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Tinderbox Britain: Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, the cladding crisis rages on

On the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, over a million people across the country are still trapped in dangerous tower blocks.

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It was 8.51am on 7 May 2021, a Friday morning like any other for Nadim Ahmad, a 43-year-old chief financial officer living in east London. Absorbed in a work call, he had just held the front door open for his wife Aneela and their three young daughters to rush off to school, late as usual.

Two minutes later, he put his colleague on hold to take a call from his wife. Watching from her car below, she could see flames and smoke billowing up the modern high-rise where they live, and screamed: “The building is on fire, get out!”

After running up and down the corridor shouting and banging on all his neighbours’ doors on the 14th floor, Ahmad ran towards the stairwell. When he pushed the door open, he was thrown back two metres by plumes of black, dense, aggressive smoke which engulfed him and the rest of the floor.

He called his wife to say he couldn’t escape. His daughters, Kyla, ten, Raaya, seven, and Layla, four, heard the conversation through the car’s speakerphone. They yelled: “Daddy, Daddy! Get out, get out!”


Nadim Ahmad and family. Photo: Nadim Ahmad

Grabbing a coronavirus mask and cradling his upstairs neighbour’s one-year-old baby close to his chest after encountering the young family struggling in the stairwell, Ahmad slowly descended. He couldn’t even see a metre in front of him. He emerged by about 9am.

Poisoned by carbon monoxide, it took him three weeks to shake off the effects of smoke inhalation, which robbed him of energy and sent him to sleep early in the afternoons.

The fire started in a flat on the eighth floor of the 19-storey block D of New Providence Wharf. It spread externally up the building to the 11th floor. The London Fire Brigade declared it a major incident, rescuing 34 people from the block, and two people had to be treated in hospital for burns and smoke inhalation. It took over three hours for more than 120 firefighters to put out the blaze.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Residents like Ahmad, who has lived there for five years, had been waiting nearly four years to have the Grenfell Tower-style cladding removed from their homes. Around 20 per cent of the affected part of the building’s facade had the same type of cladding identified as key to the spread of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017: aluminium composite material polyethylene panels (ACM PE).

Ballymore, the building’s developer, told the New Statesman in a statement on the day that this cladding “did not combust and played no part in causing or facilitating the fire”. However, a preliminary report into the fire by the London Fire Brigade published on 1 June 2021 contradicted this statement, finding that cladding on the eighth and ninth floors was “involved” in the fire, and including a photo of this fire damage.

Although it reported the cladding “did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire”, it did find the building’s smoke ventilation system failed, acting like a “broken chimney”, and that the spread of the fire was facilitated by the timber decking on the balconies.

“We’re four years on from Grenfell, and you still have cladding on this building. How is that acceptable?” 

Ballymore was due to begin removing the dangerous cladding three days after the fire.

Since that day, Ahmad has had to stop himself researching the stories of residents trapped in Grenfell Tower four years ago to this day (14 June), when 72 people died.

Aside from the same cladding on the building’s exterior, there were other parallels with his own experience. The Grenfell fire had happened during Ramadan, for example, and Ahmad had been working late into the early hours after a day of fasting.

“We’re four years on from Grenfell, and you still have cladding on this building. How is that acceptable?” he asks, when we meet in the smart pink and teal-painted reception area of D block at New Providence Wharf, complete with leather sofas, marble tables and a rack of design magazines.

Things look a little different behind the scenes in the stairwell of D block, where a red air horn is lying unaccompanied on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. These are used by fire wardens running a 24/7 “waking watch”, introduced after flammable cladding was found in a post-Grenfell inspection in 2017. There is no audible fire alarm system. (Ballymore says its silent alarm system, which alerts a control centre, ensured firefighters were “on-site in ten minutes”).

A smell of smoke was still lingering, a month after the fire, Ahmad notes.

“Why were our lives put at risk? Why was my life put at risk? Why was my family’s life put at risk? Why were the other residents’ lives put at risk?” he asks.

“I find myself staying awake a few hours extra at night,” he says. “I don’t want to live here. We have to leave. I can’t live in a building I don’t feel safe in. I have no confidence that the developer nor the government is going to protect us.”

