Hundreds left feeling unsafe and fearing big bills as scale of ‘cladding crisis’ becomes clear
A new dossier handed to the government warns millions of pounds are needed to fund repair work in Islington
Friday, 4th June 2021 — By Calum Fraser
Nathan Jeans moved into the 12-storey Aquarelle House building, just off City Road, four years ago – the block has failed a safety inspection
HUNDREDS of homeowners in more than 25 tower blocks across the borough are trapped in buildings covered in flammable material, the Tribune has learnt, as the scale of the cladding crisis in Islington is revealed.
A stream of testimonies from desperate families and individuals living in unsafe buildings has now been compiled and delivered to housing secretary Robert Jenrick by Islington South MP Emily Thornberry.
Aquarelle House in City Road, the Canonbury Cross buildings by Highbury Corner and the 9 Clerkenwell Road development are among the dozens of buildings named in the document with residents “sick with anxiety” over the prospect of financial ruin and little chance of being able to move out.
“Over 400 leaseholders from my constituency have contacted me recently about fire safety,” Ms Thornberry said in a letter to Mr Jenrick.
“If just one parliamentary constituency can offer so many stories of huge costs, real safety worries, impacts on family life and mental health, it is clear that these stories are multiplied many times across the country – and those living in the most deprived areas of the inner cities are being hit the hardest.”
Aquarelle House in City Road
She told the housing minister to “take a minute” to appreciate the “misery being caused to so many” and called on him to take immediate action.
The current crisis dates back to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people.
In the weeks and months after, councils scrambled to locate high-rise buildings wrapped in the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) that was found at the tower in west London.
In Islington, Braithwaite House, a 19-storey block in Bunhill Row, was found to have ACM cladding which council contractors then removed.
Since then, one building after another, many of them newly built, has failed fire safety tests as regulators established more stringent guidelines.
In particular, the Royal Institution for Chartered Surveyors (RICS) introduced the External Wall System (EWS1) forms which became the lenders’ standard for appraising buildings with cladding.
At first, EWS1 forms only applied to buildings over 18 metres, but changes in government advice in January last year brought all residential buildings potentially within scope.
Since then a whole range of issues, beyond only ACM cladding, have been found in buildings including dangerous insulation, cavity walls without proper fire breakers, timber balconies and inadequate fire alarm and extinguisher systems.
The bill to fix the issues on each building is often estimated to run to millions of pounds.
With developers, builders and insurers not instantly accepting the liability for the remediation works, leaseholders are fearing life-changing bills.
In March, the government pledged an extra £3.5billion to the Building Safety Fund for works on buildings higher than six storeys.
But at least half of the buildings in Ms Thornberry’s list were under six storeys high which means there is no recourse to grants.
Whether taller buildings will all be covered by the scheme has not been guaranteed – the applications for funding closes this month but some are still awaiting fire safety inspections.
Emily Thornberry MP
In her letter, Ms Thornberry said: “There are too many examples of chaos and confusion, and too many cases where freeholders have been unable to access the limited amount of help available.”
She added: “Estimates of up to £50billion have been made for remediation costs across the country, and at the very least three times the current amount is needed.”
Stephen MacKenzie, a fire safety expert who has worked with communities impacted by the Grenfell disaster, told the Tribune: “EWS1 causes chaos but virtually all buildings fall into its scope. What’s compliant, acceptable and safe is now a quagmire and we need a second or third phase crisis response from the government.
“If the government fails, then Grenfell 2 is around the corner along with mass bankruptcy, homelessness and a mental health crisis.”
Dame Judith Hackitt conducted a review of the building industry in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Her final report came to some damning conclusions about the building industry and its regulators.
Speaking generally, she said there was a “race to the bottom” culture across the sector “caused either through ignorance, indifference, or because the system does not facilitate good practice”.
She added: “There is insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe.”
The deregulation of the housing sector started with the Conservative government in the 1980s as “compulsory competitive tendering” processes were brought in which meant council regulators had to compete with the private sector.
This developed over the subsequent decades with regulatory responsibilities passing from public bodies to private companies. Eventually, manufacturers of building materials were able to assess their own work.
A ministry of housing, communities and local government spokesman said: “We know many people are worried – which is why our priority is making sure residents are safe and feel safe in their homes by removing dangerous cladding from the highest risk buildings as quickly as possible backed by over £5 billion.
“We have been clear throughout that owners and industry should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders – and we will ensure they pay for the mistakes of the past with a new levy and tax to contribute to the costs of remediation.”
Responses from building owners are in the case studies below.
‘We are unable to sell our flat and take the next step in our lives’
NATHAN Jeans (above) and his partner Tara are expecting their second child but instead of it being a blissful period of their lives, the young couple have faced the anxiety of living in a block which has failed a safety inspection.
