In 2015, after eight years of saving, my partner and I were finally able to buy our own home. Two happy years later, I found out that my home was wrapped in dangerous cladding, similar to that found on Grenfell Tower. Overnight, there were two people at our small reception – the waking watch – who started walking around our building 24/7 looking for signs of fire. And that was when our nightmare began.
We found out that our home was inherently unsafe, had been built with all kinds of dangerous materials like aluminium composite material and high-pressure laminate cladding, and also had compartmentation issues, which cause fire to spread rapidly between floors and flats due to lack of fire breaks.
Over the course of 2018, I realised how few rights I had as a leaseholder in a dangerous home. Unlike any consumer durable, which can be returned for a refund or replacement if found to be faulty, there is no such recourse when buying what, for most people, is the most significant purchase of their lives: their home. I was facing a personal bill of around £70,000 for fixing cladding, on top of shared bills for fire wardens and temporary alarms that have cost 57 leaseholders £550,000 and counting.
In early 2019, along with two other leaseholders in Sheffield and London, I set up the UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG)
. We felt frustrated at the lack of any legal remedies available to us, were disheartened at the lack of support from the government, and were hit with the horrible realisation that leaseholders are legally and financially responsible for fixing catastrophic building safety defects not of our making, on buildings we do not own. We knew we were not alone, and our aim was to bring together leaseholders in residential blocks facing issues with cladding and other fire safety defects.
In most cases, there was no recourse to the entities that had built these defective buildings: the developers. Most developers have either sold on the freehold, or liquidated and set up new companies, or simply gone bust. The statute of limitations meant that even if the developer did exist, there was no way to now hold them to account for their failures, even though many of us only found out about the failures after the statute of limitations had passed. Building warranties also last only for 10 years and this option is therefore not available to many of us.
There are possibly thousands of buildings in the UK in this situation. UKCAG has been contacted by leaseholders in distress in over 270 blocks. There have rightly been changes in building fire safety regulations following the Grenfell tragedy. But while new regulations normally apply from the date they come into force, in this instance, the changes have meant that many buildings built across decades in this country that were once considered safe, are now no longer so.
The fallout of all this is that leaseholders are now facing huge bills in the tens and hundreds of thousands, for interim fire safety measures, internal fire safety defects and cladding remediation.
We want the government to understand that decades of faulty or ambiguous building regulations have caused thousands of blocks to be built with significant fire safety defects. Developers have been free to interpret regulations to use the most unsafe materials possible and build to the lowest possible standards, and local authorities and building control inspectors cannot now be held legally accountable for signing off unsafe buildings.
No legal recourse is available for most leaseholders stuck in these unsafe buildings. Where legal action is possible, it is extremely costly, adding to financial pressures on already cash-strapped residents.
On top of this, the constant retrospective changes have now caused the mortgage and insurance industries to take an extremely risk-averse approach to residential blocks. Leaseholders are seeing building insurance premiums rise 10 times to sometimes as much as £350,000 per annum.
Banks are refusing to lend even on blocks less than 18 metres tall without External Wall Survey forms (EWS1
) to prove buildings are safe, even though the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says these forms are not required for blocks under 18 metres.1See ‘New industry-wide process agreed for valuation of high-rise buildings,’ Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is supported by the MHCLG.
These surveys are extremely cost-intensive and there are far too few surveyors compared with the number of buildings to be surveyed. Surveyors are often unable to obtain suitable professional indemnity insurance to sign off buildings as safe.2Jack Simpson, ‘Government’s £1bn Building Safety Fund to be launched in May’ (Inside Housing, 2 April 2020). See also this letter to Robert Jenrick MP of 17 March 2020.
The result is a complete stagnation in the housing market for flats in medium- and high-rise blocks. Leaseholders are left trapped in limbo for years, as freeholders in blocks under 18 metres high say that EWS1 forms are not legally required, while mortgage providers refuse to lend without them. Many leaseholders have been told to expect waits for between two and five years to find out if their buildings are safe.
The only solution that can be implemented quickly is a political one. We are calling on the government to recognise that people’s safety must come first. We want the government to release funding to remedy all residential buildings with fire safety defects and include in this the costs directly related to these safety failings, such as interim fire safety measures. If the government subsequently finds that developers, building control or other parties are responsible for these defects, it should recover the costs from them. However, waiting to do this risks lives and the priority must be to make buildings safe.
Nearly three years on from the Grenfell tragedy, we cannot afford further delays. Fire will not wait for laws to be changed or until those responsible for this debacle finally take ownership. And neither should the government.