A Ballymore spokesperson says that remediation works are under way, and the company has “conducted a comprehensive review of the fire prevention, detection and mitigation systems in all of our developments, concluding that all were in good working order and in line with approved fire safety standards”.

***

Four years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, it is still unknown how many buildings do not meet fire safety standards in the UK. Remarkably, there is no official figure for the number of flats that have the fire safety faults exposed by the Grenfell inquiry.

There were 755 fires in high-rise buildings in England in the year ending December 2020, three of which resulted in a fatality, according to the latest figures.

The government keeps count specifically of the number of over-18-metre buildings with unfit ACM cladding systems (the latest figures show 107 buildings in England still fit this description). It also estimates that 492,000 leaseholders in residential buildings over 11 metres high do not need an external wall survey to sell or remortgage their property.

Yet it did not provide the New Statesman with a figure for how many blocks need fixing overall. Buildings of 11 metres and above are at risk of serious fires (below that, people can evacuate normally), and not just from Grenfell-type cladding – there are other dangerous cladding systems and risk factors such as missing cavity barriers and fire stops, combustible insulation materials, flammable timber balconies, and other flaws.

Last June, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee of MPs concluded there are probably 11,300 further buildings with other forms of combustible cladding alone. Fact-checking service Full Fact calculated in February this year that one million flats are affected in the UK (again, that’s only the figure for cladding).

“Leasehold is just a complete racket”

Over 100 local authority high-rise buildings in Scotland have the combustible material, about a third of Wales’ 152 high-rise residential buildings have fire safety defects, and although no public housing tower blocks in Northern Ireland were found with ACM cladding, some private blocks have been.

Perhaps this lack of data explains the paltry measures announced by the government so far in its efforts to make people’s homes safe.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.5bn of funding in February to fix dangerous cladding on buildings over 18 metres in England (an addition to £1.6bn announced last year) – far below the £15bn recommended by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee to fix all fire safety issues in high rises.

For buildings 11-18 metres tall, he announced a loan system where leaseholders of affected flats would have their bill for repairs capped at £50 a month – but gave no indication of eligibility criteria or how long the repayments would last.

With similarly scant detail, Jenrick also announced there would be new levies and taxes on developers from 2022, but the rates are unknown.

The government publishes a list each month naming developers that have yet to begin remediation works. There are seven on its latest list: Adriatic Land 5 Limited, Betterpride Limited, Henley Homes RF Limited, Old House Group Limited, Pinelink Developments Limited, Rockwell (FC100) Limited and Rocquefort Properties Limited.

Yet reputational risk alone has so far not been enough to shame all developers into action. Local authorities and fire and rescue services can take enforcement action where building owners are being too slow, and such action has been, or is being, taken against 61 buildings in England with ACM cladding (22 with the involvement of a government-funded Joint Inspection Team).

A government spokesperson says: “The Grenfell fire was a tragedy that must never be allowed to happen again, and we’re doing everything in our power to implement the recommendations from the first phase of the inquiry.

“The government is bringing forward the biggest improvements to building safety in 40 years through our Building Safety Bill and an unprecedented £5bn funding package to protect leaseholders from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding.

“Work is already complete or under way in the vast majority of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.”

The last government target for all dangerous cladding to be removed was June 2020. It has now been moved forward to the end of this year.

***

As well as living daily in fear for their safety, between 760,000 and 1.36m people in the UK personally face the costs of making their buildings fire-safe.

Huge bills for waking watches, rocketing insurance premiums and cripplingly high service charges are landing on the doormats of leaseholders across England and Wales (Scotland does not have a leasehold system, and leaseholders can more easily buy their freehold in Northern Ireland).

The average cost of running a waking watch in England is £331 a month per household. It would take three years of affected households spending every penny of disposable income to cover the average bill for fixing fire safety issues, according to research by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership.

Ballymore has recently increased its fund for remedial works across its portfolio to £20m, saying “we hope and expect that all costs of remedial works for fire safety can be covered between the government’s fund and Ballymore’s fund” for New Providence Wharf.

It took nearly four years of wrangling with residents over who would pay the costs – and a serious fire – to reach this position.

Even then, traumatised residents are still struggling with hefty bills. Natalie Carter, a 43-year-old programme manager who has lived on the third floor of block D since October 2015, has been hit with a 53 per cent rise in service charges in just four years.

