Nearly 4 years on from Grenfell, thousands of dangerous buildings still remain unimproved and unsafe. In the meantime, the financial and mental toll is getting worse for innocent leaseholders trapped in the middle of a crisis they didn’t create. Now, the Government has voted to remove amendments to a crucial bill that might have protected them. We spoke to Kathy, an NHS worker and flat owner, to get a first-hand account of the emotional cost of this scandal.
| A CHRONIC LACK OF ACTION
While it’s not known exactly how many homes are host to unsafe cladding in the UK at present, the Grenfell disaster has uncovered a deep well of fire safety issues across the country — all of which must now be rectified. Suddenly, as many as 11 million flat owners have found themself living in unsafe buildings, following decades of poor fire safety regulation at the hands of successive governments.
Despite not being at fault, they are now facing bills that run well into the tens of thousands of pounds to fix unsafe buildings, which have been passed onto them by freeholders and developers.
The Government has announced plans to replace dangerous cladding for a handful of those buildings. But with an estimated 70% of buildings with unsafe cladding also sharing other serious fire safety defects, flat owners in high-rise buildings will still have to pay to fix these with average bills of £25,000. For buildings under 18 metres, things are worse again. Only long-term loans are on offer, leaving them to ultimately pay all costs. This will saddle these flats with debts for decades, rendering them impossible to sell and potentially bankrupting owners.
Many homes are so dangerous that they require 24/7 fire patrols known as ‘waking watch’. These can run residents up to £15,000 a week, hidden deep in security costs by developers, all while they watch their insurance premiums spike to untenable levels. Until their buildings are made safe, they cannot sell or remortgage. They are trapped.
| UNCOVERING THE EMOTIONAL COST
Kathy is an NHS worker who’s been caught up in the turmoil. She spent her life savings on shared ownership of a flat in East London for her and her family in 2017.
“I bought into this flat precisely because as an NHS worker I had no chance of choosing a property on the open market. To now have a potential bill hanging over me that is more than I ever paid as a deposit on this flat is just impossible. I don’t even fully own this property. That 100% of these extra costs could be my potential liability is so unjust.
We cannot rent, we cannot remortgage, we cannot sell. Our lives are literally on hold until developers and the government sort this appalling situation out.
I need to emphasise the extreme mental health implications living with this situation has had for me and my family. The pressure of living in a situation in which we have so little ability to influence and may be billed with unaffordable amounts is unbearable and has caused me to feel highly anxious with moments of absolute desperation and hopelessness.”
The property developer of her flat block is not on her side. When challenged with poor reviews on Trustpilot following their inaction, the company took action to declare them fraudulent and put pressure on residents. They’ve withheld findings from wall surveys from the residents association that reveal the extent of any additional fire safety problems in her building — key information that would help residents act.
Kathy doesn’t hold out much hope. Her family’s situation hasn’t changed after three years, even with new cladding in place on her building. She is still under the constant threat of further charges, still unable to sell or move on.
| MAKING THEM PAY ATTENTION
The reality is that stories like Kathy’s are being ignored by the Government. The last four years have proven as much, given the lack of any effective wide-scale action in replacing dangerous materials or finding fairer solutions. Instead they are making a show of progress by moving the goalposts and changing definitions to obfuscate and shift focus away.
On February 11th, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced another £3.5 billion in funding for fixing cladding in high rise buildings.
But this still leaves out the vast majority — the thousands of properties beneath 18 metres, with other problems besides cladding.
Then, just days ago, the House of Commons voted 340 to 225 to remove amendments made by peers to a Fire Safety Bill that would have prohibited building owners or freeholders from passing on any of those remediation costs to leaseholders and tenants. Following the defeat of the amendment, they’ve now suggested that new legislation will be brought again in Spring — though that has yet to materialise.
The renters and leaseholders trapped in this crisis through no fault of their own cannot afford to keep waiting. If momentum and public interest wanes, they know they will get left behind. We need to continue to act to keep the pressure on.
Sign the petition here to show your support, follow @ukcag for updates, or, even better, write to your MP today and demand they act to ensure that no unfair fire safety costs are passed on to leaseholders. Every voice has power — let’s make sure we’re using ours.