Published: Thursday, 29 October 2020

Work is set to start to replace some of the cladding on Hockmore Tower.

Oxford City Council made the decision last year, following clarification from the government about the use of cladding on tower blocks.

Following the decision, the fire service assured residents of the tower block that their homes are safe – and that they would continue to be safe throughout the work.

Hockmore Tower features a wide range of fire safety measures, including sprinklers in all flats, upgraded fire alarm system and fire doors, fire breaks in the cladding, non-combustible insulation beneath the cladding, and two flights of stairs to leave the building.

Contractor Fortem has agreed to pay to replace the cladding.

Council officers visited every home in Hockmore Tower yesterday (Wednesday 28 October) to hand deliver letters informing residents that the work would start next month.

The council was one of the first local authorities in the country to decide to replace the type of cladding that is used on Hockmore Tower. The decision was taken after the government, which sets building regulations, partially clarified the rules around the type of materials that are allowed to clad tower blocks.

For more detailed information about the council’s decision to replace the cladding on Hockmore Tower, please read the press release from the time.

Replacing the cladding

Cladding on tower blocks consists of two parts: a layer of insulation and a rain screen to protect the insulation from the elements.

The council will replace the high-pressure laminate (HPL) rain screen that covers about half of Hockmore Tower. The remaining façade is covered by sheet aluminium, which is the safest type of rain screen on the market and will remain.

The insulation beneath the rain screen is made from mineral wool, which is non-combustible. However, if the rain screen is removed the insulation will be damaged by being exposed to the elements. The insulation will therefore be replaced.

A small amount of HPL rain screen will also be removed from Evenlode and Windrush tower blocks in Blackbird Leys. The rain screen covers only the balcony external balustrade panels – less than 10% of each building’s façade.

The council will replace the HPL in all cases with sheet aluminium. The sheet aluminium will be the same colour as the HPL, so the buildings will also look identical to how they do now when they are complete.

Work to start in November

The project was originally due to start in January but it was decided to ask architects to look again at the project to absolutely ensure Hockmore Tower would be as safe as possible.

This has resulted in a series of changes to the scheme, including:

  • It is no longer advisable to install photovoltaic cells (solar panels) onto the side of buildings that are more than 18 metres high, so the PV panels on the south elevation of Hockmore Tower will need to be removed. The council is investigating whether or not they could be installed on other properties in Oxford
  • By removing the PV panels from one side of the building, and the HPL rain screen from two further sides, the structural support system holding the cladding in place across the building will need to be altered

Previously, the council only planned to remove and replace the rain screen on about 40% of Hockmore Tower, but now it will need to be removed on all sides of the building to access and alter the structural support. In doing this, all the insulation will need to be replaced across the building.

These changes to the scheme mean that the work, which last year was expected to take four months to complete, will now take about a year to complete. Contractors Fortem are expected to start on site in November.

Fortem will also carry out the work to replace the HPL rain screen on the internal balcony panels at Evenlode and Windrush tower blocks. This project will also start in November and is expected to be completed around March 2021.

Alongside Hockmore Tower, council officers also visited every home in Evenlode and Windrush yesterday (Wednesday 28 October) to hand deliver letters informing residents that the work would start soon.

Investment in Oxford's tower blocks

The cladding was installed on Evenlode, Hockmore and Windrush towers between 2016 and 2017 to improve the insulation of the buildings and reduce residents’ energy bills.

It was part of a £22.5m council project to improve fire safety systems, heating, insulation, waste recycling, entrances and landscaping – and secure the fitness of the council’s five towers for at least another 30 years.

The investment included upgrading sprinkler systems, fire detectors and fire doors, and other upgraded fire safety measures, at all five tower blocks. The measures go far beyond what is currently required by the government’s building regulations.

Sprinklers, for example, are not a legal requirement for existing tower blocks.

However, the council, after listening to the advice of the fire service and coroners’ recommendations following previous block fires, installed them anyway.

Fortem, which carried out the upgrades to Oxford’s five tower blocks on behalf of the council, will pay for the work to replace the cladding on Hockmore Tower, and the HPL rain screens on Evenlode and Windrush towers.

The council secured £1.2m from the government in 2018 to replace Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) rain screens at Evenlode and Windrush towers. ACM was the type of rain screen used in Grenfell Tower.

The council committed to removing the ACM rain screen from Evenlode and Windrush towers immediately after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in 2017. The work was completed in June 2018, making Oxford among the first local authorities in the country to remove and replace ACM rain screens.

“The safety of our tenants has always been and will always be our primary concern.

“From the outset we listened to the advice of the fire service and went above and beyond the government’s rules, installing sprinklers in every flat, new fire detectors and new fire doors.

“We have invested £22.5m into our tower blocks since 2016. This has not just improved the fire safety of the buildings, but also upgraded the heating systems and insulation to reduce energy bills for tenants, and improved the entrances, waste recycling and landscaping. The work will secure the homes for the next 30 years.

“We are committed to building new council houses to provide homes for Oxford’s young people, but we are also committed to improving our existing homes so that families can feel safe and secure to live and build their lives in Oxford.”

Councillor Mike Rowley, Cabinet Member for Affordable Housing and Housing the Homeless

“Oxford’s five tower blocks are safe to live in.

“Oxford City Council consulted Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service for our advice before carrying out the refurbishment of the city’s five tower blocks, and they have been in regular communication with us ever since.

“When we assess fire safety we look carefully at the whole building. Hockmore Tower – with its fire alarms, upgraded fire doors, evacuation policy and, most especially, its sprinklers – far exceeds the standards required by the legislation.”

Rob MacDougall, Chief Fire Officer of Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service

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