“I didn’t sleep when I knew I was in a flammable building”

She now pays £8,000 a year in service charges, which include a rising building insurance premium, of which Ballymore pays itself 22 per cent commission. A Ballymore spokesperson says its service charges are “competitive, represent good value for money and are, in the vast majority of schemes, in line with or better than market comparables”, according to a recent review it commissioned that compared its charges with similar developments.

“We’re still living in an incredibly difficult situation,” says Carter, who was only alerted to the fire by a message in the residents’ WhatsApp group.

“We just don’t feel there’s any protection from them raising our service charges further to recoup the money that they’re ending up having to spend... leasehold is just a complete racket.”

The New Statesman asked Ballymore to guarantee that service charges would only rise with inflation. “We will continue to do everything to keep service charges as low as possible while providing the services our residents expect,” a spokesperson responded. “We will continue to communicate openly and transparently with all residents with regards to service charges.”

In the meantime, Carter lives in constant fear of another fire. “Initially, I didn’t sleep when I knew I was in a flammable building,” she says. “As soon as Grenfell happened, I got a rope ladder – obviously that’s not an option for people on higher floors.”

***

In the Palace of Westminster – an unsafe building itself that caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012 alone, and where fire safety teams are on constant patrol – the cladding crisis has united politicians across parties.

Between September 2020 and April 2021, there were months of “ping-pong” between the House of Commons and House of Lords on the Fire Safety Bill, as MPs and peers pushed the government to protect homeowners living in dangerous flats.

Despite a Conservative back-bench rebellion of 31 MPs, including the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, MPs eventually voted against an amendment on 28 April that would have removed liability from leaseholders.

“I think the Secretary of State’s done a shocking job, and so has his housing minister – they’ve both just been asleep on this,” says Stephen McPartland, the Conservative MP for Stevenage who led the rebellion against the government. Around 600 people (relatively few) are affected in his Hertfordshire constituency.

“It’s been four years since Grenfell, they’ve done nothing to make our buildings safer, they’ve just been passing the buck and playing parliamentary games. It’s totally unacceptable on those millions of people who are affected.”

“The Housing Secretary’s done a shocking job – he’s just been asleep on this”

In the House of Commons last October, McPartland made headlines when he accused Jenrick of a “shocking betrayal of millions of people who are trapped in flats they cannot sell” and beseeched him to “get out of his ivory tower, stop talking and start actually helping our constituents”.

McPartland plans to keep the pressure up. Another rebellion is planned on a second piece of legislation. “In the Building Safety Bill, I’ll be trying to amend that to protect leaseholders. So this is not stopping, this is going to continue on for the rest of this parliament.”

One solution would be for the government to provide the money for fixing the buildings upfront, and then recouping that funding with levies on the industries involved for “a couple of billion a year over the next ten years”, he suggests.

In England, building owners or leaseholders have to apply themselves for help from the Building Safety fund. In Scotland, the government is taking responsibility for assessing all the buildings and paying for all the remedial work. The funding is expected to be confirmed in August, when the extent of the problem is known. Wales has set aside an initial £42.5m of public money for fixing dangerous cladding and other defects and has plans to set up a building inspection team in the autumn. In Northern Ireland, the scale of the problem is smaller and has not resulted in similar measures.

***

The victims of this scandal have done everything they were supposed to, according to Conservative housing gospel. First-time buyers who have used Help to Buy, shared ownership, and other schemes designed to make house-buying affordable, as encouraged by successive Tory governments, are particularly affected.

Young families attempting to upsize and move further out of urban centres, and older retirees trying to find more accessible lower-rise housing, are also trapped in unsafe blocks.

“We don’t have flash holidays, we don’t have a flashy lifestyle, we have saved and saved and saved over the last few years to buy our family home with a garden, and we can just see every penny and more of that going on this flat,” says Vickie Pargetter, 40, who works at the University of Birmingham.

Twelve years ago, Pargetter moved into her flat on the third floor of an eight-storey block at Hemisphere Apartments in Edgbaston, Birmingham. It cost £150,000, and she bought it with the help of a government loan in a predecessor scheme to Help to Buy.

