Residents of tower block wrapped in combustible cladding speak out
Residents of an apartment block wrapped in combustible cladding say they are facing possible bankruptcy, falling ill with stress and being plunged into debt after the building’s owner and its developer refused to pay £4m to make their homes safe.
They are among tens of thousands of people across England still living in private apartment buildings wrapped in material similar to the cladding that spread the Grenfell Tower fire 19 months ago. Latest government figures show that Grenfell-style cladding has been removed on only five of the 176 privately owned towers identified as needing work amid disputes between ministers, councils and owners over who should pay.
Leaseholders at the Northpoint building in Bromley, south-east London, are facing bills of £70,000 each in an “absolutely desperate” situation. They have already paid up to £8,000 each for emergency safety measures at the converted office block. One resident has been taken to hospital with hypertension caused by stress, while another said she could now only afford hot water once a week. Others are racking up debt and cancelling holiday plans. Two-bedroom flats once worth about £300,000 each are now thought to be unmortgageable.
The government has so far released £400m towards work on social housing, but nothing for privately owned buildings. It has admitted it does not know who will cover the cost of remediation in 96 private blocks – an unsettled bill likely to surpass £250m. It means there is no end in sight to the fire safety fears for thousands of residents: 85% of the 437 high-rise buildings identified as having combustible cladding since the Grenfell fire still have similar systems in place even though they have now been banned on tall apartment blocks.
“The shock is that for people living in a developed country, the choice could be so stark – bankruptcy or homelessness,” said Rituparna Saha, a top-floor resident and university administrator who has been walking the corridors to check for fires, including on Christmas Day. “The fact that over 18 months after Grenfell, no one is taking ownership – not the freeholder, not the developer and not the government – makes it seem to me that the fact that 72 people died doesn’t really matter. We are the football that keeps being tossed around.”
The freeholder of Northpoint is Citistead, a company owned by the family trust of the multi-millionaire property mogul Vincent Tchenguiz. It is refusing to pay, saying leaseholders are legally responsible for maintenance and repairs and because the works were certified as compliant with building regulations that were “clearly not fit for purpose”.
Tchenguiz, whose trust owns other blocks in a similar situation, told the Financial Times last week that removal of the cladding should be paid for either by the government or residents, because the rents paid to freeholders did not cover the cost.
Taylor Wimpey, the developer that sold the freehold in 2007, does not want to pay either. It told the Guardian it did not own or bear any legal responsibility for the building.
“People are going into arrears on the service charge,” said Graham Snewin, 67, a retired chartered surveyor who is a director of the leaseholders’ management company. “People are incredibly stressed. You go to bed with it and you wake up with it. One of our directors ended up in hospital with hypertension because of the stress.”
He said one leaseholder offered a job in another part of the country had been unable to move.
“It’s awful,” said Hayley Kennedy, 35, who is losing her sight but has put on hold plans to travel the world because of the financial strain. “I can’t afford to put my heating on. I put my hot water on once a week. By the end of the month I have no money. I am in my mid-30s and I have a property that is worthless that I spent my 20s saving for.”
The case comes amid confusion over government policy on making private tower blocks safe. The Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, Bob Neill, accused ministers of offering “false hope” with promises of help that had not been thought through. In November, the housing, communities and local government secretary, James Brokenshire, who is MP for nearby Old Bexley and Sidcup, said councils had government backing “including financial support if necessary” to strip combustible panels from private buildings and recover the costs from owners. But with no further details on how they would get it back, no councils have dared risk spending taxpayers’ money.
Last week a junior housing minister, Lord Bourne, wrongly told parliament that councils were legally responsible for stripping dangerous cladding from private tower blocks. He was forced into a correction by Lord Porter, chair of the Local Government Association, who said the law simply “does not allow them to go in and take cladding off of other people’s buildings”.
The London borough of Bromley, said it was raising the issue with the government. “If the government wants to protect owners it will have to come out of central government money,” said Neill. “[The Northpoint residents] are clearly under real stress. It is bad enough they are financially crippled, but they are now living in homes that are dangerous.”
Brokenshire said: “A number of developers and building owners have done the right thing and protected leaseholders from additional costs, and I expect others to follow their lead. My message is clear – private building owners must pay for this work now or they should expect to pay more later.”
Continuing ambiguity will not help the Northpoint leaseholders, who need £200,000 to pay for the most urgent fire safety works by April and fear that otherwise the building could be condemned by the fire authorities.
Graham Snewin, Rituparna Saha, Hayley Kennedy and Luke Austin outside their tower block in Bromley