Thousands of local residents remain locked in a bitter and urgent battle for major safety renovations on their flat blocks – and to avoid having to foot the punishingly high costs themselves.
Earlier this month (10 February 2021) saw the government’s long-awaited £3.5bn Building Safety Fund (BSF) announcement, to tackle the national ‘cladding crisis’ (on top of £1.6bn previously designated funds). However, this falls far short of the £15bn widely recognised as needed to properly remedy the situation – meaning that many regular leaseholders will still have to pay tens of thousands of pounds each, for the historic failings of developers and planners.
Yesterday (24 February 2021) the Fire Safety Bill was debated in Parliament. The McPartland-Smith Amendment – backed by a range of MPs from all parties – rejected the government’s position, arguing that regular leaseholders should not be held responsible for historic defects. The ammendment was amongst several that were defeated.
Local developments particularly affected include Leeds Dock (formerly Clarence Dock), Greenhouse in Beeston, and many of the blocks in Holbeck ‘Urban Village’ and along the city centre waterfront. But many residents spoke of feeling overwhelmed, drained, confused, or simply too shell-shocked to share their stories; others asked that we change their names for this article; and some have even been forced to sign gagging orders, to not speak with the press.
Of those we did speak with, we heard very similar stories. Pride and delight at having bought a home, turning into “a nightmare of spiralling costs”, on a “road to ruin” with even greater costs ahead. The “huge toll” of living under stress and uncertainty. Anger at the developers for “cutting corners” and “building firetraps”, then successfully wriggling out of responsibility, whilst still in some cases receiving huge government grants for current developments, and via schemes like Help to Buy. And anger undoubtedly with the government too, for their “failure to understand”, for failing to hold the developers to account, and for seeking just to placate them with “wholly insufficient” funding.
Mo insisted: “The government are treating us as stakeholders, alongside the industry that’s done this to us – but in reality, we’ve been wronged, we’re the victims.”
Ben added: “We – the leaseholders – are the only innocent party in this situation, but we’re the ones being held responsible. It’s madness.”
The cladding crisis follows the tragic 2017 inferno at Grenfell Tower, in west London – in which 72 people died. This was followed by a national survey of all apartment blocks, which discovered that the construction industry and developers had been operating below safety standards on apartment blocks for years – particularly around external
cladding, flammable building materials, and fire prevention, detection and alarm systems.
It has since come to light that thousands of blocks (housing up to a million residents) are unsafe – most of them privately owned. Publicly or socially owned buildings were less affected – and those that were not safe typically received funding to upgrade in 2018-19. All the Council flat blocks in this area were given the all-clear.
But the nightmare was only just beginning for the thousands of local residents in private apartment blocks. The situation first broke locally as a full-blown crisis in December 2019, when the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) issued warnings to all leaseholders that unsafe buildings could potentially be closed.
In a statement WYFRS said:
“The situation first broke immediately after the Grenfell Tower tragedy and in December 2019 we wrote to all building owners of premises with unsafe cladding to request details of their remediation plans.
“It is the priority of WYFRS to safeguard the safety of residents by ensuring building owners act responsibly. In those letters we did clearly inform building owners that should they be uncooperative then we may utilise our enforcement powers to ensure the continued safety of residents, this could include prohibition of the building, or parts of, if no remediation plans were provided and residents were left in dangerous premises.
“Residents were written to in order to inform them of the communication with the building owners.
“We continue to work with and urge those responsible for buildings where flammable cladding remains to take steps to remediate such issues as soon as possible.”
Indeed, not only did the leaseholders discover their homes were unsafe, but also that they were legally responsible for paying to make it right. The corporate freeholders who own the buildings, and the developers who built them (if they had not already dissolved themselves, as many had), and the planning departments that had signed them off, were all off the hook. In most cases, warranties had expired, and insurance was insufficient.
Residents have since found themselves trapped in a massively stressful and expensive scenario. Aside from the danger posed by their buildings, and the uncertainty of who would pay to fix them, residents have faced spiralling service charges – to cover costly ‘waking watches’ (security attendants on fire duty 24 hours per day, costing £179/month per flat on average in Leeds), soaring insurance premiums, and other interim costs. And the value of their homes have dropped considerably, if sales are even possible: mortgage lenders refuse to lend on most affected properties.
The newly-announced Building Safety Fund will pay for the replacement of unsafe cladding on buildings over 18m tall. But 70% of the buildings also require other safety renovations such as the replacement of wooden balconies, and the installation of internal firebreaks and barriers, which are not covered. These costs look set to amount to tens of thousands of pounds per property: for example, one local block needs £3.2m for fire breaks alone.
Meanwhile, blocks between 11m-18m are not eligible for grants, but only low-interest loans; and smaller blocks get nothing. Previously, the government released some funding to cover interim costs. But residents are not impressed.
Pippa told us: “Until funding is gained to cover all defects (not just cladding), many buildings will simply be left unsafe, as people cannot afford to pay. The proposal to forcing loans onto smaller properties is despicable. And funds like the Waking Watch Relief Fund are wholly insufficient.”
Indeed, there is palpable anger about the government’s response. Researchers last year discovered that senior figures in the building and property industries paid an unprecedented £11m in donations to the Conservative Party in the past 18 months – and they seem to be getting their payback, with the latest proposals having them pay a modest £2bn in levies over the coming decade. The Leasehold Knowledge Partnership have proposed how the government could reasonably recoup the entire £15bn from the industry, but are struggling to get traction with government.
Local MP Hilary Benn is one of the cross-party body of politicians working with residents to resolve the crisis. He told us:
“The announcement of additional help represents progress, but it hasn’t resolved the crisis facing leaseholders, and will still leave almost all of them having to pay to fix a problem that they did not create.
“All the cladding organisations, including the Leeds Cladding Scandal group which has done such a great job, will carry on campaigning for a fair outcome in which those who caused the problem pay to fix it – and they will continue to have my full support.”
For more information, check out the Leeds Cladding Scandal or the UK Cladding Action Group on social media, or go to insidehousing.co.uk. Campaigners are calling upon citizens everywhere for their support, to help force Parliament to adopt a fair solution.
As Pippa warns: “The government are attempting to divide the leaseholders from the general taxpayer – but those responsible for the crisis should pay to remedy it. If developers and manufacturers get the go-ahead to continue to build on the cheap, cut corners, and build dangerous homes; if they fail to acknowledge there is systemic failure, this crisis will happen again.”
Tomorrow we will publish more Cladding Stories from South Leeds leaseholders in their own words.