The cladding bomb: Why millions of UK homes have become unsellable

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 12: The covered structure of Grenfell Tower is seen above a nearby housing estate on May 12, 2021 in London, England. The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has announced that it is considering demolishing the building, but that it will be at least a year before any decision on the future of the tower is implemented. 72 people lost their lives in a blaze at the tower block in west London in June 2017. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
It is four years this month that 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

It is four years this month that 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Since then, the spotlight has been on the cladding and fire defences used in other high rise flats around the country. January 2020 saw mortgage lenders require a EWS1 survey on high rise buildings. This form assures everyone involved (buyers, sellers, lenders, insurers and valuers) that external walls, cladding and fire precautions have been assessed as safe by an expert, in line with government guidance.

It is difficult to put an exact number on the people this affects, but the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group points to a survey and figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to estimate that around 3 million are now living in homes that require an EWS1 survey. Unless they pay significant sums to make their buildings safe, they are stuck in unmortgageable properties and potentially unable to move on with their lives.

One of those who’s seen her life turned upside down is Steph Pike, a solicitor who bought a flat in Bristol in 2017 for £193,000. Even though her home had been converted and signed off by building regulators post-Grenfell, it emerged in November 2020 that it wasn’t compliant with fire safety guidelines, and had combustible cladding and insulation, missing cavity barriers and timber balconies.

A waking watch – a patrol of the floors and outside of a building to protect those inside from fire – was implemented with immediate effect, at a cost of £165 a month per flat.

“When we received the letters relating to the waking watch and then the estimated remediation costs I completely broke down,” said Steph. “Up until that point I thought there was a tiny bit of cladding that needed to be removed which was going to cost around £4,000 in total for the whole building.”

Steph Pike says her life has been turned upside down by stress over cladding. Photo: Steph Pike
Steph Pike says her life has been turned upside down by stress over cladding. Photo: Steph Pike

In February 2021, things got worse and Steph received an email with a new remuneration figure for the entire block. “I scanned straight through the pages to find the number and saw £7.6m. I went into shock and couldn't breathe. I was honestly expecting it to be around £1-2m, if that. I was beside myself, I couldn't speak. I eventually managed to drag myself for a run to try and calm down. I could barely work the next day, and spent most of my time walking around outside, in a sort of daze, not really believing what was happening.”

Steph’s share for the work is £70,000, a sum she can’t afford. “I would have to consider bankruptcy but I can't even do that! If I go bankrupt, not only will I lose my home, I'll also lose my career because you are unable to practise as a solicitor if you are bankrupt. I feel so stuck.”

How much is it all going to cost?

The cost of making flats like Steph’s safe is still up for debate. The government has estimated that the average bill will be £9,000 but the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group says: “We're starting to see bills of £100,000, £120,000 land.”

Figures by ARMA and IRPM in a recent Sunday Times article put the average for leaseholders living in a flat over 18m at £40,000, and under 18m at £27,412.

These are impossible sums for most people and Steph believes that there should be some mental health support put in place to get those affected through it all. “[I’m] devastated. It's taken over my life. I can't sleep properly. I can't think about anything else. I feel sick and anxious all the time, wondering when we will receive the bill and how on earth will I afford it,” she said. “I understand that people have already committed suicide over this. It can't go on.”

What government support is available?

In February 2021, the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that a £5.1bn Building Safety Fund would be put aside by the government for the homes affected. This will be used to replace Grenfell-type aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, thought to be present in 469 buildings, or other flammable cladding in blocks taller than 18 metres with a 30cm margin of error.

However, this is only a fraction of what is needed. For buildings under 18m (about six storeys) leaseholders are liable for the entire bill. For them, the government has announced a state loan to help with the cost of rectifying cladding but no one knows when this will become available, and it is set to be low-interest rather than interest-free, meaning they will have to pay even more in repayments in the long run. Having a huge loan attached to a property will inevitably knock down its market value, or even make it unsellable until it is paid off.

Read more: Four years on from Grenfell, homeowners caught up in the building safety crisis face financial ruin

Steph’s block is 19m, so some of the cost at least should be covered by the Building Safety Fund but, so far, no money has materialised. “The building should be eligible as the height is 19m but the application was initially rejected on the grounds of height. We've been waiting months for the appeal result and understand the freeholder has been chasing but they have not received any update from the BSF,” said Steph. “There is no urgency from the government to release any funds at all.”

To make matters worse, the government fund and loan are only to be used to replace cladding and do not cover other fire risks, such as cavity barriers and wooden balconies, required to be replaced by the EWS1 survey. That means even if leaseholders like Steph are successful in applying for the Building Safety Fund to replace cladding, they may still face enormous bills to fix other fire defects.

Steph feels this is all unfair, believing there are “many parties at fault here”, including cladding manufacturers, developers and inspectors. “I think who ultimately pays will depend on each individual building but the only party that categorically should not being paying a penny towards this is the leaseholders.”

With the number of homes affected still up for debate, not to mention how much the bill will be and who will ultimately pay, it seems that the cladding crisis is set to rumble on, causing little respite from the stress it’s causing the millions of leaseholders involved.

Watch: London landmarks lit green to mark tragedy of Grenfell Tower fire four years on