‘Mental torture’: six years after Grenfell, UK residents still live in fear as cladding deal falters

  • london
  • January 29, 2023
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In June 2021, Charlotte Meehan received a safety inspection report for her block of flats as part of the nationwide checks after the Grenfell Tower fire. It made for grim reading, warning that the block had been built with combustible cladding and insulation.

Last April, the government announced a “wide-ranging” agreement with developers to fix the crisis of unsafe tall buildings, but Meehan, 34, and her fellow residents in the four-storey block in east London, are among tens of thousands still waiting for their homes to be made safe.

Since last spring’s announcement, the government has been wrangling with the house building industry over the terms of the deal and funding. Campaigners warned last week it may take until 2030 for many blocks to be made safe, with residents “stuck in limbo”.

Meehan, an events producer who owns a third-floor flat she bought with her husband for £362,000 in October 2016, said an initial “wave of fear” over the fire risk of the building was quickly eclipsed by anxiety over the impact on her finances and resale value of the flat. The developer, Bellway, has given no starting date for the works at the Mojo development in Bow.

She said: “There is this feeling of pure frustration and anger, and that you’ve been completely let down. There is this mental torture of feeling completely trapped. I just want to get my life back.”

Grenfell Tower, where a fire on 14 June 2017 killed 72 people. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

A key government focus after the Grenfell fire in June 2017 that killed 72 people was to strip flammable aluminium composite cladding (ACM) from high rise blocks above 18 metres.

By the end of December 2022, 463 out of 487 of these buildings (95%) had started or completed remediation work. There is also a £5.1bn building safety fund that covers the cost of removing unsafe non-ACM cladding on high-rise tower blocks.

But Meehan’s flat is in what the government classifies as a “medium-height” block between 11 and 18 metres. In many of these blocks, work has not yet started to remove unsafe cladding or insulation.

There are about 75,000 residential buildings in England between 11 and 18 metres tall, according to government figures, with 2.93 million people living in them. It has been estimated that the cost of fixing safety issues will be £4bn, but there are no reliable figures on the number of properties affected.

Michael Gove, the housing secretary, announced last year that some of the country’s biggest housebuilders had pledged to fix all buildings above 11 metres that they had developed in the past 30 years. A draft contract was published in July, with the aim of finalising it within four weeks.

The government and the housing industry have since been at loggerheads over the potential scale of the liability for companies that sign the contract, but the latest version is expected to be published as early as this week. Even then, there is no legal requirement for developers to sign the agreement.

In November, a pilot fund was launched to provide finance for medium-height blocks where developers cannot be traced. A wider scheme is due to be rolled out this year, funded by a proposed new building safety levy.

Michael Gove, the housing secretary, announced a pledge by housebuilders to address safety issues but an agreement is yet to be signed. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Giles Grover, a campaigner with End Our Cladding Scandal, said it may take until 2030 or longer to complete the works in these medium-height blocks, and that there were also delays and funding disputes over high-rise developments. He added: “The vast majority of us are still stuck in unsafe building with serious cladding and non-cladding defects.”

Darren Matthews, 57, who lives in a 14-metre high apartment block in Salford, suffered a stroke in December after months of worry about a £3m bill for his block for works to remove insulation and improve fire resistance. He was told he would need to pay £97,000.

Matthews, who bought his flat at Transport House for £63,000 under a shared ownership scheme in October 2005, said he believed the stress had contributed to his stroke, from which he is now recovering. “I just felt crushed,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep properly and it was always on my mind. We’ve been stuck in limbo.”

Irwell Valley Housing Association, which manages Transport House, said last week it had reviewed the previous proposed works based on the Building Safety Act 2022. It said it now considered the key remediation works required were a new sprinkler system and the leaseholders would not be charged. A meeting would be held with residents once a starting date for the works was confirmed, said the association.

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) said it was concerned the government was proposing a new tax on the industry, the building safety levy, when the scale of works required in medium-height blocks was still unknown.

David O’Leary, an executive director at HBF, said: “Six years on from Grenfell, the government has still not produced an accurate assessment of the number of buildings in need of work or the cost of remediating them, and yet continues to progress plans with yet another tax on UK housebuilders.” Industry sources admit it will take years to fix the issues in the country’s apartment blocks.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Leaseholders and residents in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres will get their properties made safe while being protected from extortionate cladding repair bills. Developers who have signed the pledge have committed to remediate the buildings themselves. Where the developer cannot be traced or held responsible, cladding repairs will be funded by the building safety levy.”

Bellway, which paid for more than half of the “waking watch” fire patrol costs at the Mojo development, said a warranty claim had been submitted for the development, built in 2010, and that it was working with all parties to progress the claim.

A spokesperson said: “Bellway remains committed to the principle made within the government’s building safety pledge and is continuing to work with government to resolve outstanding matters to enable remediation work to happen as soon as possible on affected buildings.”