Political Editor Catherine Levin reports from last month’s cladding protests where she spoke to victims of the cladding crisis about their experience
On a recent hot summer’s day, campaigners fighting for justice for leaseholders trapped by the cladding crisis gathered at the offices of housing developers across the country. They were drawing attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of homeowners facing huge bills to pay for remediating fire safety defects they did not cause.
“Developers can afford to chip into a fund that helps us”
Martin joined the protest outside a new development in Chipping Barnett in North London. This one is being built by Countryside Properties. He has lived in his flat in the Arnos Grove area of North London for six years. His building is just under 18-metres high and has many fire safety and cladding issues. He has been told that for the 33 flats in his development, the likely total costs of remediation will be in the region of £5 million.
The developer of his building has gone bankrupt and is out of business. He explained: “It’s been left with the managing agent to look into things and the owner seems to have disappeared.” As a result of this situation, he cannot sell his property. “Who’s going to give you a mortgage on a property when so much is unknown?”
Asked what he thought the was the solution to this problem, Martin replied: “It’s difficult to say what’s the right resolution and whether it is forced on to the freeholders because they own the property. Why should we pay for something that we only lease?”
Campaigners tried but failed to get an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill that went through parliament earlier this year. That amendment would have seen leaseholders left with no obligation to pay for remediation of fire safety defects in their buildings.
The Building Safety Bill is the next potential vehicle to protect leaseholders. Prior to its introduction into parliament on July 5, the campaigners in North London had views on what could be done.
Martin said that the Bill was one mechanism but whether it is the right one is another matter. He has spoken to his MP, ex-Cabinet Minister Theresa Villiers, and she says it is the wrong vehicle for change. He added: “The trouble is, if something isn’t put in place in that Bill, the default position is the leaseholders will pay the costs.”
The government has recently finished consulting on the introduction of a Residential Property Developer Tax (RPDT) from 2022. HM Treasury sought views on the design of the tax that would apply to developers’ profits over £25 million from UK residential development
In addition to the proposal for the RPDT, the government also intends to introduce a levy to be applied when developers seek permission to develop higher risk residential buildings in England. The developer levy will be legislated through the Building Safety Bill and will be consulted on by the Ministry of Housing later.
Martin considered whether the developer levy was an alternative way of paying for the costs of remediation. He responded: “It’s difficult if your developer no longer exists, but where they do, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if the levy created a fund. Developers can afford to chip into a fund that helps us.”
While the cladding scandal is mired in discussions about remediation and costs, there are a range of concerns about safety. Martin is pragmatic about the fire risk in his flat. “I don’t have any problems with feeling safe in my flat. It’s got internal smoke detectors so if something was to develop, even if it took over quickly, there’s still plenty of time to get out of the building. I don’t see it as being a problem.”
Many buildings with fire safety defects are now seeing the addition of waking watches. The purpose of the waking watch is to have fire safety wardens patrolling properties to look for signs of fire and to alert residents where that risk is realised. It is a controversial policy and expensive too.
Martin’s building does not have a waking watch although he said that they had been quoted a figure of £300,000 per year for one. That is for two people, 24-hours-a-day patrolling a building where there are 33 flats.
“The London Fire Brigade has asked us to put in a linked fire alarm or a waking watch, so we’re putting in a fire alarm system. That’s costing us £1,000 per flat.” He was unaware if the managing agent for his building was applying to the Waking Watch Relief Fund to reimburse the cost of the alarm system. The government provided £30 million to do just this and re-opened the fund for new applications at the end of May but it has now closed.
“The government should put the money up front”
Nick and Simona’s Story
Colindale is in a different part of North London from where Martin lives and has seen a huge expansion in the number of high-rise flats. It is attractive and more affordable to young people with its great transport links into central London.
Nick and Simona bought a leasehold flat in a block that is seven years old; it has missing fire breaks, missing cavity barriers and incorrectly installed insulation. Nick only found out about the fire safety problems when his neighbours tried to sell their flat and were told by the lender that they needed an EWS1 form. The resulting intrusive survey highlighted the fire safety defects in the building.
EWS1 forms are used for mortgage valuation purposes for flats and determine if a property needs cladding remediation work. They were introduced in 2019 following government guidance to address the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire. Recently a group of lenders announced that they would underwrite the costs of making EWS1 forms publicly available in a bid to increase access to safety information about high-rise buildings.
Within days of that announcement, the government said it would scrap the requirement for an EWS1 form for buildings under 18 metres based on advice from a panel of experts including Sir Ken Knight, Dame Judith Hackitt, Roy Wilsher and ex-LFB Fire Commissioner, Ron Dobson.
Since then, there has been considerable controversy about whether RICS, the professional body for surveyors, and the banks who are lending the money are in alignment with the government on this matter.
Nick and Simona are waiting for Countryside to confirm if they will pay for the remediation of fire safety problems in their building. He knows that his housing association is applying to the Building Safety Fund to pay for the costs of remediation but was pessimistic about both avenues of funding and that he will end up paying the remediation bills. In the meantime, his block is employing a waking watch that costs each flat £1,000 per month and for now his housing association is not passing on the cost to leaseholders.
