The words on the placards at a demonstration at Leeds Dock last weekend speak volumes about the relentless misery and dire financial consequences for thousands of innocent leaseholders trapped in the cladding and building safety scandal.
“Sold us the dream, now living the nightmare”; “Punished for buying my first home”; “Make the guilty pay”; “Not my fault, not my bill”; “Not just cladding – waking watches, insurance, balcony – costs are destroying lives”; “Remedial works cost more than my annual salary”.
Equally powerful was an altered version of the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire, which was played at the rally organised by the Leeds Cladding Action Group and attended by Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn and Leeds city centre councillor Paul Wray.
Its chorus goes like this: “We bought flats with a hidden risk of fire, missing fire breaks that all flats require and it hurts, hurts, hurts, this risk of fire. Jenrick’s a liar.” and it continues: “The fund will never meet, true costs of this deceit. We live in fire risk prisons...”
Cash was a righteous man and there is no doubt that the Man in Black would be right behind those who are battling for justice from a Prime Minister who once stated that leaseholders should not have to pay a penny to remediate apartment blocks, before changing his mind.
While the Government will pay for the removal of dangerous cladding on buildings 18 metres and higher, those in blocks between 11m and 18m will instead be given a loan with leaseholders charged up to £50 a month extra on their service charge to pay back the long-term debt.
Meanwhile, until all affected buildings are made fireproof, leasehold flat owners are forced to pay extortionate amounts of money for expensive fire alarms, waking watch fire patrols and hugely increased insurance costs, which have been added to their service charge. Even worse, they are now facing the terrifying prospect of paying to put right other fire safety defects that have been uncovered by surveyors. These include missing fire breaks – the result of shoddy construction – flammable insulation and timber balconies.
This week, at the second reading of the Building Safety Bill in parliament, proposed new safety measures for new apartment buildings and the appointment of a regulator were welcomed, as was the announcement that flats in buildings under 18 metres should not need an external wall survey and EWS1 form to make them mortgageable.
However, MPs from all parties stood to denounce the Government for failing to protect the innocent from being charged for fixing the additional fire safety issues. Leaseholders are now facing bills of up to £100,000 each or more to make safe buildings they didn’t construct and don’t own.
When you are the leaseholder of an apartment, what you have is effectively a tenancy with the right to occupy the home for a specified number of years and it is the freeholder who owns the structure and the communal parts of the building. The freeholder charges leaseholders a service and maintenance charge to pay for the upkeep of the building and, if costs are fair, there are generally no complaints. It is a system that has worked for years but in the case of flammable flats, it is a disastrous, unsustainable failure.
Kat Gornostaj, a teacher, bought a flat in the high rise St George’s Building in Leeds and has has seen her service charge double to £700 payable every three months after fire safety issues were uncovered. She and other leaseholders have also been forced to find £3,000 each to replace timber balconies.
“The Government fund covers the cladding but that’s it so we had no choice but to pay for the balconies but the worry is that we still don’t know if there are other issues we need to pay for,” says Kat. She also points out that finding contractors to do the work is difficult because of liability insurance costs. Selling blighted flats is not an option and, for a growing number, bankruptcy looms.
Labour and others are calling for a Government-backed Building Works Agency to remediate all affected blocks with costs funded by a levy on housing developers.
Speaking at the demonstration at Leeds Dock, which is surrounded by blocks of flats caught in the scandal, MP Hilary Benn said: “The toll this has taken on people’s lives is terrible and unforgivable. What the Government is effectively saying is that they will make the buildings half safe. It is madness.”
He points out that Victoria state in Australia had its own cladding scandal and set up a government body to fund and oversee remediation work, while a levy on building development was introduced to pay for it. Here in Britain, four years after Grenfell, leasehold flat owners fight on – a tough call when you are financially and emotionally drained while trapped in an apartment that has been deemed dangerous and worthless.