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Cladding chaos: Why some tenants are suffering from the drive to remove cladding

Building has cladding removed after Grenfell fire

11 min read

In the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, flammable cladding was removed from flats around the country. As Andrew Kersley discovers, some has yet to be replaced – and as the cost of living crisis escalates, tenants are suffering as a result

Rachael was crying on the phone to the paramedics. Her 18-month-old son had started struggling to breathe and wasn’t responding to her.

 “We were just constantly phoning doctors with chest infections and bronchiolitis, he was in hospital a few times,” she says, her voice displaying a mixture of anger and despair. “It was only then that I started to notice the damp and mould.”

The medical nightmare has turned her family’s life into a merry-go-round of GP and hospital visits, school absences and various antibiotics and a myriad of steroid prescriptions, all of which began soon after she moved into her new flat in Pendleton, Salford.

Rachael’s building has spent the last few years mired in scaffolding and construction work. Five years ago Salford Council found out it was covered in flammable cladding and rushed to remove it. But years down the line, that cladding has yet to be fully replaced.

I don’t think anybody should have to live like this

The resulting lack of insulation has led to tenants spending hundreds of pounds a month on heating their flats. It can be hard to pin down the root causes of dampness and mould, but multiple tenants claim they only began to face these problems after the cladding had been removed. They are all too aware of the tragic case of Awaab Ishak, a two-year-old who died in Rochdale in 2020 as a result of an infestation in his flat after the housing authority failed to take effective action to deal with it.

Over the five years since the Grenfell fire, there has been constant coverage of the need to remove dangerous cladding from affected buildings. What has been less discussed, however, is what happens next – when the messy reality of replacing flammable cladding leaves buildings uninsulated, freezing and unsafe, and residents in limbo.

More than 100 high-rise buildings with Grenfell-style cladding are yet to complete remediation work, while data uncovered by LBC has suggested nearly 10,000 buildings are “unsafe” due to other forms of flammable cladding and other fire risks that needed remediation.

Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower (Simon Hadley / Alamy Stock Photo)

Now the United Kingdom’s broken building safety emergency has come face to face with a cost of living crisis, with energy bills set to triple even after government intervention. Tenants now face living in freezing unclad flats, while spending hundreds of pounds on energy bills, dealing with flats that flood and living in constant fear of fires.

Leading out from Rachael’s flat there is a pipe through which you can see all the way to Salford Quays more than two miles away. It is the same story in every flat in her building. The vents were designed for when the building had cladding, but now they make any attempt to heat up the frigid flats an uphill struggle. “When it’s windy they howl,” Eddie Farrell, another resident in Rachael’s block, told The House. “It sounds like a horror house.”

In early 2022 Farrell conducted a test in conjunction with the building’s housing association landlord, Pendleton Together, putting his heating on to keep the flat at the 23C (73F) temperature they recommended. That month his energy bill was £340. “When [winter comes], everyone’s got layers of outside warm clothing that they wear in the house, because you can’t afford to run the heating,” he says. “That’s where this all leaves lots of the residents – we’ve got to make dramatic choices, drastic choices.”

Their block, Malus Court, is one of a complex of nine different buildings in Salford with more than 1,000 flats, which are all still under fire watch as remediation works stretch through a fifth year.

Across the blocks, residents have been forced to share single rooms between entire families at night as they can’t afford the heating or to switch off heaters altogether, Graeme Lang, another resident, says.

Despite this, last year Salford Council and mayor Paul Dennett increased rents for the people living in Pendleton by 4.1 per cent, overruling a decision from his own council scrutiny committee to halt rent increases in light of living conditions in the estate. A council spokesperson said the decision to increase rents was “very difficult”, but that the council had provided a £216,000 hardship fund for Pendleton residents. Dennett told a council scrutiny meeting last year that the rent was determined by “central government policy” and was based on inflation, as well as the fact the council was bound by a PFI contract it entered into with Pendleton Together.

When complaints about the cold started to build up, Pendleton Together’s response a few months ago was to send out a letter with tips on how to stay warm, including advising tenants to avoid alcohol because it gives a false sense of warmth.

Most complaints to Pendleton Together from residents, The House was told, go unanswered. That lack of transparency isn’t just a problem for residents. “There’s no direct duty to respond to Freedom of Information requests by particular housing associations. So they’ll only give us little bits of information,” says Salford MP Rebecca Long-Bailey.

“If it was your own house, and somebody came to do work on your house and it was faulty, you wouldn’t expect six, seven years later that the work still hadn’t been fixed,” she added. “I’m angry about it… There’s been a whole raft of problems from start to finish.”

Housing associations have been responsible for a succession of troubling headlines about the state of the UK’s housing over the last few months. Quite apart from the Awaab Ishak case, other major housing associations feature repeatedly in cases of mould, damp and dangerous living conditions.

If it was your own house, and somebody came to do work on your house and it was faulty, you wouldn’t expect six, seven years later that the work still hadn’t been fixed

In recent years, housing associations have merged and grown massively in size, with some of the non-profit groups now trying to manage more than 100,000 properties. The trend came at the same time as budget cuts which left them searching for new sources of income.