A two-bedroom flat with a timber balcony looking out onto a quiet grassy courtyard, opposite the Edgbaston cricket ground, it is home to Pargetter and her husband Dave Garner, a primary school teaching assistant, and their two and a half-year-old son Blake.


Vickie Pargetter and family. Photo: Vickie Pargetter

Last January, they decided to move to a bigger place, keen to make space for a second child. They were delighted when their flat was valued at between £210,000 and £225,000. Eighteen months later, it was worth £0.

Dangerous cladding was discovered on the outside of the building, as well as missing fire breaks in the cavity wall system, and timber balconies.

When she discovered the news, Pargetter went out and bought fire blankets and extinguishers.

“I’ve even considered one of those roll-out rope ladders if we needed to escape off the balcony. I shouldn’t have to think about things like that just to feel safe in my own home,” she tells me in the small front room-cum-kitchen where they squeeze in all family life: cooking, eating, working from home, hanging out washing, relaxing, watching TV, and where their toddler plays with his toys.

“It feels now more like living in a prison”

She and her husband fear for their son’s safety, while facing a future of sinking all their savings into a flat they no longer want to live in, losing their entire life’s investment, and cutting short their family plans.

The week we meet, Pargetter has received a huge service charge bill: £3,500 for six months – over double the usual annual amount of £3,000. A waking watch and hefty insurance premiums have increased the bill. She also has to pay £500 annual ground rent on top of that, plus her mortgage and government loan repayments that add up to around £700 a month.

“It feels now more like a prison,” she tells me. There are red rings around her eyes as she stares out of the balcony window. “There’s been no escape. We are entirely trapped and feel completely helpless, which is just a really horrible place to be.”

Suffering from the mental toll, she and her husband have both been prescribed antidepressants since they realised their home was unsafe.

“It feels like going through the stages of loss – we feel like we’ve had our life taken away from us, and our options totally removed from us.”

Neither the developer Redrow nor the builder Laing O’Rourke have committed to covering the costs of fixing the faults at Hemisphere Apartments.

Robert Wilson, managing director of Redrow’s Midlands division, says the company is “very aware of the stress and burden on residents of high-rise apartments across the country that have remedial cladding issues based on the new standards now set by government”, adding that the building’s management company is in “direct correspondence” with the builder of the apartment block, Laing O’Rourke, “regarding the unproven defects identified” and “therefore the requirement for remedial cladding works, and in turn any leaseholder costs, hasn’t been established”.

The New Statesman is awaiting a response from Laing O’Rourke and will update accordingly.

***

The building safety scandal may have political consequences. The Bank of England raised fears in April that it could even cause another financial crisis because of its effect on property values.

“A lot of people who live in these properties would traditionally be selling them and buying a house, and they’re going to be stuck and not able to move, and the people who would be moving into these flats don’t want to move into these flats now,” warns McPartland.

“It’s going to have a political consequence in that it affects the housing market for first-time buyers, or people who have bought their first home trying to move to a second home,” he adds. “I think it will have quite a big knock-on consequence in the years to come.”

For Nadim Ahmad in east London’s New Providence Wharf, the cladding crisis is a failure of leadership and accountability. He believes all the responsible parties are passing the buck.  

“Unless there is leadership driven from the top, everybody can shirk the responsibility and that’s ultimately what’s happened,” he tells me. “It’s obvious there is a complete lack of care and attention in government. They do not care about people who are living in high-rise buildings, they do not care about their safety, and are not showing any action.

“Look at the government’s response to coronavirus – they immediately provided funds, in many cases throwing funds at people and corporates. There is no reason they couldn’t have done that immediately with this.”

“They do not care about people living in high-rise buildings”

In Birmingham, Vickie Pargetter says she had never been a political person until now. “It’s made me very untrusting of people in power, and very dubious of anybody’s motives,” she says. “We feel disillusioned with the political system…

“You think you’re doing the right thing, getting yourself on the property ladder, because that’s what we have ingrained in us, isn’t it? Now we’re penalised by the very same people who told us so.”

Boiling the kettle for another cup of tea, she returns to her laptop, where there is a pile of “cladmin” to wade through after finishing her day job. Blake’s toys have been cleared to one side of the room as she works. A little wooden red fire engine is parked on the rug.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.