Steph Pike is constantly exhausted. ‘I can’t sleep properly and feel sick and anxious all the time,’ she says.
Three years ago, the 29-year-old solicitor bought a one-bedroom flat in Bristol. After years of saving, she was so proud to have managed to get on the property ladder. But it has since emerged that her building has several major fire safety defects, and she is now facing a bill of £70,000 for the repairs.
‘If I have to pay the full amount, I will go bankrupt,’ she says. ‘If that happens, not only will I lose my home, but I’ll also lose my solicitor’s qualification.’
Four years after the devastating Grenfell Tower fire claimed the lives of 72 people in west London, the inquiry into the disaster is still examining how the building came to be coated in materials that accelerated the spread of the blaze.
Steph is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have since discovered their own homes are also coated in flammable cladding, or have other fire hazards that make them unsafe – in her case, both.
Post-Grenfell, the newly passed Fire Safety Bill means they must be removed, but an amendment to ensure leaseholders are not liable for the costs was voted down by the Government. Its fund to help totals £5 billion, but only applies to those living in blocks above 18 metres in height and is nowhere close to the total cost of repairs, estimated to be £15 billion. The campaign group End Our Cladding Scandal have labelled the bill ‘indefensible’ and fear it leaves a generation of homeowners facing financial ruin.
The Milliners, where Steph lives, is so at risk that a 24-hour fire patrol, or waking watch, has been in place since November, costing £165 a month per leaseholder. Her freeholder has applied for the Government funding but it is not yet known how much it will receive and whether the alleged non-cladding defects, which are often more expensive, will be covered.
‘When I bought my flat, the building was signed off as compliant with building regulations, but I’ve since discovered that it wasn’t,’ says Steph. ‘The whole situation is completely unbelievable – it’s just so surreal to be facing a massive bill for something that isn’t my fault. The mental health impact on me has been huge.’ (The Milliners’ contractor has said it is cooperating with the freeholder and had provided proof of compliance, adding that ‘the building was signed off by an accredited fire consultant at the time’ and it had not been responsible for the ‘construction or choice of materials for the building that has led to this incredibly worrying situation’.)
For Hayley Tillotson, the toll has also been profound. She bought her first flat, in Leeds, aged 28 in April 2019, and was delighted to move in, but received a letter six months later informing her the building was covered in dangerous cladding, similar to that used on Grenfell Tower. Her flat’s management company hired a waking watch, charging each leaseholder £300 per month. ‘I didn’t have the money to pay for it,’ says Hayley. ‘I also had to pay £1,400 for a new fire alarm system and further bills for the other issues – plus I knew I’d be getting a bill to replace the cladding on the roof.
‘Despite doing everything in my power to avoid it, I ran out of money and had to declare myself bankrupt last December.
My flat was repossessed and everything I’d earned and saved for since I was 18 has disappeared. My credit rating is so terrible can’t even get a loan to buy a car and I’ve had to move in with my dad.’
Like Steph, Hayley can’t come to terms with the unfairness of the situation. ‘There are no repercussions for the developers who built the flats, yet we’re the ones suffering,’ she says.
Many of the affected properties are currently unsellable, as lenders will not offer mortgages until the cladding is removed. Olivia Hogman’s flat in Redhill, Surrey has the same type of cladding as Grenfell Tower, which a recent survey found posed an ‘immediate combustible material risk’. ‘I wanted to sell it last year to buy a house, but this meant I couldn’t,’ says Olivia, 34. ‘So I’m trapped in a flat I know is unsafe. The building essentially needs to be stripped back to its bare bones and rebuilt, and I’ll have to remain here while that happens over the course of two years.’
That’s why, say campaigners, it is time for the Government to provide more financial support to those affected as a matter of urgency, then recoup the costs from developers. In the meantime, that’s little comfort to those like Olivia, trapped in their homes and with their lives on hold.
‘I’m potentially liable for up to £60,000 for the repairs, which I don’t have. It’s incredibly stressful. I’m looking at being worse off financially than I was when I bought it, aged 24 – over something I’m not to blame for.’