Dan­ger­ous hous­ing

Res­i­dents of tower block wrapped in com­bustible cladding speak out

The Guardian - - NEWS - Robert Booth So­cial af­fairs cor­re­spon­dent

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARTIN GOD­WIN/GUARDIAN

Gra­ham Snewin, Ri­tu­parna Saha, Hay­ley Kennedy and Luke Austin out­side their tower block in Brom­ley

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