The national building safety crisis

Today’s blog is from Steph Pike, leaseholder and campaigner in Bristol

You may have heard of the “cladding scandal” or the “building safety crisis” in the news. It is a national scandal of epic proportions, sparked by the horrific Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Four years on from Grenfell, many buildings are still wrapped in flammable cladding. But cladding is not the only issue. Other fire safety defects (such as flammable insultation, missing cavity barriers, and fire breaks) have been revealed in the external walls of blocks of flats all over the country. There are over 40 known buildings in Bristol alone that have been identified as having these issues meaning they are potentially dangerous and require significant remediation. 

People living in these buildings are trapped. They cannot sell. They cannot re-mortgage. They are being handed bills they cannot afford (in many cases exceeding £100,000). They are going bankrupt. Their mental health is suffering

Today from 12 noon, a building safety crisis rally will be taking place on College Green (outside of City Hall) where leaseholders and friends will come together to campaign against this huge injustice. More information can be found on our Facebook event.

My story

In November 2017 (four months after Grenfell), I bought my first home, a small one bed flat in the centre of Bristol.

I was also encouraged to buy a home using various government schemes such as the Help to Buy ISA and no stamp duty for first time buyers. I paid for solicitors and searches. I asked about fire safety and cladding. The building was signed off as compliant with building regulations. The building came with 10-year new build warranty. I did everything I could reasonably be expected to do when buying a property and I was so proud to finally have my own home.

Despite our building being signed off as compliant with building regulations at the time I bought the lease, recent surveys have revealed that the building was never compliant.  External wall surveys have revealed several fire safety defects in our building including combustible cladding, flammable insulation (the same type as Grenfell), missing cavity barriers and timber balconies. The building is supposedly so flammable that for nine months we had to pay £4,500 per week for 24/7 fire patrols (known as a waking watch) until a temporary fire alarm was installed (at a cost of £150,000). 

This is affecting millions of people across the UK. The government has so far allocated £5.1 billion to remove combustible cladding from buildings over 18 metres across the UK. This fund does not cover any other fire safety defects, nor does it cover buildings under 18 metres. The total cost of the problem is unknown but some estimate it to be as much as £50 billion.

The estimated cost to remediate my block is £7.6 million. This will be split between 109 leaseholders. To put this figure into context, the project cost for converting my building to flats in 2017 was £7.9 million.

If we don’t receive government funding, I am likely to receive a bill of over £70,000 to cover remediation costs (not including any interim measures such as waking watch, skyrocketing insurance premiums and fire alarm installation). Clearly this is unaffordable to most leaseholders, who are often first-time buyers. I certainly would not be able to afford this sort of sum. Many people are considering bankruptcy (and some have already gone bankrupt).

People often say, “just sue your developer” or “just refuse to pay”.  Neither of these things are an option. We cannot sue our developer as it has wound up. Even if it did still exist, litigation is hugely expensive, uncertain and can take years. We don’t have the money or the time to do this. If we refuse to pay, our lease could be forfeited, and we could end up homeless and bankrupt. The new build warranty is also very unlikely to pay out. We are stuck and there is no route out of this unless the government intervenes.

The stress this is causing is chronic. It’s taken over my life. I can’t sleep properly. I can’t think about anything else. I feel sick and anxious all the time, wondering when I will receive the bill and how on earth will I pay it.

The solution?

In my opinion, the solution to this is for the government to provide the money upfront to fix the buildings and to then reclaim if from those who are responsible, whether that is the product manufacturers, developers, builders or approved inspectors. The government must also take some responsibility for its failure to properly regulate the construction industry over the last few decades which has led to shoddy building practices and has allowed flammable materials to be used on high-rise buildings. The overriding principle is that the polluter must pay, not the innocent leaseholders.

If you would like to learn more about the building safety crisis, I recently wrote a more in-depth article for Al Jazeera which you can read here and you can find out more information about the campaign and what you can do to help on End Our Cladding Scandal’s website.