Decades of neglect by Waverley Borough Council has been blamed for a fire that left three people homeless at Grade II-listed St James’ Court in East Street recently.
Residents have been complaining about the state of the part council-owned flats throughout the terms of several council administrations. Now, they hope the latest incident may galvanize council staff into doing something.
St James’ Court is home to a mixture of private and social tenants, as well as a few lease-holders, who have now lost value on their homes due to the fire.
But will anything be done?
Peter Fleming whose ground floor flat was one of the two damaged in the fire was told by contractors that the heating system at St James’s 16 flats needed replacing five years ago. Residents were told it was likely this same heating fault was the reason for the fire in July. They had been pleading with Waverley for years to deal with a host of outstanding issues there for many years. He told the Farnham Herald:
This has been a long time coming,” we have been pressuring Waverley for a long time “The central heating system breaks every winter, and last year we went an entire week without hot water or heating.
“On the first floor, the 40-year-old heating elements are built into the wall and boxed in by wood, which over the years has dried out and turned almost to charcoal.
“Firefighters told us the hot sun on Sunday likely refracted through a window, and raised this boxing to such a temperature that it set it alight.
“Waverley was told five years ago it needed to replace the heating system, but didn’t because they knew it would cost a fair amount of money.
On the first floor, the 40-year-old heating elements are built into the wall and boxed in by wood, which over the years has dried out and turned almost to charcoal.
Firefighters told residents that the hot sun likely refracted through a window, and raised this boxing to such a temperature that it set it alight.
Waverley was told five years ago it needed to replace the heating system but didn’t because they knew it would cost a fair amount of money. Because the council didn’t open its chequebook, three people had now lost their homes.
Mr Fleming said there was no sprinkler system fitted in the converted church, and there were now just three fire extinguishers in the whole building.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.
Along with the heating system, there are other long-standing structural issues which haven’t been addressed by the council.
These include a hole in the roof of the converted church’s chancel and a leaking pipe in the ceiling of the ground-floor hallway, but also smaller jobs such as blocked guttering.
“We’ve held so many meetings with council staff and the council is always ‘listening’ and ‘will schedule works’. But nothing happens.
“I sent a letter to MP Jeremy Hunt last summer and he promised to take it up with Waverley. But again nothing came of it.
“Everyone still there is now lying awake at night fearful that their flat is going to be engulfed in flames.”
Mr Fleming is now living in temporary accommodation.
A fire service spokesperson said the first fire appliance arrived at the scene within 12 minutes of the call-out, with local fire resources already attending an emergency incident. A further five vehicles arrived after this to support.
“While investigations are ongoing, we currently understand there are two possible causes for the fire, both of which were accidental,” they added.
Waverley no longer has a Housing Overview & Scrutiny Committee – matters on housing come under the Landlords Services Committee which meets on August 25.