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By Women in Westminster

The government’s drawn-out incremental steps to fix the building safety crisis is heightening leaseholder misery

The government’s drawn-out incremental steps to fix the building safety crisis is heightening leaseholder misery
5 min read

The two biggest purchases we make in life are usually our home and our car. Imagine purchasing a new car and when you take it for an MOT, the mechanic tells you that it’s missing airbags, the brakes are faulty and that the body crumples on impact.

Then imagine that the manufacturer tells you that they won’t fix the defects and that you must pay to fix all of these manufacturer defects in order to lawfully keep your car on the road.  

In the meantime, your car is deemed such a safety threat that a parking lot attendant must watch it 24 hours a day – at your expense.  And until you repair your car, your insurance premium will go up by 400 per cent - if you can find anyone to insure it.  

This is what it feels like to be a leaseholder of a flat with fire safety defects in England for the last four and a half years…only worse. The cost to fix building safety defects can reach hundreds of thousands of pounds, leaseholders are not entitled to decide which contractor fixes the building or have any oversight regarding the cost. Leaseholders do not actually own their flats (the freeholder does) and fixing the buildings most often requires it to be wrapped in a plastic sheath, blocking all sunlight and fresh air for months on end.

Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, campaigners have pleaded with the government to provide a solution to the crisis.  The crisis is the result of systemic failure – the government’s faulty regulations, the manufacturer’s miss-selling of flammable product, developers’ shoddy work and building inspectors’ approval of unsafe buildings.  However, no solution has been forthcoming, not even any endeavour to provide the foundation for one (i.e. an audit of the buildings to quantify the scale of this crisis).  

The support being offered is once again heavily restricted and woefully inadequate

Some help has come in increments – over the past 18 months of tireless campaigning, the government set up and gradually committed to fund £5.1bn of remediation costs.  Sadly, this funding is only available to a small segment of those impacted – those buildings over 18m and for cladding costs only.  Further, £5.1bn is a drop in the ocean, as estimates of the scales of the bills range from a low of £15 billion to a high of £40 billion. In the meantime, leaseholders have gone bankrupt, had their homes repossessed and suffered in their mental health.

On a personal note, we found out that our development had flammable cladding and other fire safety defects in early 2020. Deciding to have the conversation with our three girls about how quickly a fire could spread in our building and the directions to follow in the event of a fire was difficult, but the necessity was driven home when friends told harrowing stories of fleeing the fire that engulfed New Providence Wharf, just up the road from us. 

Understanding that they are living in an unsafe building has given our children a lot of anxiety. They have frequent nightmares of fires and our youngest is so afraid of a fire happening in the night that she has slept in our bedroom for the past two years. We keep a fire extinguisher and fire blankets to hand.

Financially, we also feel the pressure. Our building has been in the Building Safety Fund application process for 18 months because our freeholder will not agree to the Fund’s terms.  Our managing agent will not tell us if or when the cladding is going to be removed, what the cost to us will be, or the scope of any works. 

We’re mindful that people have received bills of over £200,000 per flat to make the buildings safe. How can you commit to even minimal spending knowing that your flat is worth a fraction of what you paid for it and that you may have a six figure bill to repair it?

The Housing Secretary, Michael Gove’s speech yesterday was eagerly anticipated.  However, what was announced is not a solution – it is yet another step.  It offers more funding, but only if developers voluntarily agree to do so.  The Chancellor has refused the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities any new funds.

The support being offered is once again heavily restricted and woefully inadequate. It is only available to buildings above 11m and for cladding costs only.  This means that leaseholders remain on the hook for costs of anywhere between £5.9 to £30.1 billion.  The announcement was also heavily laden with attractive promises – but we have heard many of these before. 

Although I welcome Mr Gove’s aims of making those responsible pay, we have had similar promises from four separate Secretaries of State in as many years. 

The time has more than come for this government to get a full grip on this crisis and to offer a comprehensive solution.  A real solution to this current scandal entails two components: full funding for all safety defects for buildings of all heights, and a mechanism to ensure that this can never happen again.  In the meantime, the drawn-out incremental steps that the government continues to take is heightening leaseholder misery as the scandal is prolonged.

 

Lucy Brown is a campaigner for End Our Cladding Scandal.

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