‘In the dark’: millions left in flats they can’t sell or fix due to unsafe cladding

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Up to 11 million people may live in properties with unsafe cladding, an issue that came to prominence with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

Many of those who own affected flats have been presented with significant bills for remedial works or fire patrols, with some being made bankrupt, and a number have been unable to sell their properties – a situation described as “extraordinary” by shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire.

James Currie, 30, who lives in a flat in Manchester with his partner and 10-month-old daughter, first became aware of a problem with cladding last summer.

“We wanted to move out before she was born really, but we started thinking about it properly when she was a couple of months old,” he says.

The couple started looking for a new home, then became aware that other sellers were being asked for a EWS1 form to show the building was safe. “Our building didn’t have one and we found out that other flats were coming back with a nil valuation.”

Worse news came in October, when residents were told that a building inspection had found safety risks, including missing internal fire breaks, and potentially dangerous wooden cladding and balconies. “The managing agents have put the work out to tender, and the figure we have seen so far is £5.6m plus VAT – £6.7m. We’ve done a rough calculation, and that’s about £42,000 per flat,” he says.

The real figure will depend on the size of each flat, and what money is available to the freeholder through government funds. “It’s a massive unknown,” Currie says. “We don’t know when a bill will arrive, what it may look like and how we will be asked to pay it … We really want to move, especially as we don’t want our daughter to live on a building site, but we can’t sell to anybody who needs a mortgage and the estate agents say we’d have to take a big cut to the price to cover the risk a buyer was taking on.”

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Brian Simpson, 62, owns a flat in Birmingham and since 2009 has been a director of the residents’ management company. “When I volunteered I thought it would be about making sure the property was well-maintained, that our money was being used well – I didn’t imagine that years later I would be helping to manage a multimillion-pound remediation process and having to support fellow residents who are struggling both financially and with their mental health as a result of this.”

View image in fullscreenBrian Simpson outside his Birmingham flat. Photograph: Brian Simpson

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Straight after the Grenfell fire the company commissioned reports and tests on the building’s cladding. Although tests showed it was not the same type, they did show up problems inside and outside. Last year, leaseholders were asked to pay between £20,000 and £40,000 into a fund to meet some of the costs.

Simpson used his savings to pay in £40,000, and will have to turn to his pension if more bills arrive. Some tenants could not meet the costs, which means that even if they get the £5.4m they have applied for from the government, they may not have all of the cash they need for the work. And other costs are mounting.

“The insurance company said a couple of years ago that it couldn’t cover us any more, so we ended up going out to a consortium – at that point our premium went up from £36,000 to £92,000. We just renewed in November and it’s gone up to £320,000.”

Leaseholders have had to pay for a waking watch and for a new alarm system, and the price of scaffolding has gone up by 50% since the initial quote for work. “We’ve got contractors lined up but since before Christmas we’ve been in limbo waiting to hear what help we might get from the government’s building safety fund,” he says.

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Henry Dobson, 30, bought his flat in London in 2015 but it was only in September last year that he realised there was a problem. “I decided I wanted to move out of London – I’d been working from home for several months and I wanted to move to be near to my mother in Dorset,” he says. “She’s clinically vulnerable so I wanted to be near her.”

Three estate agents were interested in valuing the property, but a fourth asked if he had a EWS1 certificate to show it had been inspected and told him he’d be unable to sell without one. Dobson phoned the managing agent, and found there was no certificate. Then just weeks later, he and the other leaseholders were told that inspections had found three major defects – flammable panels around the windows, wooden balconies and missing internal fire compartmentation.

A waking watch was installed days later, at a cost of £20,000 a month, and is still there. Leaseholders have been told they will face charges for a new fire alarm and other work, and they fear bills of around £15,000 each.

The building is below 18m but within the Building Safety Fund tolerance, however, they will not qualify for government help because these types of issues are excluded. “We’re completely in the dark,” he says. “We don’t know what’s happening.”

This article was amended on 2 February 2021 to correct the spelling of Henry Dobson’s surname.