Residents living in fear of bankruptcy and fire ‘disappointed’ with new funding

Tom Pilgrim, PA

Residents of buildings facing “huge” costs to fix cladding and safety issues and living in fear of bankruptcy and fire outbreaks have described new Government support measures as “disappointing”.

Labour has previously claimed up to 11 million people are at risk from life-changing costs and unsellable properties amid the UK’s cladding crisis.

On Wednesday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a further £3.5 billion to help end the “cladding scandal”.

Residents have said they feel “trapped” and that homes are “worthless” as structural issues on buildings across the country remain unresolved in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

Natasha Letchford, a campaigner for the End Our Cladding Scandal group, said the funding was “disappointing” and would not go far enough to fix all issues, highlighting estimates putting the total bill as high as £15 billion.

Natasha and Jake
Natasha and Jake (Handout/PA)

“We welcome more money, but the reality is it won’t make buildings safe and it won’t, we don’t think, free up the housing market,” she said.

“As long as there is outstanding bills on these properties they will be worthless and people simply won’t want to buy them. I think essentially it won’t go far enough.”

She argued that the Government should “upfront fund” remediation of all issues on buildings of any height and then seek to claim costs from builders and developers.

She said loan-scheme plans to ensure leaseholders in lower and medium-rise blocks of flats will never pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of unsafe cladding would still be a “significant outgoing” for those on low incomes.

Ms Letchford, 29, who lives at Empire View in Southampton, said her nine-storey building’s High Pressure Laminate (HPL) cladding needs to be removed, while its flammable Kingspan K15 insulation is the same as that used on Grenfell.

Buying her sixth-floor flat through a shared ownership scheme, Ms Letchford owns 35% but her lease terms means she could be facing 100% of remediation costs.

Her housing association has successfully applied to the Government’s £1 billion building safety fund, but it is not clear what work will be covered.

Ms Letchford said: “My fear is huge bills. Obviously some if it will be covered, but if they say for example, we’re covering the cladding but we’re not covering the fire breaks and we’re not covering the internal compartmentation, we could still be face a bill of £20-, £30-, £40,000.

“My worst fear is that I can’t pay the costs and then I could be made bankrupt, which means that I would lose my house, but I’d also lose my job because as a qualified solicitor you can’t be bankrupt. That is my absolute worst nightmare.”

Ms Letchford said she went to bed every night “not knowing how quickly the building would go up if there was a fire” and had been struggling with panic attacks and anxiety.

“It really isn’t just the financial aspect, it is being trapped in somewhere that you feel unsafe,” she said, adding: “People just don’t know how they are going to pay the bills, don’t know what they are going to do with their lives.”

Rebecca Ashwin, 40, who lives with her 26-year-old partner, Jack Sandrey at Victoria Wharf, Cardiff, have seen their seven-building complex’s insurance increase “10-fold” to more than £600,000 after their block “failed” external wall testing, achieving a B2 rating.

They feel their life is “on pause” and are unable to consider moving to reduce their commutes.

The pair worked five jobs to buy their eighth floor home in March 2019 but have already faced costs of £3,000 when including insurance, a waking watch and new fire alarms.

Ms Ashwin, a public sector worker, explained that unless buildings secure an EWS1 form, or External Wall Fire Review form, people are unable to buy or sell homes.

She claimed that her block, which is over 18 metres, was missing fire break and had polystyrene cladding, with an estimate for remediation placed at £60,000 per flat. Such work could take seven years to complete, she said.

Ms Ashwin said homeowners in Wales were “slipping through the cracks”, with the Welsh Government “extremely slow to react” to the issue.

She has had to inform her work she faces bankruptcy due to her vetting levels, adding: “At Christmas we were telling people, ‘don’t buy us anything good because we might have bailiffs coming knocking’.

“Our pillow talk is kind of how would we get out if there was a fire, can we tie our sheets together and get down to the next balcony?” Ms Ashwin said, adding that she had turned to counselling.

“With the lockdown we’re both working from home so we’re constantly in our dangerous flat, which is the source of all this anxiety.”

She described Wednesday’s announcement as another of the Government’s “sticking plasters” and a “halfway measure”, arguing support should be for all leaseholders wherever they live and that developers should be “held to account”.

“Everybody’s in the same situation facing danger, facing bankruptcy and costs and the height of the building shouldn’t affect that,” she said.

She added the latest measures were a “huge betrayal of those in flats under 18 metres”, adding that people had been “failed and abandoned by everybody who should be in place to protect us”.

Mother-of-two Helen Rowe, 38, lives at The Decks in Runcorn, Cheshire, which she said has HPL cladding, a timber frame and “other fire safety defects”.

Leaseholders have paid around £1,500 each for an enhanced fire alarm system, while their six-building development’s insurance has risen from £33,000 in 2019 to £504,000 this coming year.

Their service charge is also now over double monthly mortgage payments, Ms Rowe said, who works in telecommunications.

Her building management company had previously applied to the building safety fund, but this was only accepted for three buildings, with Ms Rowe’s block just under the 18 metres height threshold for that support.

She said of her fourth-floor home: “We can’t rent it out. We can’t sell it. It’s worth zero. We’re utterly trapped. We’re being drained financially.”

Ms Rowe added: “It’s the biggest effect of our lives, it’s inescapable and it’s consuming. There’s nothing else… everything is secondary to this huge problem and we’ve been living with this for too long.”

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