Homeowners report suicidal thoughts over dangerous cladding as Government is warned safety cash is not enough

The Government should seek legal action against those responsible for installing dangerous cladding on flat blocks, a group of MPs have said.

The Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said in a report released today that Government support “will fall far short of what is needed” to remove cladding from the 2,000 high risk residential buildings which are still at risk nearly three years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster.

And it comes as dozens of homeowners living in buildings with dangerous cladding said they had contemplated taking their own lives due to the stress.

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Some 300 residential buildings in England still have Grenfell-style aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, while around 1,700 more have some form of dangerous cladding like timber or High Pressure Laminate.

Nearly three years have passed since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Photo: PANearly three years have passed since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Photo: PA
Nearly three years have passed since the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Photo: PA

The report found fixing all serious fire safety issues could cost up to £15bn.

But while the committee said it was right for the Government to provide the upfront costs to remedy the issue as quickly as possible, the taxpayer should not shoulder the full burden.

They said ministers “should also seek to recover costs on individual buildings from those responsible and be prepared to take legal action”.

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Earlier this year the Government announced a new £1bn fund to pay for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding for high-rise buildings, but the committee said this would cover only around 600 of the 1,700 buildings, saying the Government is “clearly trying to find ways to fit a £3 billion liability into a £1 billion funding pot.”

This was on top of £600m already pledged to remove the type of cladding which was on Grenfell Tower.

The report also found stringent rules on applying to the fund, including a short application window and restrictions against social housing providers, risks leaving many unable to access vital funding.

Building owners only have between June 1 and July 31 to apply for funds, which are to be allocated on a “first come, first served” basis, and any works commenced before March 2020 will not be covered.

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The report added the funds cover only cladding removal, and do not stretch to other serious fire safety defects including combustible insulation, timber balconies and walkways, missing fire breaks and faulty fire doors.

Owners of flats in high risk buildings have reported paying up to £400 a month each for 24-hour fire marshalls as an interim measure to avoid being evicted.

The committee found many properties had become unmortgageable and unsellable, and owners had been hit with bills of tens of thousands of pounds for remedial work.

They said all dangerous cladding should be removed by December 2021 and any residential building where work has not begun by December 2020 should be taken over using Compulsory Purchase Order powers, and the Government will consider establishing a new national body whose sole purpose is to purchase the freehold and manage the remediation of buildings with fire safety defects.

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The report, Cladding: Progress of Remediation, states: “Residents are facing life-changing bills for more than just combustible cladding.

“If the Government doesn’t provide additional funding, let us be clear: it means tens of thousands of residents sent massive bills for problems that aren’t their fault, and which, in many cases, will be a financial burden from which they will never recover.

“It means thousands fewer affordable homes, as councils and housing associations are forced to divert funds to remediation projects; and worst of all, it will mean that some works are never carried out.”

Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and Sheffield South East MP, Clive Betts said: “We have challenged the Government to finally commit to removing all forms of dangerous cladding once and for all.

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“Three years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster there are still thousands of home owners living in buildings with some form of dangerous cladding. The financial and emotional toll has been significant, with temporary safety measures costing huge sums and the ongoing stress of living in a property that may not be safe. This is not good enough.

“It is clear that the £1bn Building Safety Fund will not be enough. Too many risk being excluded by the criteria for accessing this support and the amount of money pledged is only enough to cover a fraction of the work needed.

“The fund should be increased so that it is enough to cover the amount of work that is actually needed, both to remove cladding and resolve wider fire safety concerns. Further support must also be provided for the costs of stop-gap safety measures, such as ‘waking watches’, to reduce the burden on homeowners.”

He added: “It is time for the Government to commit to end the scourge of dangerous cladding once and for all. A piecemeal approach that will see homeowners facing many more years of stress and financial hardship. This is not an option.”

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A Government spokesperson said: “The safety of residents is our top priority and since the Grenfell Tower fire we have worked tirelessly with councils to identify buildings at risk and ensure they are made safe.

“We are providing £1.6bn for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings and are bringing forward the biggest legislative changes in a generation to provide further enforcement powers against those who do not comply with the law and ensuring that residents’ safety is at the heart of the construction process.

“Building owners have a legal responsibility to keep their residents safe and whilst we have seen positive action from some, we are clear that more needs to be done to protect their tenants."

It comes as a survey indicated dozens of leaseholders living in buildings with dangerous cladding have contemplated suicide.

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Homeowners in residential blocks covered with flammable materials have spoken of suicidal thoughts, insomnia, and deteriorating mental health, according to the survey carried out by the campaigning UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG).

The survey, based on the responses of 550 residents across 143 private buildings, indicated cladding issues have “hugely affected” the mental health of nearly eight in 10 respondents.

Some 14.5 per cent reported suicidal feelings while eight per cent said they had felt a desire to self-harm.

More than a quarter (26.9 per cent) said they had received a new diagnosis of depression or anxiety, while 46 per cent have sought or are planning to seek medical help with mental health issues, it added.

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Nearly one-third said they had turned to alcohol to help cope with stress.

One anonymous respondent said: “I have had months of anxious and broken sleep, felt deep regret at having bought this place and have suicidal thoughts at least twice a week. I feel like I have been robbed.”

The survey of residents, covering blocks across 46 local authority areas in England, Wales and Scotland, also found one in 10 leaseholders had taken out a loan from a bank or family members to cover costs, and more than a quarter said they cannot start a family because of money issues.

UKCAG member William Martin, who lives in an affected building in Sheffield, said: “Respondents speak of their thoughts of suicide, of their constant insomnia and of their personal battles with mental health.

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“Each life is on hold, and given the sheer number of unsafe buildings and current pace of remediation, this ‘hidden’ mental health crisis is only set to get worse.

“Covid-19 has delayed remediation works further, has seen residents being asked to stay home in unsafe buildings and at time of financial difficulty for all has seen leaseholders continue to receive demands for extortionate sums of money to fix a problem they did not create.”

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