Firm which runs fire ravaged student flats, was previously reprimanded over fire regulations at Leeds student digs

The company which runs the fire ravaged Bolton student accommodation was previously reprimanded for breaching fire safety regulations on new build student flats in Leeds in 2016, it has emerged.

Sunday, 17th November 2019, 5:05 pm
Fire fighters at the scene after a fire on the top floors of a building on Bradshawgate in Bolton. Picture date: Friday November 15, 2019.Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Urban Student Life (USL), which manages The Cube in Bolton for private owners, said that Friday night’s fire started on the fourth floor and spread to the sixth.

Witnesses said what appeared to be a small fire ripped across and upwards within minutes, “crawling up the cladding like it was nothing”.

Housing 221 students, all those inside escaped, with two people treated at the scene for minor injuries, after the blaze broke out at around 8.30pm.

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Fire fighters tackling the fire after it had just started on the top floors of a student accommodation building in Bolton, Greater Manchester. The fire eventually spread and engulfed the entire six-storey building. Friday November 15, 2019. Photo credit: Rafaela Nunes/PA Wire

USL staff helped evacuate students to safety along with firefighters who worked through the night to extinguish the fire.

In 2016, the development of student accommodation at Asquith House, at Servia Road, Little London, in Leeds, for which USL acted as lettings agent, was held up by almost three months, according to the National Union of Students (NUS).

Students then faced significant delays in receiving rent refunds and, once the building was complete, no fire safety guidance was provided, the NUS said.

This resulted in a year’s suspension from the National Code Scheme, a voluntary initiative for student accommodation providers, supported by the NUS.

Fire fighters at the scene after a fire on the top floors of a building on Bradshawgate in Bolton. Friday November 15, 2019. Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

It guarantees tenants will get a certain standard of management and have a clear procedure they can follow if any problem occurs.

Such suspensions are said to be extremely rare, and the tribunal rarely meets.

Asquith House was so late being completed that tenants had to live in hotels and even share beds for 11 weeks after they were meant to move in.

An NUS tribunal at the time heard the company failed to act quickly enough to provide refunds to students and failed to provide any fire safety guidance. It said this was in breach of National codes 6.16 and 6.17, which states tenants must be provided with clear written guidelines on the fire safety procedures.

This includes details of the safety measures installed, why they are there, how they operate and what to do in the event of a fire.

West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service ordered that the building close with immediate effect, and that remedial works are required before it can be re-opened.

USL’s troubled history was revealed by Shelly Asquith, who then worked as the NUS Vice President for welfare.

On Twitter she said: ‘The Company which runs this student halls in Bolton was suspended from the national codes in 2016, after our tribunal found they had failed on fire safety. ‘Suspension is very rare, and serious questions now need asking as to how (USL) can continue to operate’.

Ms Asquith previously described their handling of the Leeds accommodation as a ‘shocking and disgraceful example of malpractice’.

The Eastern Fire Brigade Union said it was ‘scandalous’ to still see companies flouting fire regulation and said professionals were being ignored.

The Fire Bridgades Union has called for a complete overhaul of UK fire safety and have condemned government cuts to the service.

The cladding material or cause of the blaze in the Bolton halls has not been confirmed. However, the speed at which the flames spread caused many to compare it to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when 72 people died.

A spokesman for USL said in relation to Asquith House in Leeds and the tribunal held in August 2016: "The tribunal was initiated because of a complaint by a parent. The tribunal noted that the reasons for the complaint were brought about by the late delivery of the property by the developer.

"This impacted on the services USL were able to provide as lettings agent. The site was only partially open for use. The developer had obtained certification for the part of the building which was then occupied.

"We provided a copy of our student welcome pack and handbook issued to all students by e-mail prior to their arrival and also on arrival on the 24 November 2015 which outlined Fire and Safety policies and action plans on pages 6-9 of the handbook.

"The developers, Pinnacle Student Developments had obtained building control and fire officer certification as safe for occupation into the areas of the building that USL were letting.

"The Ground floor reception was not part of this area of occupation. Over a month after occupation the fire officers re-visited the property as part of their ongoing work and determined that there was a potential fire risk from one of the non-occupied areas of the building. It was at this point that USL was given instruction to move students into local hotels which it did immediately.

"USL was the lettings Agent and not the facilities manager or developer. It was USL’s role to manage the welfare of the students, which is what they did."

Commenting on the aftermath of the Bolton fire, the spokesman added: "Our most sincere thanks to the community of Bolton which has rallied around the students since the fire to help them at this distressing time.

"A full investigation is underway by the fire services. The building owner, Idealsite, together with Urban Student Life as estate manager are co-operating fully.

"USL management provides the building owner’s it serves with a staff and student ambassador group which are on site in the building and oversee the fire alarm on a daily basis as well as any maintenance issues raised by students for the property. A full evacuation practice was recently carried out with the Cube’s residents."