Robert Booth and Hilary OsborneWed, 10 February 2021, 5:46 pm
Across the country, leaseholders awaited Robert Jenrick’s solution to the building safety crisis with hope. For those in buildings more than 18 metres tall with combustible cladding yet to be fixed, the news of £3.5bn in new grant funding was welcome. But for hundreds of thousands of others in unsellable homes in lower-rise blocks with the same cladding, there was disappointment at the offer of loans. And for people with other non-cladding fire safety problems, there was nothing.
Giles Grover bought a ninth-floor flat in the City Gate complex in central Manchester in 2012 for £147,000. Almost a decade on, he and his neighbours are facing a bill of more than £5m to make their homes safe, none of which will be covered by Wednesday’s new funds. Parts of the walls were clad in similar aluminium composite material (ACM) to that of Grenfell Tower, there were timber balconies, and internal steelwork had not been properly treated against fire. Other problems lurked behind the brickwork and render, where barriers against fire spread were missing.
It was a cocktail of problems that together would cost £11m to fix, but only part has been covered so far by the government’s funds to remove dangerous cladding, and Wednesday’s announcement offered no further help.
“We have applied to the ACM fund and we have been told £5.6m plus VAT would be covered as it stands,” he said. “It means an average bill of £20,000 each. We still have that £20,000 debt and we are not being offered loans [to fix the non-cladding problems]. This is not a full solution. It only deals with part of the problem. They have extended the money for cladding but we know that what started as a cladding scandal has become a building safety scandal.”
He said there had been no sales of flats in the building for almost two years as a result of the problems. “No one can get a mortgage and flats are valued at zero,” he said. “Now the insurers have told us the premium is going up and we don’t know by how much.”
The leaseholders have already spent around £150,000 on costs such as waking watch, alarms and minor internal works. The landlord of the building has said it doesn’t have responsibility, and the builder said 18 months ago that it would assess the situation independently, but nothing conclusive has yet come back.
Paul Afshar, 37, a technology company employee, lives with his partner in a one-bedroom flat in the low-rise Ducketts apartment building in Tower Hamlets, east London, which is wrapped in timber cladding now deemed unsafe.
The building is only four storeys, so it doesn’t meet the 18-metre threshold. He and other residents are expecting bills of more than £40,000 each to fix the problem. That is made worse by the fact that Afshar only owns 25% of the flat, having purchased it in 2008 as part of a government shared ownership scheme. The rest is owned by a registered social landlord. Nevertheless, he is expected to pay 100% of the remediation costs.
The government’s announcement that people in his position could take a long-term loan to pay for repairs was “no help whatsoever”, he said, warning that it may exacerbate his problems and mean long-term debt and “more sleepless nights”.
“Last week the prime minister said no leaseholder should have to pay for the removal of cladding, so this feels like a betrayal,” he said. “This long-term loan could haunt you as you go from property to property, and it is not clear it goes with you or stays with the property. We are talking about hundreds of thousands if not millions of people living in lower-rise flats who have the same problem today that they work up with yesterday.
“I have tried to sell the apartment twice in the last 12 months but both sales fell through. Mortgage lenders were unwilling to loan on buildings with cladding and without an external wall system survey.”
These EWS1 surveys have become a major difficulty as there has been a chronic shortage of surveyors, which means Afshar’s block has not yet been checked.
Zoe Bartley, 28, and her partner live in a six-storey block in Chelmsford, and first found out there were problems with the building when they decided to sell and asked their housing association for an EWS1 form. “We’ve had inspections going on for the past 12 months and they have told us that there is high-pressure laminate cladding on parts of the building, insulation that was incorrectly fitted and missing fire breaks,” she said.
The building is “technically under 18 metres”, she said: if you measure to its highest point it is taller, but it does not qualify for help through the building safety fund, so her only hope is the loan scheme.
They own 30% of a one-bedroom flat on the first floor, but the terms of their lease mean they are liable for 100% of the costs of work. “There’s a blank cheque sitting above our heads,” she said. The couple have a baby on the way, and her partner has two children, so they are keen for more space. “We need to see what the lenders do now and whether they are happy with the loans,” she said. “I hope that banks will be reasonable because the thought of living here for longer than we had planned is depressing.”
She feels frustrated that leaseholders in buildings like hers will still be meeting the cost of work. “£50 a month feels like a bit of a slap in the face to put right something that wasn’t our fault in the first place,” she says. “It’s affordable housing, so even £50 a month might make it unsellable.”
Scott Mason, 31, moved into his flat in Birmingham in the spring of 2017. He is a director of the residents’ management company, which discovered last year that major work was needed to make the block safe. As well as non-ACM cladding, there are combustible balconies, flammable insulation, missing cavity barriers behind brick facing, and problems with the internal compartmentation. It’s more than 18 metres tall, so the directors have applied for £11.5m from the building safety fund to fix the external problems, and they are waiting to see how much they will get. “The fund has been increased but still only covers cladding and excludes other defects, so I won’t be particularly celebrating,” Mason said. “We got bills before Christmas. Mine was £48,000. It will still be around £30,000 to cover non-cladding fire safety issues.”
Mason said that without help to sort out the other issues, “you can only afford to remediate specific problems and you’ve still only got a half-safe building. It still won’t get you an EWS1 form as the fire engineer demands the other works are completed, so the flat is still unsellable and unsafe.”
He said the rules around the fund were still unclear. “There is a grey area: it’s not clear whether buildings are legally obliged to raise the shortfall for non-cladding works as a condition to qualify for the money for the cladding.”