Homeowners want freeholders to pay costs of removing fire-risk cladding from tower blocks
Scared homeowners living in tower blocks covered in Grenfell-style cladding are launching a national campaign demanding urgent action to make their homes safe.
Amid growing anger that too little is being done to guarantee the safety of tens of thousands of people living in private flats, leaseholders in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester have established the UK Cladding Action Group.
Only 10 of the 173 private buildings discovered with combustible cladding have been fixed while rows rumble on over who should foot a repair bill expected to rise well beyond £500m.
In isolated cases, freeholders and developers have offered to pay, but far more often they are refusing and, 20 months after the Grenfell Tower fire claimed 72 lives, are defying the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, who insists it is their responsibility.
The launch of the national campaign reflects a sharp contrast in how private and social housing is being fixed. Similar cladding to that which helped spread the fire at Grenfell has been used on 433 high-rise residential and public buildings in England. Of the affected council and housing association blocks, 79% have works under way or have been fixed compared with 11% of the private towers, according to figures published last week. The government has set aside £400m to fix social housing, but nothing for private homes, the freeholds of which are often held by investors and offshore companies.
“This affects a huge number of people and is extremely stressful,” said Rachel Loudain, 30, a business analyst who owns one of the 87 apartments in Victoria Wharf in Bethnal Green that features the now banned cladding. She said the main strain on her was fear of a fire starting, but added: “You can’t sell, you can’t remortgage because the flat is essentially worthless. It’s like being stuck in a prison. We need to speak to government as a stronger force.”
William Martin, 30, a leaseholder at the Metis building in Sheffield facing a bill of up to £40,000, described the situation as “disgusting”.
“There shouldn’t even be one building still with cladding on,” he said. “We are nearly two years on since Grenfell. Can you imagine if my building or one of the others went up in flames?”
Most leases hold the leaseholders rather than the freeholders legally responsible for the works, but because the bills are so high few have the money to pay for works and buildings are left at risk.
Loudain’s local council, Tower Hamlets, has said it will issue enforcement notices to the freeholder and the management company, ordering them to fix the cladding. But leaseholders have already been told those costs will be passed on to them within months. They are likely to total at least £5m – a minimum £57,000 per apartment.
Ritu Saha, a resident at Northpoint in Bromley where residents have fallen sick with stress and face £70,000 bills, said: “There doesn’t appear to be any end in sight for us. Our only hope is to get together and coordinate our efforts, so that the government and local authorities cannot ignore us any longer.”
The government has so far refused to publish a list of affected private buildings, citing arson fears, so the campaign wants other leaseholders to get in touch. It will call for new legislation to stop costs being passed on to leaseholders and to make public money available when freeholders won’t pay.
Saha said government attempts to “get developers and freeholders to do the right thing” are failing. “The reality is, the government needs to make funding available to public authorities,” she said.
In a letter last month, Brokenshire told Saha it was his “strong expectation” that leaseholders should not have to pay and said he had written to the freeholder and developer to make clear they should fund the work.
However, nine days later, the freeholder’s agents wrote to leaseholders saying it was down to them to remove and replace the aluminium composite material cladding.
Brokenshire has told leaseholders he understood the cladding issue was affecting residents’ health and wellbeing and said that the government will fund councils to remove dangerous cladding, the costs of which they will then recover from the building owners.
He said a “joint inspection team” set up by his department has been asked to explore how it can support the council to take action on Northpoint.
But the ministry of housing has admitted it is still recruiting environmental health officers to the inspection team. It declined to say how many councils it has advised or how many buildings it has inspected.