Housing association reveals multi million pound Bedford tower blocks revamp and cladding plan

A housing association with thousands of tenants in Bedford borough revealed a multi-million pound tower block refurbishment plan to councillors this week.

By David Tooley, local democracy reporter
Friday, 3rd July 2020, 1:01 pm
Updated Friday, 3rd July 2020, 1:02 pm

The housing association bpha owns 14 tower blocks in Bedford, including Ashburnham Court, built in 1954, and Bury Court, which followed in 1967.

Julie Wittich, bpha’s executive director of assets, told Bedford Borough Council’s climate change committee that the tower blocks are leaking heat and are in need of investment.

Named Project Vista, the £61 million scheme includes installing cladding on the outside of the structurally sound buildings and replacing gas boilers in flats with a central energy generation system.

Julie Wittich, of bpha

Project Vista was put on hold following the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in London in June 2017. That blaze, which spread via flammable cladding, resulted in the deaths of 72 people.

The meeting on Monday (June 29) heard that residents of the flats have raised concerns about cladding in the wake of Grenfell.

Mayor Dave Hodgson asked: “What certainty can we have around the cladding?”

Ms Wittich said: “We’ve been out to consult and it was one of the questions everybody had in their mind.”

Mayor Dave Hodgson

She added: “As you can imagine our board are particularly interested in that and we’re obviously specified the ratings have to be A1 or A2 which is the standard.

“You can’t put combustible, flammable cladding on buildings any more, it’s been outlawed.”

She added: “We would give our assurance to residents and the council and our board that we wouldn’t use anything that was going to put our residents at risk.”

The project will also be subject to “tightly controlled” building regulations, and with checks that builders use the materials they promise.

The contracts are currently out to tender with the revamp plan due to take place over the next few years.

Ms Wittich said that bpha would not be using it as a reason to increase rents.

She said the tower blocks were “a bit of a cash cow for us” and they are investing to make sure people want to live in them in the future.

But at a cost of up to £50,000 per flat, the company said leaseholders would be expected to pay a reduced 25 per cent (£12,500) of that.

The meeting was also told that the heating system at Ashburnham Court would be changed to a centrally powered one. They want to get away from each flat having a gas boiler, which “creates a risk”.

Ms Wittich said: “There’s always going to be that fire risk, so we’ve looked at various different options to get rid of gas boilers in the individual properties.”

The meeting was also told that bpha has a programme of increasing the energy efficiency of older homes.

Many of them have near bottom energy ratings and improvements could save tenants around £270 a year.

The £1.2 billion company still owns around 5,500 of the mainly old North Beds Borough Council homes it took over as Bedford Pilgrims Housing Association in 1990. It now has 19,000 homes across the region.