After the Richmond House fire, property firm Berkeley Group should do the decent thing and pay up

Before his sudden death, founder Tony Pidgley took responsibility for the errors that caused the London blaze. Now new management is shamefully denying liability, writes Chris Blackhurst

Thursday 26 November 2020 15:06 GMT
The late Tony Pidgley never forgot his humble roots
The late Tony Pidgley never forgot his humble roots (PA)

The sudden death of Tony Pidgley in June this year robbed the property industry of one of its shrewdest, most colourful characters.

I knew Pidgley and he was always good for an opinion – no one in my experience could call the market better than the Berkeley Group founder. Pidgley, though, had other qualities – he never forgot his humble roots, he always prided himself on being in touch with ordinary people, in giving them what they wanted and in meeting their aspirations.

That’s why I had to do a double take when reading what his former company said to the residents of Richmond House in Worcester Park, in southwest London. Their homes in the four-storey block were engulfed and destroyed by fire just over a year ago. Fortunately, all 60 inhabitants of the 23-apartment building survived.

The folk inside were extremely lucky. They managed to get out in the nick of time, literally running barefoot in some cases to escape

A spokesman for St James, the division of Berkeley that built Richmond House, said this: “The cause of the fire was never identified, but the building ‘performed’ as it was supposed to, allowing everyone to get out safely. Compensation has been paid to residents and comprehensive checks made on the rest of the development. All properties remain safe. Remedial works will be completed as quickly as possible and signed off by an independent fire engineer.”

I remember the fire – it’s not that far from where I live – and I recall being shocked at its ferocity. The pictures were graphically all-too reminiscent of Grenfell, although thankfully without the fatalities.

Firefighters were at Richmond House within nine minutes of being called but could not save any of the flats. They sent 20 fire engines to battle the inferno, to no avail.

Last month, Andy Roe, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) told a London Assembly committee that Richmond House had been damaged beyond repair “in approximately 11 minutes once the fire had taken hold … entirely due to problems with internal compartmentation and poor standards of construction”.

The folk inside were extremely lucky. They managed to get out in the nick of time, literally running barefoot in some cases to escape. Their homes and belongings were reduced to a smouldering ruins and ash.

LFB and Probyn Miers, an independent firm of architects, have pinpointed the reason the fire spread so quickly. Cavity barriers in a 16cm gap inside the timber-frame exterior walls should have slowed the flames. However, those barriers were “too small” or “missing completely”, allowing the fire to rage “almost unhindered”, according to the LFB and Probyn Miers. What remained of the block was demolished and LFB issued enforcement notices to fix 23 other blocks in the 650-home St James development

You would think it would be cut and dried. Certainly, Pidgley seemed to believe so. At a meeting with residents in a community hall, which was recorded, Pidgley said: “I founded Berkeley and we’ve always prided ourselves on trying to do things right. And we’ve let you down, we’ve let you down badly, each and every one of you. I’d like to say sorry... It is our fault, we’ve missed it… We did miss that fire stop, and I’m sorry, and we will be taking responsibility.”

When a resident asked whether that included compensation, Pidgley, said: “Yes.”

That was then, this is now. Pidgley has sadly departed and Berkeley is under new management. Christian Hansen of Bindmans, a lawyer for the residents, said: “Berkeley has since instructed contractual dispute solicitors who are now denying liability and saying, ‘We are not paying anything.’”

Residents said St James had paid each household £3,000 plus a contribution towards legal fees. Personal injury claims have yet to be paid. It sounds like they should not expect to receive anything soon.

I’m astonished, and angry. I’m trying to imagine myself in the position of St James as they crafted their statement. What did they say again? “The building ‘performed’ as it was supposed to, allowing everyone to get out safely.” What? In 11 minutes, the block was wiped out, all of it, not just one dwelling but the entire lot. It was horrendous and devastatingly fast.

I would like to imagine that if I was in a block of flats and a fire started in the middle of the night I would have more than 11 minutes to reach safety. Given the speed at which I move, dodgy knee and all, I would certainly require a decent head-start – and that’s allowing for me actually waking up and realising what was going on. Oh, and I’d have to make sure my wife, children and dogs were also bolting for sanctuary.

I suspect that something else is afoot here, that Berkeley must be worried about precedent, that admitting fault may lead to them having to make pay outs elsewhere in the empire. Certainly, if that was the case, post-Grenfell, they would not be the only housebuilder facing the prospect of settling claims for properties that have proved to be fire hazards.

Honestly, though, there is a word that is applicable here. It’s decency. St James and by extension Berkeley should do the decent thing and pay up. I know their former boss would have done – after all he appeared to say as much.

Eleven minutes. It’s not long, is it?

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