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2 June 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 12:58pm

The problem with the Nine Elms sky pool lies six miles east

Footage of swimmers in a transparent pool built between two London skyscrapers exposes a major housing scandal.

By Anoosh Chakelian

After weeks of grey and soggy gloom, the British public were finally able to put their winter coats away with confidence when the late May bank holiday weekend arrived. Bank Holiday Monday was recorded by the Met Office as the hottest day of the year so far, and the heat continued into Tuesday – the first day of meteorological summer. A nation of pasty legs scampered to the nearest parks and beaches to enjoy the long-awaited sunshine.

Just before midday on Tuesday, BBC News tweeted some footage captured by its helicopter of people swimming in a transparent pool built between two skyscrapers with the caption: “Swimmers enjoy warm weather in London at the Sky Pool, which is believed to be the world’s first transparent pool built between two skyscrapers.”

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At the time of writing, the short clip has over ten million views. This is likely not just the result of envious wannabe sky swimmers or the morbidly fascinated sufferers of vertigo. The clip triggered a debate on social media, including interjections from local councillors, about the controversial Nine Elms riverside development in Battersea, south of the Thames.

The sky pool – thought to be the world’s first constructed in this way – has become a compelling visible symbol of the housing inequality and uneven housebuilding rampant in the capital.

Shared-ownership residents of the same housing development, called Embassy Gardens, do not have access to the pool and other amenities that private homeowners do, as the Guardian revealed in February shortly after the pool materialised. And even the blessed few who can use it aren’t all happy – one leasehold resident who bought his flat there in 2015 complained in the Financial Times in March of his soaring service charge and feeling like “a cash cow in my own home”.

This familiar debate was rekindled following the BBC swimming footage this week. Yet there is even more to this story, which goes further east across the city, beyond the social segregation and ostentatious luxury of the new Nine Elms.

Ballymore, the Irish developer behind the sky pool once dismissed as “crackers”, is also the owner and developer of a housing development called New Providence Wharf in Poplar, east London, six miles as the crow flies from Embassy Gardens.

On the morning of Friday 7 May, as Britain awoke to local election results turning many political assumptions topsy-turvy, a fire started in a flat on the eighth floor of a 19-storey block on New Providence Wharf. It spread externally up the building to the 11th floor. The London Fire Brigade declared it a major incident, rescuing 34 people from the block, and two people had to be treated in hospital for burns and smoke inhalation. It took over three hours for more than 120 firefighters to put out the blaze.

Residents of 559 homes in total had been waiting nearly four years to have the Grenfell Tower-style cladding removed from their homes. Around 20 per cent of the affected part of the building’s facade had the same type of cladding identified as key to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017: aluminium composite material polyethylene panels (ACM PE).

Ballymore told the New Statesman in a statement on the day that this cladding “did not combust and played no part in causing or facilitating the fire”. However, a preliminary report into the fire by the London Fire Brigade published on 1 June 2021 – the same day the sky swimmers were filmed – contradicted this statement, finding cladding on the eighth and ninth floors was “involved” in the fire, and including a photo of this fire damage.

Although the report finds the cladding “did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire”, it did find the building’s smoke ventilation system failed, acting like a “broken chimney”, and that the spread of the fire was facilitated by the timber decking on the balconies.

Ballymore has promised £20m across its portfolio (therefore not solely for this development) for fire safety remediation works. It also tells the New Statesman it will pay for making the balconies at New Providence Wharf fire-safe itself.

In February 2019, Ballymore was asking leaseholders to foot most of the bill for remedial work on the building, with loan repayments that would have added up to between £2,000 and £13,000 for each flat, as revealed at the time by Inside Housing, which has covered the cladding scandal in detail. This was before government funding was announced to remove cladding from private blocks.

As late as March this year, Ballymore’s subsidiary company Landor Residential Limited was still being named and shamed by the government in a list of “corporate entities [that] have yet to start on site remediation works”.

The latest government target was for dangerous cladding to be removed from all the relevant blocks it had identified by June 2020. Yet more than 1,000 residents of New Providence Wharf, along with so many others across the country, continue to live in buildings deemed dangerous.

That the same developer can invest in a pool deemed architecturally fanciful on one side of London and fail for nearly four years to remove flammable cladding from a different building on the other (repair works were only due to begin three days after the fire) is a bleak story of our warped housing system.

The New Statesman contacted Ballymore for comment on the safety failings identified by the London Fire Brigade at New Providence Wharf, who would pay for fixing them, and whether the cladding is now being removed. A Ballymore spokesperson responded:

“Ballymore notes the preliminary report of the London Fire Brigade. We are grateful to the fire service for their prompt reaction to the incident on 7 May which ensured that all residents were safely evacuated in a timely fashion.

“The safety of our residents is everything to us. Since the fire of 7 May, we have inspected the fire prevention, detection and mitigation systems in all of our properties to ensure all are in working order.

“We will work closely with the fire service, our professional and scientific advisers, and our residents to assist with the ongoing investigation.

“Façade remediation works are under way at the New Providence Wharf building, at no cost to leaseholders.”

UPDATE 3/6/21

This article was amended to clarify that Ballymore would be footing the bill for fire safety remediation works beyond cladding, including the balconies at New Providence Wharf.

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