Flat owners living lockdown in fear of fire and bankruptcy

Fire safety issues are still a nightmare for owners, despite Government promises to fund the removal of flammable cladding.

Residents of the St George apartment building in Leeds

First-time buyer Hayley Tillotson worked hard to achieve her ambition of owning her own home. The 28-year-old moved back in with her father for five years and saved until she had the deposit needed to buy her one-bedroom apartment in the St George building, in Leeds city centre.

She lived her dream for just four months before fire safety issues rendered her £101,750 flat unmortgageable and almost impossible to sell. She is now living through lockdown in what she describes as “a flammable death trap” while facing bankruptcy and homelessness.

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Like many others, her apartment building has been deemed unsafe due to flammable HPL – high pressure laminate – cladding. A recent survey also revealed that there were insufficient fire breaks in the structure and its timber balconies were also a fire risk.

The St George building has unsafe ACM cladding

While the Government has set up a £1bn fund to tackle the non-ACM cladding issue in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, there are fears that this will run dry and that cladding removal from all affected buildings could take years due to a lack of specialist contractors. Another major concern is that the cost of new balconies and fire breaks will be borne by homeowners.

Meanwhile, Hayley and other residents in the St George building have been forced to pay towards upgrading the fire alarm, increased insurance premiums and for a “waking watch”, which is a 24-hour fire patrol.

The safety measures are vital for insurance purposes so that residents can continue to live in the flats, but the extra cost and the ongoing fear of fire have taken a financial and emotional toll on Hayley and many others.

She says: “This time last year I was excitedly unpacking and starting life as a first-time buyer. Now, my flat is a complete drain on my finances.

Andy Burnham has campaigned hard to get fair treatment for apartment owners affected by unsafe cladding

“I live on my own, which means there’s no-one else to contribute to the extra payments, which could go on for a very long time. If we have to pay for the new balcony and fire breaks ourselves there is no way I can do that.

“I can’t sell the flat because it is now unmortgageable and even if a cash buyer bought it, the value would be so low I’d still owe the mortgage company money.”

Andrew Milnes, Business Principal at the Mortgage Advice Bureau, Bingley, confirmed that lenders are shunning apartments in the St George building as it has no fire safety certificate. It is one of many high rises caught in the same trap.

“The flats could still be sold to a cash buyer but we have spoken to Linley and Simpson estate agents and they say that any sale would be at least 20 to 30 per cent below market value,” says Andrew.

Hayley can see no option but to hand the keys back to her mortgage lender and to walk away with nothing but a ruined credit history and the knowledge she will probably never be able to afford to buy another home.

“The situation is making me ill and I have a permanent sense of dread. It’s not just me in this position, there are others who are paying for someone else’s mistakes. I am now preparing to lose the home that I spent five years saving for and to be homeless.”

Abi Tubis, 29, and her husband have a two-bedroom flat in the St George building. They say they are effectively trapped and have been forced to put plans to buy a house and start a family on hold.

They are at the forefront of the campaign group Leeds Cladding Scandal and have successfully fought to reduce the cost of fire safety patrols in their building from £391 per flat to £100.

But Abi and fellow campaigners believe that the correctional work across the country will take years and the cost will be £10bn not the £1bn allocated.

She adds that there are too few surveyors, scaffolding companies and specialists who can replace cladding on high rise buildings over 18 metres. “It’s awful living in a building that is a fire risk and that has been made worse by lockdown. We are on the ninth floor and there would be no chance of survival if there was a fire. We could be trapped here in an unsafe building for years and that’s why people are going down the bankruptcy route and are walking away.”

Owners are asking for reassurance that more money will be committed to the cladding issue; more specialist contractors will be sought, scaffolding, balconies and fire breaks will be included in the remediation work and that mortgage lenders loosen their criteria so flats with combustible cladding are mortgageable if they are eligible for the Government cladding fund.

They also want waking watch patrols to be funded by the Government.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, said: “The Government is bringing about the biggest change in building safety for a generation and our priority is to ensure residents are safe in their homes.

“Our fund will pay for the replacement of unsafe cladding in high-rise buildings and we are supporting industry to continue remediation work, where possible, during this national emergency.”

At this week’s Housing Communities and Local Government committee, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he was creating a new task force to “hurry things along” and had brought in a project management firm to oversee progress made by cladding removal firms.

He has also asked the new building safety minister Lord Greenhalgh, to ensure that payments for waking watches are fair. He added that the ultimate solution to the issues was “to get the work done.”

*The knock-on effect of increased service charges on buildings with flammable cladding is that landlords are raising rents to take account of payments for waking watch fire patrols, says campaigner Abi Tubis.

She says: “When we bought our flat in 2017, rents for a two-bedroom apartment were £750 per month and now they are £1,200. Rental prices on apartments with safe cladding are also rising as some owners take advantage of the situation.”

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