A woman living in a block of flats which could go up in flames at any moment has described how its residents feel ‘completely trapped’ during the coronavirus crisis.
Ritu Saha, 44, is spending lockdown in a 10-storey privately-owned block of flats in Bromley, south London, where waking watchmen are on patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The flammable cladding the block is covered in means fire could spread up the building to the very top within as short a time as seven minutes.
And there are still more than 300 properties across the UK, housing potentially thousands of people, which are still covered in this flammable material almost three years on from the Grenfell disaster.
‘I bought my home in December 2015, and two years later in November 2017, after Grenfell, was when I found out the cladding was dangerous,’ explained Ritu, who is a university administrator.
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‘It’s now two-and-a-half years later and between 57 flats we’ve already spent £400,000 for the waking watch patrol and £100,000 for a fire alarm system.
‘People living here are pretty much on the brink of financial destitution now. Some older people have had to come out of retirement to help pay the extra bills, and one couple have had to set up a fundraising page.’
The block is covered with Grenfell-style cladding, known as aluminium composite material (ACM) and another type of flammable cladding called high-pressure laminate (HPL).
She said living in this kind of building through lockdown is ‘distressing’ because it is ‘constantly on your mind when you are surrounded by the cladding all the time’.
‘The worst thing is, the fire brigade once said it is as if someone has doused the entire building in petrol. They said fire can spread to the top floor in seven minutes flat,’ said Ritu, who is a co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, which campaigns for people living in similar buildings.
‘We are trapped, physically and mentally’
‘We have been living with that danger for the last few years, and in that time not a single panel of cladding has come off our block.
‘We are pretty much trapped – completely trapped both physically and mentally.
‘It’s been worse during the lockdown because we have no kind of control, and we couldn’t even go outside to get away from it.
‘At one point we were spending 23 hours a day inside, and you would only leave the house for an hour a day at the most.
‘Normally we would be out most of the time – if a situation makes you anxious you want to get away from it – but now we have no choice but to be at home most of the time.
‘It’s very distressing for everyone’s mental health. We are all finding it incredibly hard. One neighbour has even had a nervous breakdown and can’t speak to anyone anymore. That’s how bad this has become.’
She emphasised how pressures over finances have added to the mental health crisis, because if people can’t pay the extra bills to protect themselves for the cladding, their homes will be reclaimed and they will be made homeless.
‘It’s like writing a blank cheque,’ she said, ‘We do not know when the payments will stop and when the cladding will be removed. Our council tax has even gone up and we are not allowed an exemption.’
When asked for comment, Bromley Council referred Metro.co.uk to the valuation office through HMRC, but HMRC said it was a matter for the council.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak allocated £1 billion in his 2020 Budget for the removal of unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings – but Ritu says despite making inquiries the residents have not yet seen any of this money.
She added how people’s lives have been put on hold: ‘We have completely lost control of our future.
‘People want to move and they haven’t been able to move, not a single flat has sold since 2017 as all our properties have been valued at zero.
‘We can’t rent out the flats as no one wants to live in an unsafe building, and it’s too expensive to get a second home.
‘People have put off having children because they don’t want to bring up their children in a dangerous environment, and some may now never have children as a result.’
Ritu said there seem to have been many more fires across the country recently which was ‘worrying’ – possibly because people have been indoors a lot more.
‘Coronavirus came into the picture around February or March this year. Grenfell happened three years ago,’ she concluded.
‘Obviously this is important – but it makes you why this kind of compassion was not shown after the Grenfell tragedy. There are still people all over the UK living in dangerous buildings like this.
‘And the coronavirus crisis has shown the money is clearly there. People’s lives should matter. If one of these fires [in a block of flats with flammable cladding] ends up fatal, then I don’t know what will happen.’
‘The mental health implications are unimaginable’
A spokesperson from the UK Cladding Action Group, which recently released a powerful video communicating what it’s like to live in a building with flammable cladding during lockdown, said: ‘Thousands of leaseholders have spent months, if not years, with their lives entirely on hold because of the cladding and fire safety scandal.
‘The mental health implications this is having on leaseholders is unimaginable. This strain has never been greater; at a time of a national crisis when the nation is being asked to stay home where possible, it is important to remember that for those affected by the cladding and fire safety scandal that means staying home in an unsafe building.
‘On top of the health and financial anxieties caused by Covid-19, leaseholders are still paying extortionate waking watch and insurance costs, with many now realising that their long wait to make their home safe again is only set to continue given the current circumstances.
‘Waking watches are costing leaseholders up to £840 a month each in addition to normal outgoings – these costs are directly related to the cladding and/or fire safety defects found on the building; a great strain at any time, but an even greater strain during Covid-19.
‘No cost associated with cladding or fire safety defects should be passed onto innocent leaseholders which is why we are calling on the government to ensure that all associated costs are covered.
‘Furthermore we ask the government to recognise that the pace of such works is too slow.
It is now almost three years on from the Grenfell tragedy and yet unbelievably, as of April 30, 307 buildings in the UK with ACM (the same type of cladding as Grenfell) have yet to completed or even begun remediation.’
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