He was clear what the solution should be. “The government should put the money up front and claim the money back from the developers as they didn’t build them properly in the first place.” He thinks the only way this could work is through legislation. He did not think that the Building Safety Bill was the vehicle for this and that the revenue from the Developer Levy will not be enough.
When the buck stops with the leaseholders, Nick made the point that for remediation to take place, everyone in an affected block must be able to afford it. “Most of our block are first generation Eastern European migrants and none of them can afford £30-40,000 – we can’t afford it either.”
He added: “We were sold fraudulent properties. We want to sell. We can’t borrow. We can’t rent it out.” They are stuck, living in a flat where they have a grab bag by the front door just in case the worst happens.
“We had a discussion recently about whether to buy a rope ladder to hang off the balcony.” They are on the seventh floor. That conversation was prompted by the New Providence Wharf fire in East London in May where a fire started on the 8th floor of a high-rise block and quickly spread to other nearby flats.
“We wanted to start a family as well, but do we want to evacuate a baby as well as two pets and ourselves?” They are putting their plans for having children on hold because there is too much uncertainty.
“We just feel stuck. We feel betrayed”
Alex is a vocal member of the End our Cladding Scandal campaign group. She was motivating the campaigners at the protest outside the Countryside development in North London. She said she joined the campaign because she’d had enough and wanted to use her background in communications to help. “It’s a full-time job on top of a full-time job while trying to have a life.”
She shared why she was getting involved. She lives in a block built by developer Countryside. Her block is under 11 metres and it is these buildings that are getting the least attention by the government as they continue to stick to the line that they should focus on high-rise buildings over 18 metres as that is where the risk is greatest.
That is no consolation for Alex. She’s been married for nearly three years and, like Nick and Simona, she wants to start a family. She describes her situation as a ‘dead end’. “We just feel stuck. We feel betrayed. We feel hurt. How can this be happening?”
Alex’s building is 8.5 metres high and attached to a building that is over 18 metres. She said that the cladding was removed from the adjacent block in 2017 but not her block, even though it has identical cladding. “We have ACM cladding on our building and Countryside are refusing to take it off. Their argument is that it passed regulations at the time it was built.”
The problem doesn’t stop with cladding. Alex explained that there are missing cavity barriers and the insulation “is filled with rubbish, basically.” The newest problem for her building is the balconies, which are made of wood, “and would go up like matchsticks if there was a fire.” Alex has been told that the remediation work on the balconies alone will be in the region of £1,200 per flat.
Thinking about the long-term strategy for the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, Alex explained that they want to widen their scope beyond the Housing Ministry and talk to other government departments. “The Treasury are refusing to talk to us or to meet us. We are targeting the Chancellor directly.”
The government steadfastly sticks to the line that they are putting £5 billion into dealing with the building safety crisis. Alex is frustrated at this: “Why is the line of response always ‘we’ve put £5 billion into this’ when we’re telling you that this isn’t enough. They don’t have the data; they have no idea how many buildings are affected.” The Housing Select Committee estimates the real costs of remediation are closer to £15 billion.
Weeks after the protest, Alex tweeted that remediation work had commenced on her building leading to the removal of ACM cladding and addressing other fire safety defects. She said that Countryside is not paying for it. The housing association is funding the work with no contribution from the government.
She concluded her Twitter thread with this: ‘We do not underestimate, nor take for granted how lucky we are. We hope others will follow suit and do the right thing. It’s as simple as this: no leaseholder in a building of any height should be paying a single penny. Keep fighting’.
“It’s been a nightmare… I’m essentially trapped”
Jitka lives on the first floor of an eight-storey block also in Colindale; it is a housing association development built in 2012/13 and mostly filled with leaseholders like her. She found out in September last year that her building had fire safety defects and that the freeholder was putting a waking watch in place. The housing association is paying the cost of the waking watch and she described what that has been like.
“It’s been a nightmare. It’s been more hassle than any use. The first company we had were fired after a couple of months because people were found sleeping on the job. They were also found pre-filling their checklist for the rest of the day. The second company were removed after one of their employees was found urinating in the communal bin area. We have just filed a complaint about the third company after we found some of their young guys sitting in their cars smoking weed.”
Jitka explained that waking watch wardens are on zero hours contracts. “To be honest with you, nobody wants to do it, so people leave after one shift. They work 12-hour shifts, it’s very difficult to do that.”
Like Martin, Nick, Simona and Alex, Jitka cannot sell her flat. “I cannot remortgage, I cannot sell: I am essentially trapped.” Jitka says the developers should take responsibility for paying for the problems she and her fellow leaseholders face.
There is some good news as after nine months of negotiation between the housing association and Countryside, they have now agreed to fix the cavity wall issues and the missing fire breaks. Although this is limited in its impact as it does not cover all the fire safety defects and the leaseholders will not be able to get an EWS1 form to enable them to sell their properties. It is a partial fix.
These protestors in North London shared their experiences to help spread the message about the extent of a problem that before 2017 was not even known to exist. The consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire continue to resonate far and wide. While the barrage of consultations and accelerating activity related to the Building Safety Bill may look like there is a lot going on, at its core it is not addressing the problem.
Leaseholders did not build these flats, they bought in good faith and now they are stuck. But they are not quiet, they continue to fight to be heard and to get the right solution. Let us hope the government gets better at listening, because this campaign is not going away any time soon.