Four years since Grenfell: Londoners still stuck in unsafe homes reveal their fear, stress and the spiralling costs
Next week London marks a grim anniversary. Four years ago on June 14, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 and left many more injured, traumatised and homeless.
But for thousands more, like Natalie Carter, the day is more than a time for reflection and remembrance. The flat Natalie bought, full of optimism, back in 2015 is amongst thousands of homes left blighted by major fire safety flaws that have been exposed in the aftermath of Grenfell.
Natalie lives in Poplar and on May 4 she attended a meeting with representatives from housebuilder Ballymore for an update on the situation at her home in its New Providence Wharf building.
There was some good news — work on stripping the tower of flammable ACM cladding, the same material blamed for the rapidly spreading blaze at Grenfell, would finally start later that month and should be completed by the following summer, 2022. The bad news was that the work would cost £11.6 million.
The Government has chipped in £8 million and Ballymore, which made almost £100 million in profits in the year to March 2020, originally offered £500,000 but has now agreed to pay for all the rest of the work.
Two days later things got worse. Natalie, a programme manager for an insurance company, was in the middle of a work call when dozens of WhatsApp notifications started dropping on her phone.
“I had a look and they were saying that there was a fire in one of the… [other]… blocks,” she said. “I ended the call, grabbed my bag and my coat and left.”
In Block D, meanwhile, residents were struggling to evacuate themselves in terrifying conditions.
“The smoke detectors failed, some of the fire doors didn’t shut, and the ventilation shafts in the stairwells failed to open so the fire escapes filled with thick smoke,” said Natalie, 43.
“It is bad enough knowing we live in an unsafe building. But now we know that our emergency precautions don’t work either.”
The residents of New Providence Wharf have been living like this for four years. As well as the fear and stress, costs have spiralled.
The waking watch — security guards who must patrol the site day and night to watch out for fires — at the development costs £47,000pcm. As a result, Natalie now pays around £8,000 per year in service charge.
“It is a lovely place, but I just can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said. But until the work on the site has been completed, she does not have a choice.
Until the building is fixed, the two-bedroom flat she paid £650,000 for is unmortgageable and therefore is unsellable.
This is the kind of story that Sebastian O’Kelly, of Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, has heard many times since 2017.
He feels that the Government’s entire strategy has been knee-jerk and flawed — a series of incremental changes in policy and safety standards without a coherent strategy for how to fund them or even a prioritisation of those buildings most at risk.
Instead, since December 2019, there has been the EWS1 testing system which building owners need to get carried out to establish if a building meets safety standards. Without an EWS1, it is impossible to secure a mortgage on a property.
“A whole load of buildings have been dragged into the crisis which should not have been,” said O’Kelly. “There are many low-rise sites that are at very minimal fire risk — perhaps they have a tiny amount of ACM cladding. But all the professionals are so scared of liability that they are erring on the side of caution.
“Only one out of 10 sites pass the EWS1, they can fail for a whole host of reasons, not just cladding, and some don’t even have a date for one to be carried out.”
He believes the Government needs to survey all housing blocks and tackle those at greatest risk first, rather than work on a first come, first served basis.
As for who should pay, he blames the whole debacle squarely on the shoulders of those who built the blocks, and the regulators (government and councils) who approved them.
“What they are doing, though, is dumping the costs on the leaseholders who are the innocent parties,” he said.
Natalie fully agrees and thinks the Government should force developers into line by weaponizing the planning system. “They should not be granted planning permission on any new developments until they have fixed their existing buildings,” she said.
“Ballymore is still selling brand new flats down the road when they haven’t dealt with their existing problems yet.”
A spokesman for Ballymore said work at New Providence Wharf would complete next summer, and that the development’s fire protection systems had been checked in the wake of last month’s fire.
He said the firm was spending £20m - across its its portfolio - to help resolve fire safety defects. “Fire safety and cladding remediation works which are underway at the New Providence Wharf building are being undertaken at no cost to leaseholders,” he said, adding that service charges were “competitive” for the area.
The cladding crisis really hit home for Charlotte Daus when her nine-year-old daughter Deborah asked if she could store some of her soft toys in the car rather than her bedroom.
“She was worried about what would happen if there was a fire, she wanted to make sure they were safe,” explained Charlotte, 39, a trade union officer for the Royal College of Nursing.
