Residents in a tower block that is wrapped with combustible cladding say they are facing possible bankruptcy and are falling ill with stress after the building owner and its developer refused to pay £4m to make their homes safe. They are among tens of thousands of people across England known to be still living in…
Residents in a tower block that is wrapped with combustible cladding say they are facing possible bankruptcy and are falling ill with stress after the building owner and its developer refused to pay £4m to make their homes safe.
They are among tens of thousands of people across England known to be still living in private apartment buildings wrapped in similar material to that which spread the Grenfell Tower fire 19 months ago. The latest government figures show that cladding on only five of 176 privately owned towers identified has been replaced amid ongoing disputes between ministers, councils and building owners over who should pay.
Leaseholders at the Northpoint building in Bromley in south London are each facing £70,000 bills in a situation they describe as “absolutely desperate”. One resident has been hospitalised with hypertension caused by the stress of the safety risk and the financial threat. After already paying up to £8,000 each for emergency safety measures, another resident said she could only can afford to heat hot water once a week. Others are racking up major debts and cancelling holiday plans. The two-bedroom flats were worth about £300,000 each but are now thought to be unmortgageable.
The government has so far released £400m to contribute to work on social housing blocks, but nothing for private buildings. It said this week it does not know who will cover the cost of remediation in 96 of the private blocks – an unsettled bill that on a conservative estimate is likely to surpass £250m. It means there is no end in sight to the fire safety fears for thousands of residents. Of the 437 high rise buildings identified as having combustible cladding since the Grenfell fire, 85% still have similar systems in place even though they have now been banned on tall apartment blocks.
“The shock is that for people living in a developed country, the choice could be so stark: bankruptcy or homelessness,” said Rituparna Saha, auniversity administrator and top-floor resident, who walks the corridors to check for fires. “The fact that over 18 months after Grenfell, no one is taking ownership, not the freeholder, not the developer and not the government makes it seem to me that the fact that 72 people died doesn’t really matter. We are the football that keeps being tossed around.”
She is scared to ask friends with children to visit her, saying: “I couldn’t live with myself if there was a fire.”
The freeholder of Northpoint is Citistead, a company owned by the family trust of the multi-millionaire property mogul Vincent Tchenguiz. It is refusing to pay because under the terms of the lease, leaseholders are responsible for maintenance and repairs and because the works were certified as compliant with building regulations which it said were “clearly not fit for purpose”.
Tchenguiz, whose family trust ultimately owns other blocks in a similar situation, told the Financial Times last week the cladding bills should be paid either by the government or residents because the rents freeholders earn do not cover the cost.
Taylor Wimpey, the developer which sold the freehold in 2007, does not want to pay either. It told the Guardian it does not own or bear any legal responsibility for the building, so removing the cladding is the job of the freeholder.
“People are going into arrears on the service charge,” said Graham Snewin, 67, a retired chartered surveyor and a director of the leaseholders’ management company . “People are incredibly stressed. You go to bed with it and you wake up with it. One of our directors ended up in hospital with hypertension because of the stress.”
“It’s awful,” said Hayley Kennedy, 35, who is losing her sight and has had to put on hold plans to travel the world because of the financial strain. “I can’t afford to put my heating on. I put my hot water on once a week. By the end of the month I have no money. I am in my mid-30s and I have a property that is worthless that I spent my 20s saving for.”
Facing a £70,000 bill, she said: “I don’t know how I would start to pay that. All the equity has vanished and you can’t remortgage.”
There has been confusion in government over its policy on making private tower blocks safe. The Conservative MP for Bromley, Bob Neill, accused ministers of offering “false hope” with promises of help that had not been thought through. In November, the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, said councils had government backing “including financial support if necessary” to strip combustible panels from private buildings. He said councils could recover the cost from building owners.
But with no further details on how this would work, no councils have dared risk spending millions. This week the housing minister Lord Bourne wrongly told parliament that under law, councils were responsible for stripping dangerous cladding from private towers. He was forced into a correction by Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association, who said the law simply “does not allow them to go in and take cladding off of other people’s buildings”.
Bromley Council, which has held talks with the leaseholders, said it was raising the issue with the government.
“If the government wants to protect owners it will have to come out of central government money,” said Neill. “[The Northpoint residents] are clearly under real stress. It is bad enough they are financially crippled, but they are now living in homes that are dangerous.”
Brokenshire said: “A number of developers and building owners have already done the right thing and protected leaseholders from additional costs, and I expect others to follow their lead. My message is clear – private building owners must pay for this work now or they should expect to pay more later.”
But the continuing ambiguity will not help the Northpoint leaseholders who need to find £200,000 to pay for the most urgent fire safety works by April and fear that unless they do so the building could be condemned by the fire authorities.
The stalemate is also being complicated by a wider political fight over leasehold reform. Citistead has told politicians it cannot afford to help because of the threat to its business from potential law changes that would limit their profitability of freeholds as an investment. It is arguing that if the reforms were dropped, freeholders would be willing to contribute to leaseholders’ remediation costs.