Five years ago my wife and I made a big mistake. Using a pension payment and a legacy from my parents, we bought a flat for our daughter, who was finishing a nursing degree in Manchester. It seemed like a good idea and a very nice flat: an easy walk from the city centre, with great views from the fourth-floor balcony and a tram stop next door. She could live there, pay us rent and we would sell the property when she left. There were no problems with the survey and solicitors so we paid £145,000 in April 2016 and she moved in.
Then, just over a year later, the Grenfell Tower fire happened with a loss of 72 lives. It opened the lid on a huge and horrifying scandal of fire safety failures, shoddy building practices and inadequate regulations. The Government’s response to this terrible tragedy has now created a social and financial disaster affecting hundreds of thousands of flat-owners.
At first, our block did not seem an obvious fire risk. It had no cladding of the sort that proved so deadly at Grenfell. But closer examination revealed shocking flaws – the main walls, which looked like concrete, were made of a combustible render; the insulation behind them was – unbelievably – a form of polystyrene; and the balconies were made of flammable wood and needed to be replaced.
We were quoted a price of £3m to remediate these faults, an average of £60,000 per flat. We also discovered that, contrary to building regulations, the block had been constructed without internal firebreaks and compartmentation. These faults were likely to cost a similar amount.
Like hundreds of thousands of flat-owners, we are leaseholders and we don’t own the structure of the building. Yet we are the ones expected to pay. The people responsible for the mess – developers, builders, architects, freehold owners and planning regulators – get off scot-free.
At first, the reaction from the Government was reassuring. Ministers – including Boris Johnson – told us many times that leaseholders “should not” bear the costs of “unaffordable” payments, that building owners and construction companies “should do the right thing” and fund the cost of remediation, which a committee of MPs had estimated at £15bn. But we now know these were empty words.
Leaseholders, the only innocent party in this scandal, will be forced to pay most of the staggering costs. The Government, which relaxed regulations and supervision over several decades, and building firms, which constructed these potential death traps, will pay a total of only £5bn via a remediation fund, which is strictly limited in scope. There will also be compulsory long-term loans to some leaseholders. Both of these schemes exclude many serious fire safety defects.
Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, repeatedly refused to make any concessions as he forced through his Fire Safety Bill compelling leaseholders to pay. This will inevitably bring bankruptcies, homelessness and even more tragic consequences for residents who are already going to bed each night knowing that the building they live in could burn to the ground in a matter of minutes.
Most of the leaseholders are just starting their journey up the property ladder, have large mortgages, and now face financial ruin because they bought a property in good faith. Some of them have already gone bankrupt because of hugely increased insurance charges and the cost of mandatory “waking watches” – teams of staff who patrol the buildings 24 hours a day checking for fires. People like us will see our pension income wiped out.
Meanwhile the property market is booming – largely thanks to a generous £5bn Government stamp duty giveaway. Profits are also rocketing for the building companies, boosted since 2013 by the taxpayer-funded £20bn help-to-buy scheme.
A snapshot came from York-based Persimmon Homes who recently announced that completed sales so far in 2021 had hit £3bn, up 23 per cent on last year. To put this in context, the amount that the entire building industry is being asked to contribute over 10 years to pay for the fire safety crisis is £1bn less than one company’s sales in three months.
This is a scandal which the Government is nowhere near solving. Incredibly, four years after Grenfell, it doesn’t even know how many buildings are affected, what their level of danger is, and has no workable plan for making them safe.
The Government has abandoned homeowners and chosen to protect the hugely profitable companies which helped to cause the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people like us are in limbo, owning dangerous, worthless and unmortgageable properties, as the unaffordable bills pile up.
Thousands of people like us are in limbo, owning dangerous, worthless and unmortgageable properties, as the unaffordable bills pile up. It is a glaring injustice and it is happening now, on the Government’s orders.