“You probably see more broadly a lot of housing associations become more focused on development and act[ing] more like private developers and [focussing on] the number of homes they can build, rather than managing the welfare of their tenants,” says Luke Murphy, associate director of energy, climate, housing and infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

“And that’s been compounded by a lack of proper regulation and recourse to justice, and a lack of a proactive regulator and a bureaucratic complaints process.”

The situation is little better for owners or private renters.

In the Islington Gates development in Birmingham, when residents found out their building was covered in flammable cladding, leaseholders rather than the company that built the building were facing bills in the tens of thousands of pounds to fix it. But after many had begun making payments, halfway through the remediation process, the government passed the Building Safety Act, which removed or capped the costs paid by leaseholders.

The ensuing chaos saw remediation works on the site slow to a snail’s pace as everyone tried to work out who ought to keep paying for the works. One nightmare was traded for another. Years later, the residents say the work still isn’t fully completed, leaving those inside the building stuck in a frozen purgatory. Last winter, they took temperature readings in the building – it was as cold as 6C (43F) in communal corridors and 10C (50F) in flats. As a result, they say the building’s communal electricity cost (split between all the tenants) is shooting up by 500 per cent from a baseline of £38,000 a year.

“When you’ve got 70-year-olds having to go back to work to pay for this, you ask: ‘hang on a minute’,” says Jim Illingworth, a leaseholder in the building.

“That’s the upsetting part of it. People are living in the cold… all you can think about, 24 hours a day, is this concern, how are you going to live? Can you afford to heat the place, can you afford to eat?”

His son Patrick, who also lives in the building, was recently awoken by the sound of dripping in his flat. “If it rains slightly too hard, suddenly my spare bedroom will fill up with water and [it] pours through the light fixtures and in through the cupboards,” he tells The House, adding that his walls being directly in contact with the elements has caused issues with damp and mould. Much like those in Salford, he has a pipe exposed to the outside elements that he has been forced to fill with builder’s caulk to keep the worst of the cold out.

Patrick, who works in the NHS, says he now spends around £18,000 a year on his home through a mix of higher insurance, remediation, increased heating costs, mortgage and more, not to mention the 500 per cent spike in heating and electricity costs. The £12,500 he had spent on the remediation alone was enough to almost wipe out his savings.

At one point tenants were even told they owed money to Birmingham Council as the scaffolding on their building was restricting the amount the council was making from car parking fees.

“Now I’m always counting, making sure I can pay for this, can I afford to go out and drink with my mates?” he says. “I’m often picking up extra shifts. At one point I was doing seven days a week.”

Even with the cladding removed, the Pendleton residents and Long-Bailey say the buildings have a litany of fire safety issues: no sprinklers or fire breaks, unusable evacuation plans and fire doors so poorly fitted residents say that there is room to slip a hand underneath, and by extension copious amounts of smoke in the event of a fire.

Rebecca Long-Bailey
Rebecca Long-Bailey (Alan Keith Beastall / Alamy Stock Photo)

The risk of disaster is very real. In the few weeks before we spoke, firefighters had been called out to the complex three times, responding to the mix of false alarms, bin fires and domestic fires that have become commonplace. “Every night when we go to sleep, we all think about it,” Graeme, one of the residents, says, sounding defeated. “We genuinely believe we’ll all die if there’s a serious fire here.” Beyond the cladding and fire safety, there have been mice infestations so bad he says residents sometimes awaken to find the rodents in bed with them.

A spokesperson for Salford Council stressed that Covid and supply chain issues, unexpected complications with the remediation work and the inability to easily source funding after they were not eligible for either the government’s public or private landlord funding initiative were the main causes of the delay in remediating the building.

They refused to clarify exactly how much money had been spent on the building as it was part of a “sensitive commercial agreement,” but added that they had provided energy support payments of £20 or £30 a month for residents hit with high energy bills.

The sheer number of problems facing the Pendleton residents is indicative of one of the underlying reasons why UK housing is in crisis. As well as building an insufficient number of new homes – just 175,390 were built in 2021 of the at least 300,000 needed, giving the UK the least homes per capita of any major European country – we also have some of the oldest and, more importantly, lowest quality housing stock on the continent. Research by Shelter in 2020 found that two million UK homes were in such disrepair they threatened the health of residents, while poor housing is estimated to cost the NHS as much as £1.4bn a year.

“People think there’s some kind of trade off between the number of units and [are] overly focused on supply so don’t want to regulate the quality of housing,” IPPR’s Evans added.

“But now we are having to go back, even in homes that we are building today, to make sure they’re more energy efficient for the future… We’d be suffering from fewer other costs in the health service [if we had better quality housing] less impacts from fuel poverty. It is a completely false economy.”

But as the problems rattle on unsolved, the list of buildings stuck in the queue for costly remediation is only getting longer. As The House finished speaking to the residents in Birmingham and Salford, a couple in Eastleigh made contact. They said their property manager was forcing the cost of investigating potentially flammable cladding onto already struggling residents. “We look at the balcony and just think do we jump off of it?” one of them said. They, like everyone else, said that the labyrinth of avoided blame, high bills and inescapable bureaucracy felt endless.

“The government likes to put out statements saying the building safety crisis has been solved,” as Illingworth put it. “Unless you’re part of it, or involved in it. Because then you just don’t believe what the government tells you.”

Correction: Luke Murphy is the associate director of energy, climate, housing and infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research. An earlier version of this article misstated his name.

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