Residents of towerblocks covered in flammable cladding still fear being made either homeless or bankrupt after being “abandoned by the government” despite minsters pledging £200 million to remove Grenfell Tower-style dangerous material.
Campaigner Ritu Saha has told HuffPost UK that her south London high-rise is one of potentially scores will be excluded from the fund after the Tory U-turn, meaning months of anxiety, illness and financial pain will continue as their homes remain unsellable.
The government has committed money to remove aluminium composite material – or ACM – cladding from around 170 private high-rise buildings across England after losing a stand-off with some freeholders and developers, who were refusing to remove the covering.
ACM is similar to the material blamed for the rapid spread of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which ripped through the building and claimed 72 lives.
Saha, a leaseholder at the Northpoint towerblock in Bromley, fears that the cladding will remain at her building because it is covered in a mix of three types of material and not entirely ACM.
As a result, tenants could still have to pay for costly safety measures – including a 24-hour fire patrol or ‘waking watch’ – that have seen annual service charges spiral from £2,000 to £7,000 as the fire service will continue to deem the building unsafe, Saha said.
The estimated cost of stripping Northpoint of all cladding is between £2.5m and £3m, and even if the ACM element is removed the hefty bill is unaffordable to residents, Saha says. In total, remediation costs are set to reach £70,000 per flat. If they don’t pay, they risk being kicked out for breaching their tenancy.
Saha, a member of the UK Cladding Action group, a coalition of towerblock residents formed during the stalemate, said the announcement was positive for towerblocks only covered in ACM – but for others they were losers of a “cladding lottery”.
She told HuffPost UK: “Fire will not distinguish between cladding if a building catches alight: they will all burn equally quickly and cause the same level of destruction. A fire is not making that distinction, but the minister seems to be.
“It’s a cladding lottery: if your building has another cladding or internal defects, none of that is going to get fixed.”
“This is just scratching the surface and the government has taken a myopic view of a problem they have long known exists.”
Saha also says the fund is insufficient. It breaks down to roughly £1m per building after VAT. Northpoint, a block of 57 flats that was formerly offices, is “small” and its remediation cost of least £2.5m is dwarfed by the £10m cost for one west London block.
“The funds are nowhere near close enough,” she said. “This is just scratching the surface and the government has taken a myopic view of a problem they have long known exists.”
Beyond issues with cladding, Grenfell prompted increased fire safety checks, and other defects have been discovered within the building. The include inadequate fire breaks between floors and unsuitable fire doors – as has been highlighted by HuffPost UK investigations.
Saha said: “There’s a lot of frustration, and the anxiety remains that we will be made homeless because we can’t afford the bills anymore and will be in breach of the terms of our lease.
“This announcement should be a cause of hope, but is actually looking quite hopeless for us. There’s a sense of abandonment by the government and that continues. We are faced every day with bankruptcy or homelessness every day we are living there.”
The Northpoint building was converted into apartments in 1999 by builder Alfred McAlpine. McAlpine’s housing arm was bought by Taylor Wimpey in 2001, and Taylor Wimpey sold the freehold on Northpoint to Citistead in 2007. Citistead is owned by the family trust of the multimillionaire property mogul Vincent Tchenguiz. It has refused to pay for the remediation work.
Against questions over why a taxpayer bail-out is needed, Saha argues the burden of responsibility falls on the government because of a failure of regulation that allowed dangerous cladding to be fitted in the first place.
She says the money pales compared to the almost £100m penalty for the delay to the Crossrail project in London and the botched no-deal Brexit ferry. “If the cost of no-deal Brexit ferries is being footed by the taxpayer, I fail to see why there is any issue when there has been a failure of government regulation.”
The ‘waking watch’ has been particularly taxing. The weekly cost was £6,500, but this has been reduced thanks to residents going on patrol themselves.
“One of my neighbours fell ill with exhaustion and stress after working 12 hour overnight waking watch shifts after working full-time in the morning,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Another neighbour is retired, and works from midnight to 7am, three days a week, on the waking watch.
“Another neighbour, who is in the middle of starting his own business has put his life on hold for over one-year to manage the waking watch, and he currently does at least 48 hours a week on the waking watch himself.”
Saha thinks the emotional and financial toll will continue: “I don’t see how we will have a resolution for Northpoint any time soon. After all the anxiety leaseholders have been put through, this announcement doesn’t begin to cover it.”
The government announcement is a row-back on plans previously announced by the government to compel building owners to foot the bill through financial penalties and exclusion from government house-building schemes.
The funds will be released to building owners on the condition that they take “reasonable steps” to recover the costs from those responsible for the cladding’s presence, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has said.
Latest government figures show that 166 private buildings out of 176 identified with the cladding after the fire in June 2017 have yet to start removing the material.
Developers and building owners, including Pemberstone, Aberdeen Asset Management, Barratt Developments, Fraser Properties, Legal & General, Mace and Peabody, were highlighted as having fully borne the costs for their buildings.
The government has already committed to funding replacement of the cladding in the social sector. Currently 23 blocks are still covered in it.
Labour MP Steve Reed, who has led campaigning in Westminster for the removal of cladding, said: “The government has been forced to climb down on their refusal to help people living in fear of their lives. But after two years what they’ve come up with is too little.
“It’s not enough to replace all the flammable cladding, put in sprinklers, and replace inadequate fire doors. The government must build on this first step and act on their responsibility to keep people safe.
“There must be no more Grenfells.”