University loses £10m court battle

The old Kirkstall Brewery, which is now student flats.
The old Kirkstall Brewery, which is now student flats.
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A Yorkshire university has lost a court battle with an insurance company that refused to pay out £10m after cracks appeared in student flats and they had to be demolished.

More than 140 students living in Turner House and Bridge House at the former Kirkstall Brewery, in Leeds, were evacuated just days before Christmas in 2011 due to fears of subsidence following complaints of cracks in the walls and ceilings.

A structural investigation of the buildings, which were owned by Leeds Beckett University, revealed that Turner House was at severe risk of collapse as a result of concrete blockwork below ground level being “turned into mush” by flowing groundwater. As a result both buildings, that were built in the 1990s on the sloped canal-side site of the 19th century brewery, were demolished in late 2012 and the area was turned into green space.

The university launched a court action against its insurance company, Travelers, after it refused to cover the loss, pointing to a number of exclusion clauses in the policy.

Rejecting the university’s claim, however, Mr Justice Coulson ruled that the damage to the block could not be viewed as accidental.

The flow of groundwater had been constant from the block’s completion to the date on which the cracks appeared and there had been no sudden flood.

At the time the policy was signed – just four months before the cracks appeared – the collapse of the blockwork was inevitable and there was nothing that could have been done to save it, the judge told the High Court in London.

The cause of the damage was gradual deterioration over at least a decade, he added.

And he ruled that the block would still have been standing had it not been for its faulty or deficient design. Groundwater was a known and predictable problem that had not been addressed and, in that respect, the block’s design was “not fit for its purpose.”

The university refused to comment about the outcome of the case when approached by The Yorkshire Post. Travelers Insurance Company Limited also declined to comment.

The large buildings formed part of the popular Kirkstall Brewery site of Leeds Beckett University, which continues to provide accommodation for more than 800 students.

In 2011 The Yorkshire Post revealed how residents of both blocks of flats, which were on the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, were told to leave after complaints of signs of subsidence – including cracks in the walls and ceilings.

Speaking after students were told they would be unable to return to their flats, Australian exchange student and Bridge House resident, Candice Jackson, said: “I don’t think it’s the best start to the new year.

“People said after reading the email we got that they wont get a place where they want or one that’s close to their campus – it’s been stressful.”

The 19-year-old was moved from her flat and sent to neighbouring Elsworth House in the development. The university offered students places in other halls or gave them the chance to cancel their tenancies and help them look for privately-owned accommodation, with help from Unipol Student Homes.

A university spokeswoman said in 2011: “The safety of our students is of the utmost importance to us. The university and UPP are working with building experts to identify the cause of the damage in order to find a suitable solution.”