Cladding crisis: safety concerns, stalled sales and a hunt for cash buyers — meet the Londoners still stuck in unsellable homes
At six months old Maeve Jenkins is one of the youngest victims of the cladding crisis.
Her first home is a one bedroom flat in Isleworth, west London, which her parents, Rob Jenkins, 31, and Katherine James, 32, spent £360,000 on buying in February 2017.
The couple had never imagined the starter flat would end up being their long term, family home but four months after they moved in a catastrophic fire broke out at Grenfell Tower.
Katherine, Rob, and Maeve — and many thousands more Londoners — have found themselves trapped in unmortgageable and potentially lethal homes ever since.
“There has been a lot of non-progress over the last couple of years,” said Rob, a sales manager. “There has been a lot of posturing, and a lot of statements, but not much action.”
He and Katherine, a mechanical engineer, had originally planned to stay in the flat for no more than five years. They had used the Help to Buy scheme to get onto the property ladder, and wanted to sell up before interest payments on their Government loan kicked in.
In the months after the fire their building’s WhatsApp group started to fill up with chat about cladding — it was slowly emerging that the ACM cladding used at Grenfell was a key reason for the terrifyingly fast spread of the fire. It was also becoming clear that other forms of cladding might be similarly unsafe.
Privately, Rob wasn’t desperately worried. His and Katherine’s flat is on the ground floor of a five-storey converted office block, and its cladding was only on the upper floors.
In December 2019 the Government introduced a new system of fire safety checks, or External Wall Surveys (EWS1). “To be proactive we asked our freeholder to get one done, thinking it would just be a box checking exercise,” said Rob.
He and his neighbours agreed to pay the circa £15,000 cost of the EWS1 and were horrified when, in 2021, they learned its verdict.
As well as potentially flammable cladding on its two upper floors the report highlighted safety issues with the wall insulation, fire breaks, and fire doors.
Since then, the couple have struggled to get their freeholder, Frontiera Real Estate, to offer a solution to their plight.
Desperate to move on Rob and Katherine put the flat on sale last year, and have accepted a £345,000 offer. However, without clear information about what needs doing and who will pay for it (there are various Government funds which could cover some or all of the work), their buyer has not been able to secure a mortgage.
A spokesperson for Frontiera said it replaced the building’s managers last September, and commissioned a new fire safety report on the building. In February Rob, Katherine, and their neighbours were reassured they would not be expected to pay for remedial works. But they are still awaiting news on what work needs doing and when it will be done.
“We are committed to keeping leaseholders informed with absolute transparency and doing our best to ensure this matter is rectified in a comprehensive and well-managed manner, including ensuring we acquire any funding possible for the works,” said a spokesperson for Frontiera.
The problem of getting hold of firm information is horribly familiar to Tom and Oliver Dacosta-Woodall.
When they moved into their two-bedroom flat in East London in 2015 the atmosphere was partyish.
The block was brand new, all the owners had been given their keys on the same day, and spirits were high.
It was a first home for Tom and Oliver, who got married in August 2022, and they paid £405,000 for the two-bedroom flat near Devons Road DLR station.
They also used the Help to Buy scheme, and also intended to sell up within five years.
After Grenfell Tom, now 36, who works for a tv and film company, and Oliver, 33, who works in finance, struggled to get any clear answers from their housebuilder, Peabody, about when their building would be inspected for safety flaws, when they would find out if it was safe, and who would pay for repairs.
“The only thing that happened was that we got a walking watch — guys wandering around with foghorns to let us know if a fire broke out,” said Tom. “No one could give us any straight answers.”
In 2019, still without any answers, they decided to put their flat on the market for £500,000 in the hopes that a cash buyer might emerge. Although they were aware they wouldn’t be able to sell to anyone who needed a mortgage they thought they might find a cash buyer willing to take a chance.
“We wanted to move west, where we have a lot of friends and family,” said Tom. “We wanted a garden and a bit more space, a more suburban life. Now that we are in our thirties we are less all night raves and more dinner parties.”
Unfortunately a white knight willing to buy the flat failed to materialise. Then the pandemic hit, the property market shut down, and Tom and Oliver admitted defeat and took the flat off the market.
Finally, in December 2022 they received some news. An initial assessment had been carried out on their building, and flaws had been found in the fire breaks in its walls. “Even getting the understanding that remediation work is required has taken more than four years,” said Tom. “We still don’t know exactly what is wrong, or when it is going to be repaired.”
Meanwhile the couple’s monthly bills have been spiralling. Help to Buy interest payments, which kicked in in 2020, cost around £150pcm, and their mortgage deal expired last September. With rates rising their repayments have leaped by £500pcm.
“The most stressful thing for us is that, because of all the mistakes that have been made, we are completely incapable of making a decision about where we live,” said Tom. “We can’t sell the thing. We can’t rent it because of Help to Buy rules. We are completely powerless.”
A spokesperson for Peabody said it was working hard to support owners caught up in the cladding crisis, including setting up a dedicated web page to keep residents at Tom’s buildings informed on the situation.
“The developer responsible has pledged to carry out and pay for the necessary work and we expect to receive further information about anticipated timescales this month,” he said. “Remediation projects are often complex, requiring detailed discussions with partners and multiple inspections by independent fire safety engineers, who are unfortunately in short supply across the country.
“However, the developer has assured us that the work will be carried out as quickly as possible and we will keep in touch with residents as this is progressed.”
One of the key issues with the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy is how convoluted and sprawling it has become.
There are now different rules for blocks of different sizes, different funds set up to help pay for homes of different sizes, different loan schemes, and different developers and freeholders are taking different views about how much responsibility they are willing to take.
Sisters Lisa and Alexandra Perry bought their £300,000 flat in Romford, east London, back in 2016. It was only when they tried to sell it, in 2019, that they realised there was a problem when their buyer tried and failed to secure a mortgage.
Unfortunately for the sisters the building, at four stories, is too short to qualify for Government assistance which kicks in for buildings at least 11m tall. And while Countryside, Lisa and Alexandra’s developer, was one of the first firms to sign up to the Government’s cladding fund pledge, announced by Michael Gove last year as part of a get tough approach to getting builders to pay for repairs on unsafe buildings, it too only applies to taller buildings.
Being ineligible for funding doesn’t mean a building is safe, however.
After so many surveys and assessments that Lisa lost count of them, it was confirmed last year that the block was covered in flammable, Grenfell-tower style cladding, which needs to be removed.
How much this will cost has not been confirmed but Lisa, 42, who works in marketing, and Alexandra, 34, a teaching assistant, are bracing themselves to receive a bill for up to £15,000 to £20,000.
Adding insult to injury they have not been able to remortgage the flat and, since last summer, their mortgage repayments have spiralled by around £400pcm.
“The managing agent has already said that they want the money upfront before the work can start, and there are 18 flats in the building and not everyone is going to be able to do that,” said Lisa.
From January 9 the UK’s six major mortgage lenders have agreed to consider lending on flats in blocks with cladding, so long as there is evidence that a plan to repair the building has been agreed and funding secured, either from the building owner or one of the Government’s funding pots. This may finally assist some owners out of the cladding crisis, but Lisa and Alexandra are now stuck in a flat coated with a material now banned from use on buildings of any height.
“It seems like madness,” said Lisa.