Council chases builders in £40m case over burnt retirement village

Cheshire East Borough Council is one of three claimants seeking £40m of damages from contractors involved in the construction of a burnt-down retirement village.

Around 150 elderly people saw their homes destroyed in a fire that razed Beechmere Retirement Village, Crewe, in 2019. The fire at the timber-framed complex resulted from hot works being carried out by roofing contractor MAC on the top floor of the building where the fire started.

Now the local council, the freeholder for the site, has launched legal action with developer Avantage and housing association Your Housing. The trio are looking to recoup £40m from a number of building firms as Avantage sets out to build a new retirement facility on the site.

The legal action is being taken against GB Solutions Limited, a dissolved former subsidiary of Gleeson, as well as architects PRP, structural contractor Prestoplan, engineer WSP and the client’s clerk of works, Mascot.

GB Solutions was a special purpose vehicle that was dissolved by Gleeson in 2018, before the fire took place. The company, and Gleeson, have no active role in the court proceedings.

The legal case was launched in October 2019, months after the fire in August the same year – but has come to light after preliminary judgement was made by Mrs Justice O’Farrell in the Construction and Technology Court on Wednesday (5 April).

The court case revolves around whether the design and construction of the retirement village was adequate to prevent the spread of fire, as well as whether the design of the property where the fire started complied with building regulations and whether it should have contained sprinklers.

The preliminary judgement concerned whether the claimants could replace Sarah Hooton, the forensic scientist they had appointed to provide expert advice to the court, due to illness – and what conditions should be attached if they did so.

The defendants did not oppose a change in expert witness, but said Hooton’s expert reports, site-inspection reports and notes and interviews with witnesses should be disclosed to them.

Lawyers for Mascot also requested a copy of any email or letter in which Hooton expressed an opinion on the cause, origin or spread of the fire, as well as any notes of solicitors meetings or telephone calls in which she provided an opinion.

Justice O’Farrell largely sided with the defendants, concluding that Hooton could be replaced as long as her inspection notes and reports were shared with the defendants, as well as her notes of any interviews she undertook with witnesses or potential witnesses of the fire.

The court case had been due to take place in April 2023, but has been postponed to April 2024 after efforts to solve the dispute via mediation – which ultimately fell through – scuppered the timetable set out by court.

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