They had pooled their resources to enter into a shared-ownership agreement with housing association Peabody in the 12-storey Aquarelle House building just off City Road four years ago.
But after their son was born they started looking at the possibility of moving out of the one-bedroom flat – only to find out that several issues had been discovered during a fire check and the building had failed its External Wall System survey (EWS1) application.
Mr Jeans, 38, said: “We are unable to sell our flat and take the next step in our lives through no fault of our own. We’ve been left in limbo. At the moment, we have no idea whether we’ll qualify for the government’s fund, and have the constant worry of living in a building that’s covered in flammable materials.”
Peabody said that the developers and managing agents were responsible for remediation works.
A spokesperson for Knight Frank said: “We sympathise with home owners across the country who have been affected by fire safety associated to cladding concerns. We are treating this matter with the upmost of seriousness; we take our obligations as a property manager very seriously.”
‘I have been saving all my life for my old age – and now I could lose it’
JANE Richardson (above) says she is one of the luckier ones, even though her entire retirement savings face being wiped out.
Fire safety issues have been found in her block at 9 Clerkenwell Road, which she only moved into in 2017 – a “quiet place to retire”, she thought.
Leaseholders have been quoted a bill of £3.6m for works to resolve the problems after an inspection found that there was faulty insulation under the concrete rendering while the wooden decking on the balconies were deemed a fire hazard as well, according to Ms Richardson.
She said: “Some people are bound to be a lot worse off than me. You hear of people who have already filed for bankruptcy.
“I have my savings, and on my present guess it could cover the bill I might face but it is not welcome because I have been saving all my life for my old age and now I could lose it.”
As the building is partly over 18 metres high it may be eligible for the government’s Building Safety Fund but Ms Richardson and her neighbours face an anxious wait to see whether their block will be included.
She added: “It’s a major problem and the thing that makes it so difficult is the uncertainty about everything.”
The managing agents for 9 Clerkenwell Road were contacted for comment but did not reply.
‘We want to start a family but our hands are completely tied’
JACK Taylor and his partner have decided to put their plans to start a family on hold after the development they live in was found to potentially have unsafe materials on the buildings.
The 31-year-old (above) has lived in the Canonbury Cross development, just off Highbury Corner, for five years.
An inspection found potential issues with the insulation behind the external walls. Another survey will be conducted next week by Notting Hill Genesis to find out whether expensive remediation work will be needed.
“We want to start a family but our hands are completely tied,” Mr Taylor said, adding that they hoped the next check would come back as safe.
“If it doesn’t then it could be as dramatic as every single one of the white tiles that cover these buildings will have to be removed and the insulation reinstalled. I dread to think how much that could cost us.”
A Notting Hill Genesis spokesman said: “The insulation used at Canonbury Cross was fully compliant with building regulations at the time of construction, but we will need to investigate further how it has been installed. A joint intrusive survey with the developers is due to take place on June 9, which will look at whether the external wall system has been installed correctly.”
Developers are urged to fund remedial work
JEREMY Corbyn (above) has called on the government and freeholders to ensure potentially dangerous cladding is removed from a Finsbury Park tower block.
The Islington North MP joined the council’s housing chief Labour councillor Diarmaid Ward in writing a letter to developer Grainger PLC which own the Tiltman Place tower blocks. They have asked the company to foot the bill for any remediation work required on the building.
In the letter, the pair said: “A number of private sector developers are now stepping forward and doing the right thing in funding the entire costs of remedial cladding to buildings they have developed and sold to leaseholders.”
Mr Corbyn told the Tribune: “The people who bought properties in Tiltman Place did so in the belief that they were moving into a safe, secure environment. They were not.
“It is the responsibility of the owners of the freehold and the government to ensure that all dangerous cladding is removed. This is an extremely unfair situation and public regulations should protect us all.”
Helen Gordon, Grainger Plc’s chief executive, said: “We appreciate this is an incredibly difficult situation for leaseholders and we are working hard to find the best solution for them. We take our responsibilities as a freeholder seriously, which is why we have a dedicated team working on Tiltman Place.
“We are following many avenues to try and secure the best solution for leaseholders, both in terms of potentially reducing the level of work required and associated costs, whilst pursuing options to recover those costs.
“We have been challenged as to why we have not taken the same route as some of the housebuilders with regards to covering the cost of the works, but the situation is, unfortunately, not quite as straightforward as that in this case. We did not design or build this scheme and our priority and focus is to work with those who did to find an amicable solution.
“We do not have a clear enough picture yet as to the true extent and scale of works required and we are unable to properly review our position until we do so. Our absolute priority in all of this is ensuring a safe and secure building for all.”