Hundreds of students at a UK university still live in halls with dangerous cladding

A similar block of student flats with the same cladding caught fire in 2019

Three years after an independent report found the insulation and cladding did not meet government regulations, hundreds of students at University of Essex accommodation, University Square, continue to live in the 10-storey buildings.

University Square is made up of multiple buildings all wrapped in colourful panelling. The High Pressure Laminate (HPL) panels are made of the same materials that were used on The Cube, student accommodation in Bolton that burnt down in November 2019.

Essex University has blamed complex legal issues as well as Covid-19 supply issues and market uncertainty as to why work to replace the fire-risk cladding still hasn’t taken place. Having now obtained full planning permission, the university says work will begin later this year in August and is set to be complete in December 2023.

The Cube, a six-storey block of flats home to over 200 students in Bolton that burnt down in 2019 (via SWNS)

University Square, which is wrapped in the same HPL cladding (via YouTube)

Situated in the heart of Southend-on-Sea, University Square is home to 562 University of Essex students in first, second and third year. Students spend up to £188-a-week to live in the accommodation with fire-risk cladding.

When built in 2010, government regulation said the panels should be of “limited combustibility”. This means that while the panels might burn in a fire, they should not contribute to the fire’s growth.

Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people, the university commissioned a review into University Square’s colourful cladding.

Whilst the materials used on the buildings are not the same as the ACM cladding found on Grenfell Tower, the report found the HPL cladding as well as the thermal insulation should never have been used.

Neither met the criteria of “limited combustibility” and therefore could be an accelerant in a potential fire.

Over 500 students continue to live inside the buildings where accommodation costs up to £188-a-week (via YouTube)

Despite the knowledge the University Square cladding doesn’t meet government regulations, students continue to live in the building whilst it is patrolled 24-hours-a-day by security guards.

No student lives in a flat above 18 metres and the university employs an evacuation plan which does not include “stay put” policies.

A spokesperson for University of Essex told The Tab: “At the time of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, the University of Essex was one of three leaseholders in relation to the University Square building as in addition to the student residences, there is an underground car park held by the local council and a separate lease to a commercial company relating to ground floor commercial units. The University only acquired the freehold interest of the entire development in August 2021 which gave the University landlord responsibilities with regards to the structure and cladding.

“The review of the cladding at University Square has been a complex matter both in terms of specification and legal issues, however the University resolved at an early stage that the cladding replacement would be to the highest “A1” standard. The project has actually been tendered three times, however initial responses from contractors were limited due primarily to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on contractor resources and market uncertainty around the impact of the new Building Safety Act.

“The University has now obtained full Planning Permission for the project and full Building Regulations approval from the Planning Authority. The latest contract tender proved very successful and a contractor has been appointed with works due to commence in August 2022 and complete in December 2023.

“Throughout all stages, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service have worked in close co-operation with the University to ensure the building continues to remain safe to occupy and the additional mitigations put in place by the University have been agreed with the Fire and Rescue Service.

“Student engagement has been a key focus for the University involving both regular updates on the University website, letters to students and meetings arranged in partnership with the Fire and Rescue Service. In addition, three student liaison meetings have been held regarding University Square with student representatives in accordance with the requirements of the Building Safety Act and these will continue throughout the project.”

Are you a resident at University Square or any other university accommodation with similar cladding? We want to speak to you and find out more. Email [email protected]

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