspection. - Credit: Google Streetview

Fire hazard

Vista Tower stands at the opposite end of St George's Road to Harrow Court. From the upper floors of each block, the other is clearly visible.

In 2005, a fire at Harrow Court killed three people - including two firefighters. Subsequent investigations identified fire safety failures. In 2018, the BBC named it one of five fires which had "foretold" the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

After Grenfell saw safety regulations tightened, Inspired Property Management ordered tests on Vista Tower.

JGA Fire Engineering Consultants found “non-compliant” Expanded Polystyrene Insulation (EPS) and foam insulation in the walls.

Both could “provide a route for fire to spread around the external envelope of the building”, they ruled.

This was not a post-Grenfell breach, their report added. The insulation was non-compliant “at the time of the conversion”.

This defect should be mitigated, at least in part, by cavity barriers and fire stops – materials built into a development to keep fires contained.

But, found JGA “neither cavity barriers nor fire stops were found at any of the reviewed areas".

This too was “non-compliant” with regulations "during the time of conversion”.

Vista Tower in Southgate Road during its conversion from offices to flats.

The 1960s office block in Southgate Road was converted into a block of flats in 2016. - Credit: Google Streetview

There was also "no communal fire alarm”, meaning that by the time leaseholders learned of a fire, “the escape routes could potentially be compromised, trapping occupants within the building.”

The report said a waking watch was required, for which leaseholders are being charged £12,000 per week.

Mental cost

Inspired Property Management said the “terrible situation” was not caused by leaseholders and it was “forward funding” expenses like the waking watch to “alleviate immediate financial pressure on leaseholders”.

But, it warned: “The cost of putting these issues right will need to be met through the service charge, unless another third party can be found to have legal liability, or the government pay.”

Inspired has applied for £10million from the government’s Building Safety Fund, for “remediating the combustible materials in the external walls of the building”.

It has also applied to the government’s Waking Watch Relief Fund for the cost of a new fire alarm system, to end the expense of the waking watch.

There is no guarantee either will be approved. Even if they are, owners fear they still face paying tens of thousands of pounds for the missing cavity barriers and fire stops – on top of roughly £600 per month they are each accruing for the waking watch.

“We have bills to pay, food to put on the table, and it’s certainly not something we can afford,” said bank worker Audrey Ou, 33, who lives with her husband and two children. “£600 a month is basically another mortgage to pay.”

Audrey Ou and her family.

Audrey Ou lives in Vista Tower with her husband Sam and their children Andrea and Raphael. Their future plans have been scuppered and they fear bankruptcy. - Credit: The Ou family

They had planned to sell up soon and buy a house, so their household would be less "crowded" as their children grew up.

Now that plan is on hold as no bank will lend on their property until remedial works have taken place - and the cost of those works could put them into negative equity.

If they are billed for major works, said Audrey: “We will go bankrupt. It’s distressing. There are lots of sleepless nights. I work in banking so if I’m bankrupt, my career is over. We are in a tunnel and there is no light out of it.”

Sophie has recently contacted her GP about her mental health.

“It’s constant pressure, all the time,” she said. “It’s a horrible situation to be in.”

Her service charge now costs more per month than her mortgage. Once other costs start getting added, “I would struggle to live. I would be in the realms of bankruptcy.

“All I wanted was to get on the property ladder. I trusted professional people to help me make the right decision and I just feel like I will never be able to trust people like that again.”

Sophie Bichener in her flat at Vista Tower

Sophie Bichener with the keys to her flat. She hoped her investment would be a first step on the property ladder, but said she now felt she had 'lost everything'. - Credit: Sophie Bichener

The company set up to deliver the development, Edgewater (Stevenage) Ltd, has an “active proposal to strike off” by Companies House, as it has failed to file necessary paperwork.

Its parent group, The Edgewater Group, said it had used a "reputable" contractor and project manager, and that the development had been signed off by building control, the fire authority and new build insurance.