Watch: Moment apartment block resident finds £500,000 fire marshal ‘hiding’ in cupboard

Latitude 52 private apartments where the night watch was hired
Latitude 52 private apartments where the night watch was hired

A fire guard costing residents £500,000 has been accused of “hiding” in a cupboard while on duty after being brought in to safeguard a block of flats following the Grenfell tragedy.

A 24-hour “waking watch” was deployed to patrol Latitude 52, a seven-storey block in Plymouth in 2021 after an inspection by the Devon and Cornwall Fire service raised serious concerns with the building and threatened to shut it down.

The inspection found the building had no smoke detection system, contained “combustible” items blocking escape routes and was lined with timber-clad stairs – which firefighters felt left flat owners at an “imminent and severe” risk.

The waking watch consisted of two fire wardens who were tasked with patrolling the property and raising the alarm if there was a fire. Service charges billed to leaseholders increased fivefold in the first year the waking watch was introduced, jumping from £1,600 to £8,000 between June 2021 and June 2022.

But despite paying through the nose, residents have declared the waking watch “unfit for purpose”. A video shared with The Telegraph, taken in October 2021, shows a marshal standing behind two closed doors in a pitch-black cupboard on his phone while the other was said to be off-site “buying food”.

One resident accused the member of staff of “hiding” in the cupboard. Pro Sentry, the security firm, said shortfalls in service were dealt with at the time by making staff take additional training and discussing possible “credits” to reimburse leaseholders.

Resident Andy Grant, 49, said: “As a fire marshal, they are supposed to be noticeable and to have a notable presence. And their presence was not there if they were hiding in the cleaners’ cupboard.”

Andy Grant photographed near his home
Mr Grant says many residents suffer with mental health problems because of the sudden surge in service charges - John Lawrence/TMG

Ivan Ashford, a 61-year-old leaseholder in the building, said he and his neighbours had no choice but to hire a waking watch. Now, he says some have fallen into arrears – unable to keep up with the jumps in payments – and are “frightened” about future rises.

“If we didn’t, the fire service and the council would have shut the building down,” he explained. Plymouth City Council had issued emergency prohibition orders for flats on the top levels of the building, meaning that residents would have had to move out if changes weren’t made.

The 24-hour patrol was in place until the summer of last year. Across the two years the building had a waking watch, flat owners paid nearly £900,000 in total for fire safety-related charges according to documents seen by the Telegraph. It is understood nearly £500,000 was charged by the waking watch company, Pro Sentry.

Plymouth Block Management, the managing agent that took over the block in the final months of 2021, is disputing the bill on behalf of leaseholders. The Telegraph understands that £200,000 of the half a million pound bill has been withheld from the company as negotiations continue.

The waking watch was eventually removed after the managing agent connected the building’s fire alarm to a full-time monitoring company that automatically calls the fire service when alerted.

Mr Grant said he feels like he has been “robbed blind”, and that the £500,000 charged was just “money down the drain”. Other leaseholders, he claims,  have suffered health problems – partly, they say, as a result of the ongoing stress created by surges in service charge.

He said: “A lot of people have been reaching out because of their mental health.”

Latitude 52 private apartments
Residents of the Latitude 52 block are pursuing legal options to get more of their money back - Roy Perring / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaseholders in the building began complaining about the quality of the waking watch soon after it was introduced in June 2021, as costs for the scheme mounted.

In meeting minutes for the leaseholders’ association recorded in August 2021, the watch was described as “unfit for purpose”. A number of complaints were allegedly made over the course of several months about the quality of the waking watch.

Several of the leaseholders are now taking matters into their own hands to see if a first-tier tribunal judge can help them win more money back.

Emails seen by The Telegraph show that residents are challenging a fire safety remediation charge on each of their bills of £4,958.50 from 2021-2022, and an additional charge of £2,898.02 from  2022-2023.

They had hoped to receive grant funding from the government to cover some of these costs, but were told by solicitors that Latitude 52 was not a “relevant building” according to the Building Safety Act. This is because the freeholder owns 12 leases in the building, even though the vast majority are owned by other individuals.

A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Building owners must ensure that buildings are safe. Waking watch should only be used in the most exceptional circumstances and should be in place for the shortest period possible while an alarm is installed.

“Government funding is available to install alarms to bring waking watches to an end, and we encourage people to apply for it where necessary.”

It is understood that fire remediation work tipped to cost millions still needs to happen inside Latitude 52 to bring the block up to current fire safety standards. Leaseholders fear that because they aren’t a “relevant building”, they could be left to foot this bill too.

This could result in a bill of as much as £26,000 each if top estimates of £3 million for the works are accurate.

The flat owners have, however, been given government funding to remove external cladding – which is why the building is now covered in scaffolding.

A Plymouth City Council spokesman confirmed that an inspection of the building took place in May 2021 and that “imminent and severe” fire safety risks were discovered.

A statement from the waking watch company said: “Pro Sentry is committed to delivering the highest quality services and recognises the waking watch service has been an evolving one.”

The statement goes on to say that where shortfalls have been identified, a “fair and reasonable outcome” has been negotiated, including disciplinary action and possible credits.

The statement ends: “We cannot comment specifically on Latitude 52 beyond this as there is an ongoing dispute over substantial outstanding payments.”

A spokesman for Plymouth Block Management said over the phone that they had acknowledged the Telegraph’s email but did not wish to comment – then hung up.


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