UK building safety crisis: ‘We are at breaking point’
We are not only living in buildings with dangerous cladding but also facing the risk of losing everything we worked for all our lives.
Finally, after years of hard work and saving, I had done it. In late 2017, I purchased a one-bed flat, and it was a dream come true. But this dream did not last long. It soon crumbled into a horrific nightmare. A nightmare where I am at risk of losing my home, my career, and everything I’ve ever worked for.
I am now facing a personal bill of more than 70,000 pounds ($96,000) to fix fire safety defects in my building. A building I do not own. A building I did not build. A building that was signed off as compliant with UK building regulations when I bought the flat. It is going to cost 7.6 million pounds ($10.4m) to make the building safe.
Each night, I go to sleep terrified of the thought of a fire breaking out, wondering if I’d be able to escape and even more terrified by the prospect of impending bankruptcy. Because if I get a bill for 70,000 pounds, I won’t be able to pay it.
I am by no means unique in this situation. This is happening all over the United Kingdom right now, to hundreds of thousands of flat owners who are “leaseholders”.
In the UK, most flats are leasehold properties. This means that when someone buys a flat, they purchase the right to occupy that flat for a certain number of years after which time the lease reverts to the landlord who owns the external building. Landlords have the power to charge for maintenance of the external building and communal areas through a service charge contained in the lease. The leaseholders have very little control over the money that is spent by the landlord, yet the leaseholders are legally responsible for paying all costs the landlord wishes to pass through the service charge, with very few rights to object to or challenge them.
Welcome to the UK’s building safety crisis
On June 14, 2017, 72 people tragically died when Grenfell Tower, a residential block of flats in London, became engulfed in flames. The fire spread rapidly up the external walls of the building, leaving many trapped without any means of escape. The cladding covering the external walls of Grenfell Tower has been attributed as the primary cause of the fire spreading in this way.
This tragedy was the catalyst for the national building safety crisis that exists today.
Over four years on from Grenfell, many buildings are still wrapped in flammable cladding. But cladding is not the only issue. The cladding issues have triggered fire safety inspections that revealed numerous other fire safety defects in blocks of flats all over the UK. These other defects include combustible insulation, missing fire breaks, missing cavity barriers, and timber balconies.
Leaseholders are now being asked to pay eye-watering sums of money, often more than six figures and sometimes even more than they paid for their flat, to fix these issues that are not of their making. And, of course, they cannot afford to pay. Unsurprisingly, many people are considering bankruptcy as the only way out of this – and some have already gone bankrupt.
In addition to the huge building remediation costs, leaseholders are being forced to pay exorbitant sums for interim measures – in case a fire occurs before remediation takes place. Several buildings are considered so flammable that they have fire wardens patrolling 24/7, costing leaseholders thousands of pounds a week. In my building, we had fire wardens for nine months, costing us 4,500 pounds ($6,200) a week.
Insurance premiums have skyrocketed, with some buildings seeing increases of more than 1,000 percent. In one building, the insurance premium rose from 34,000 to 525,000 pounds ($46,600 to $720,000) in two years.
So, who caused this mess? The answer is not straightforward. There has been failure on every level: The UK government has failed to properly regulate the construction industry for decades; manufacturers of products, such as insulation, have rigged fire safety tests; developers and builders have failed to comply with building regulations, for example by not installing cavity barriers; building control has failed to inspect buildings properly, resulting in non-compliant and dangerous buildings being signed off as safe. Despite each of these parties failing to do their job properly, it is the innocent leaseholder, the only party who has done nothing wrong, who is being forced to pay for the incompetence of everyone who was at fault.
Mental health impact
It is estimated that more than one million people in the UK are affected by the building safety crisis.
For some people, this crisis is now a matter of life and death. Not only because of the fire risk, but because of the severe financial and emotional pressure being placed on them. People living in these buildings are trapped: physically, financially, and mentally.
The mental health impact is grim. A survey (PDF) carried out by the UK Cladding Action Group in 2020 found that nearly a quarter of those surveyed reported having suicidal feelings or a desire to self-harm. Nine out of 10 people said their mental health had deteriorated as a direct result of the situation in their building, with nearly half seeking medical help.
Twitter is full of horrifying tweets from highly distressed leaseholders, screams of desperation and pain. I regularly see tweets from people saying they want to kill themselves. It is desperately sad that many people feel suicide is now their only way out. There have reportedly been at least three suicides directly linked to the building safety crisis over the past 18 months.
Yet the crisis is only getting worse. The bills are now starting to come thick and fast, and people won’t be able to pay them. People won’t be able to cope. Non-payment may result in forfeiture of the lease and then bankruptcy and ultimately homelessness. It is utterly heartbreaking but this is the reality of what is happening, and what will continue to happen unless the government intervenes with a viable solution.
The way forward?
The total scale and cost of the crisis are unknown but some estimate it to be as much as 50 billion pounds ($68.5bn). The government has so far allocated 5.1 billion pounds ($7b) to remove combustible cladding from high rise buildings across the UK. While this funding is welcome, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what is required. This funding does not cover buildings under 18 metres (about six stories), even if they have combustible cladding. This funding does not cover any other fire safety defects meaning that leaseholders will be left to pay tens of thousands of pounds to fix these. This funding does not cover 24/7 fire patrols or extortionate insurance costs.
The government has also suggested leaseholders bring legal claims against the developers of their buildings and has extended the time limit to do so from six to 15 years. Suggesting that a leaseholder should simply sue their developer is completely preposterous and demonstrates the sheer ignorance of those who are tasked with trying to solve the crisis.
Litigation is extremely expensive, even more uncertain, and often takes several years. Leaseholders don’t have the spare cash, the time, or the mental energy to sue developers with deep pockets. And even if they did, lots of developers no longer exist to be able to sue because they often use shell companies that are wound up once the development is finished.
While there is new legislation in the pipeline that aims to improve future building safety, none of the government proposals to date adequately address the existing problems.
In my opinion, the only realistic way to navigate through the current impasse is for the government to identify all the buildings that need fixing, provide the money upfront to fix them and then recover that money from those parties 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, a failure that 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 or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help.
In the UK and the Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those bereaved by suicide in the UK, contact Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.
Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.