“It is worrying for the children to have to think about fires and what would happen if we had to get out in the middle of the night, and as a parent you want your children to have as stress-free a life as possible.”
In 2013, Charlotte had bought a 50 per cent share in a two-bedroom flat in Colindale, north-west London, with Deborah’s father but was sadly widowed the year afterwards. Mother and daughter have lived at the flat, built as part of the redevelopment of the Grahame Park Estate, ever since.
Ironically the post-war estate was concrete-built — considered ugly by some, but reasonably fire safe — but many of its sparkling new buildings had cladding panels and timber balconies.
It was not until last year that an ESW1 examination was finally carried out on Charlotte’s development of six buildings. It failed on a series of points: timber balconies, combustible insulation and inadequate fire stops between the flats.
Notting Hill Genesis has at least footed the bill for the waking watch that has been patrolling ever since and the developer, Countryside, which made a £54 million profit in the year to September, has indicated it will deal with the fire stops.
However, three of the six blocks, including Charlotte’s, are too low to qualify for any government aid for the rest of the work.
This leaves her with crucial unanswered questions: when will the work be done and how much will it cost? “I have loved living here, it is a lovely community, but it has been massively soured for me,” she said.
“I try not to think about it too much, because if I start thinking about what I would do if I got a bill for £70,000 then I wouldn’t eat, or sleep, or be able to do anything.”
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We know many people are worried – that’s why we’re providing over £5 billion to fix dangerous cladding on the highest risk buildings and are ensuring no leaseholder in lower rise buildings pays more than £50 a month for these costs, through our finance scheme.
“We have been clear building owners should make their buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders - and we will ensure the industry pays its fair share towards the costs of removing unsafe cladding through a new levy and tax.
“The EWS1 process is not a government form or a legal requirement and updated guidance from RICS means nearly 500,000 leaseholders should no longer need a form to sell their homes. We continue to encourage a proportionate approach to risk.”
A timeline: key events since the Grenfell tragedy
June 14, 2017: A fridge catches fire in a flat in Grenfell Tower. Within a short time the entire block is ablaze, costing 72 lives. It emerges that the tower had been recently refurbished using aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding to smarten it up. It later transpires the building’s fire doors and breaks were inadequate and sections of insulation were flammable.
December 2017: More than 100 Grenfell survivors spend Christmas in temporary accommodation. Following months of investigation, it is confirmed that there are at least 284 tower blocks in the UK known to be covered in dangerous cladding.
January 2018: A mortgage lender refuses a loan for a flat in Southend citing fire safety concerns, while flat owners at Citiscape, a block in Croydon, are warned that they face a £2 million bill for removing potentially dangerous cladding from the building.
May 2018: The Government pledges £400 million to help remove cladding from council blocks; the first phase of the public inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy opens with evidence from firefighters.
December 2018: The number of buildings known to contain dangerous cladding has increased to around 1,600. There is an almost complete lack of clarity over who will pay to make them safe and no time frame for the work to be done.
May 2019: The Government offers £200 million to help remove cladding from private flats.
October 2019: A report into the tragedy strongly criticises failures by firefighters. By now it is estimated that around 600,000 people are stuck in unsellable flats.
December 2019: The Government introduces the EWS1 testing system and mortgage companies start routinely requesting an EWS1 before lending on a property. Owners of flats often only discover this when they attempt to sell up and the deal collapses when their buyer cannot get a mortgage.
January 2020: The second phase of the Grenfell Inquiry opens, with evidence that the combustibility of ACM was known well before it was installed at Grenfell Tower and the fire safety concerns of the tower’s residents were ignored.
February 2020: Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that the Government will offer loans to fund safety work in blocks lower than 18 metres, which do not qualify for state aid. The cost of repaying these loans will then be passed on to leaseholders via their service charges.
March 2020: The Government adds another £1 billion to its funding for removing dangerous cladding from private blocks.
February 2021: The Treasury outlines a plan to start taxing profits made by house builders to raise the funds needed to remove defective cladding. It also plans to introduce a levy on planning permission for towers to raise more cash.
May 2021: Relatives of the victims of Grenfell Tower call for the building to be covered with plants and trees as a living memorial to the victims.
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