It’s 4am and I’m wide awake. I feel pressure on my chest, like someone is standing on it and I’m finding it hard to breathe properly. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like this. I know I shouldn’t, but I reach for my phone and open Twitter. I realise I’m not the only one finding it hard to sleep.
My entire feed is filled with End our Cladding Scandal icons in the circle where our faces used to be. It’s as though every single one of us has had our individual identity erased. We have variations of names that start with @cladding or @leaseholder and end with words like hostage, victim or prisoner. As though our whole being is defined by the building we live in; in a way it is. And at 4am, as I give up trying to sleep, I see there are hundreds of other #claddingscandal contacts wide awake too. In the early hours of the morning, we share our anger, our frustration, as well as much-needed solace.
It’s been over a year since I found out my building was unsafe. Over a year since I realised that my home, once a place I felt so proud of and so secure within, is actually a death trap. And it’s not just the cladding. The whole structure has been built with a multitude of flammable materials and construction defects which had not been noted when it passed government regulations at the time of build. Nor were they identified when it was signed off as safe by my council, or when I employed a conveyancing solicitor to run all the necessary checks before I invested my hard-earned life savings in my first home. As a leaseholder, I only own my now unsellable flat, yet somehow the emotional and financial burden of rebuilding a faulty structure, which I pay ground rent to live within, has fallen on my shoulders.
Anyone who has lived alone during lockdown will know how painful isolation has been. Sometimes spending days without human contact and almost forgetting what it feels like to have the once basic interaction of a hug. Add that to spending day after day within walls that you know put you directly at risk and it’s no wonder that a UKCAG survey released last year found that 9/10 of people living in fire-risk buildings had found their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result.
It’s now months since that survey was released, and I doubt an updated version would find even 10% who would think themselves unscathed. As I scroll through the posts online, it’s not just single people suffering. I hear of couples scared to have children because of safety and financial fears, I read about families feeling distressed that their efforts to provide a safe and secure future for their children have been ruined. I see countless people talking about medication they have been prescribed as a direct result of the anxiety this has caused. And, terrifyingly, there are a few people admitting to suicidal thoughts.
£5 billion has been allocated to replace unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings. This is certainly a significant amount of money, and if the cost of solving this was £5 billion, I for one would be extremely relieved and appreciative. But it’s not. This fund doesn’t cover the costs of the numerous other fire risks like flammable insulation, substandard firebreaks or unsafe balconies. It doesn’t account for the huge insurance hikes so many of us have seen, nor the devastating costs for temporary measures we have all been paying already. And, shockingly, people in buildings under 18m won’t even get a share of this. The full remediation cost has been estimated to be easily as much as £15 billion. So, when extra funding was announced last month, I didn’t hear the amount the government would be fronting, I just heard in my head the far more significant amount, which we as leaseholders would be expected to bear the cost of. That we would likely be penalised to the cost of £10 billion – the lion’s share of what is needed to fix other people’s mistakes.
Most of us are taxpayers ourselves, and while the urgency of this situation means it may be necessary to use public funds initially to enable quick remediation of the most dangerous buildings, it would seem only fair if those responsible for these failings ultimately bear the cost. For this reason, the long-overdue £2bn developer levy is welcome. But considering building companies have in recent years given out bonuses of as much as £75 million to single individuals, a collective contribution of £200 million a year feels, dare I say it, token. The government are also allowing them ten years to come up with funds for this levy. I wish just a fraction of this patience had been given to leaseholders in my block when we had just 28 days to come up with around £4000 each for waking watch and fire alarm costs, which notably all included VAT. These bills came just a month after the pandemic had hit and many of us were living in huge employment uncertainty or had already lost our jobs. We were forced to use our much-needed savings or overdrafts to pay for the suddenly essential service of men with air horns walking around our corridors. And for those who didn’t have the means to pay this money up front, they were threatened with debt collection letters.
Even if the cladding is paid for, the cost of the rest of the remediation bill for me and other leaseholders in my block is likely to still be tens of thousands each, in addition to the thousands per flat that we’ve already paid for temporary measures. Even so, my heart breaks for people who live in buildings below 18m who will be faced with all this, in addition to the twisted knife of a lifelong forced loan, just because of an arbitrary measurement.
Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick referenced ‘Caveat emptor’, or ‘buyer beware’, when this was debated last month. Based on my experience, I and the leaseholders I’m engaging with online as dawn approaches may well agree with him, but not in the way he meant. Buyer beware that we live in a country where our government can retroactively change building regulations at any time and then not take ownership of the resulting fallout. ‘Buyer beware’ that somehow in the UK you have more consumer rights buying a toaster than a home.
Outside, I hear the waking watch pass my door, every footstep increasing the number on my next service charge demand. I still feel so trapped, my future continues to be in limbo, and I worry deeply about others affected who I know are close to breaking point. After more than a year of this I’m so tired, but it’s probably no surprise I still can’t sleep.
The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign calls on the Government to lead an urgent, national effort to fix the building safety crisis.
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