In April 2019, after four years of saving, 27-year-old marketing executive Hayley Tillotson put a £10,000 deposit down on a one-bedroom flat in central Leeds. Six months later, a letter from the West Yorkshire fire brigade turned her dream into a nightmare.
Her building was wrapped in dangerous flammable cladding, like the type used on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower in west London.
She was hit with bills for a fire warden (to check throughout the night for fire), replacement cladding and a new fire alarm system. Her buildings insurance and service charge bills went up. The waking watch alone cost £300 a month – as much as her mortgage payments. Unable to keep up with the extra costs, or to rent the flat out (banned under the terms of her affordable housing scheme agreement), she declared herself bankrupt.
Thought to be the first person to go bankrupt for this reason, Tillotson is not alone. Buildings insurance, service charges, cladding replacement works and waking watch costs are falling onto the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders who are then trapped in homes they can no longer afford, remortgage or sell.
Despite the government promising that work to remove Grenfell-style cladding from all blocks over 18 metres in height would begin by the end of last year, there are still 165 buildings with the dangerous cladding and 45 buildings that still have not begun works.
Millions more homes in buildings below 18 metres are wrapped in flammable materials, according to research by the New Build Database, which suggests 4.6m properties could be affected overall.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people in June 2017, the government has been slow to act. Only four of the 46 recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry have so far been implemented, and millions of people are living in fire-unsafe buildings across the country.
Labour is forcing a symbolic vote on stopping costs being passed on to residents, and there is considerable pressure on the government from its own benches: the Tory MPs Stephen McPartland and Royston Smith have tabled an amendment signed by 30 fellow Conservatives to the Fire Safety Bill, calling for costs not to fall on leaseholders.
Residents themselves who are affected should also concern ministers: “It’s first-time buyers, wanting to get on the housing ladder and secure their future. It’s people trying to move up and start a family. It’s those approaching or in retirement, wanting somewhere smaller,” in the words of the shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire.
These are the likes of the “savers and strivers” whom the Conservative Party purports to support. Indeed, the Daily Mail is now campaigning to “end the nationwide cladding scandal”, running emotive interviews with people in devastating circumstances.
For the sake of millions stuck in unsafe homes, let’s hope the plight of people like Hayley Tillotson fast becomes a problem for ministers too.
[See also: How they built Grenfell]