Cladding crisis: Residents fearing bankruptcy and fire 'bitterly betrayed' by government

10 February 2021, 16:26 | Updated: 10 February 2021, 20:45

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Residents living in fear of bankruptcy and fire say they feel "bitterly betrayed" by the government after £3.5 billion was put towards ending England's cladding crisis.

The support measures announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick in the Commons on Wednesday were described as "disappointing" by campaigners.

Labour has previously claimed up to 11 million people face extortionate costs and unsellable properties due to the cladding scandal.

Many residents have spoken of feeling "trapped" in "worthless" homes that are yet to have important structural issues resolved in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 that left 72 people dead.

Natasha Letchford, a campaigner for the End Our Cladding Scandal group, said the funding does not go far enough in fixing all problems

She highlighted estimates that put the total bill as high as £15 billion.

Read more: Leaseholders in high-rise flats to face 'no extra costs' to remove cladding

Read more: MPs and mayors criticise Jenrick's £3.5 billion cladding crisis funding

"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 are 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."

The campaigner 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 people 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.

Read more: 'We've had a quote of £160,000 just to get an EWS1 form'

Watch: Tory MP blasts 'incompetent' Housing Secretary over cladding crisis

Buying her sixth-floor flat through a shared ownership scheme, Ms Letchford owns 35 per cent of the property but her lease terms means she could be facing 100 per cent of the 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 of 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 facing a bill of twenty, thirty or £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."

Read more: Pensioner must find £7,000 for fire wardens for next six months

Explained: What is the government's new £3.5 billion scheme?

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.

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.

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."