Years of neglect by Waverley Borough Council has been blamed for a fire that left three people homeless at Grade II-listed St James’ Court in East Street two weeks ago.
Peter Fleming, a resident whose ground-floor flat was one of two damaged in the blaze, said the council was first told by a contractor that the heating system at St James’ Court needed replacing “five years ago”.
And he added residents were told it was likely this same heating system was at fault for the July 17 fire at the block of 16 flats.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Mr Fleming. “We have been pressuring Waverley Borough Council for years on several outstanding issues at St James’ Court.
“The central heating system breaks every winter, and last year we went an entire week without hot water or heating.
“On the first floor, the 40-year-old heating elements are built into the wall and boxed in by wood, which over the years has dried out and turned almost to charcoal.
“Firefighters told us the hot sun on Sunday likely refracted through a window, and raised this boxing to such a temperature that it set it alight.
“Waverley was told five years ago it needed to replace the heating system, but didn’t because they knew it would cost a fair amount of money.
“But because the council didn’t open its cheque book, three people have lost their homes.”
Mr Fleming added no sprinkler system was fitted in the converted church, and there were now just three fire extinguishers in the whole building.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” he added.
Mr Fleming said St James’ Court was home to a mixture of private and social tenants, as well as “a few lease-holders, who have now lost value on their homes because of the fire”.
Along with the heating system, Mr Fleming says there are other long-standing structural issues which haven’t been addressed by the council.
These include a hole in the roof of the converted church’s chancel and a leaking pipe in the ceiling of the ground-floor hallway, but also smaller jobs such as blocked guttering.
“We’ve held so many meetings with council staff and the council is always ‘listening’ and ‘will schedule works’. But nothing happens.
“I sent a letter to MP Jeremy Hunt last summer and he promised to take it up with Waverley. But again nothing came of it.
“Everyone still there is now lying awake at night fearful that their flat is going to be engulfed in flames.”
Mr Fleming is now living in temporary accommodation.
A fire service spokesperson said the first fire appliance arrived at the scene within 12 minutes of the call-out, with local fire resources already attending an emergency incident. A further five vehicles arrived after this to support.
“While investigations are ongoing, we currently understand there are two possible causes for the fire, both of which were accidental,” they added.
Waverley Borough Council has agreed the historic St James’ Court required work to bring it up to date.
A spokesperson said: “The council takes the welfare and safety of our residents extremely seriously.
“We are fully compliant with all fire safety regulations at St James’ Court and our testing and assessments meet the statutory requirements.
“We regularly conduct fire-safety assessments and have a scheduled programme of works to address identified risks.
“It should be noted none of the identified risks is serious enough to constitute an immediate threat to safety and that the fire was apparently caused by an unforeseen combination of circumstances and not by any of the identified risks.
“St James’ Court is a Grade II-listed historic building, and we are aware it needs investment to bring it up to date.
“This is complicated by the fact it has been divided into 16 properties, with a range of different types of tenure.
“We are working hard to engage with the residents so they have confidence in the safety of the building.”