Cancelled weddings and antidepressants: How the UK's cladding scandal is destroying lives

·10-min read
Victims of the cladding scandal, clockwise from top left: Yasmin Hill, Alex Fisher and Stephanie.
Victims of the cladding scandal, clockwise from top left: Yasmin Hill, Alex Fisher and Stephanie.

Home ownership is meant to bring security and prosperity.

But for leaseholders affected by the cladding scandal that erupted in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, this simple concept has been destroyed.

Safety checks carried out after the deadly fire found that thousands of flats across the country were wrapped in flammable cladding, along with having other defects such as missing fire breaks and dangerous balconies.

Homeowners are now facing vast costs – up to hundreds of thousands of pounds in some cases – to fix the defects, leaving many trapped in unsellable homes, unable to prove to valuers and mortgage lenders that they meet safety standards.

This scandal is coming at a very stark human cost for hundreds of thousands of people.

Watch: How the cladding scandal has affected my life

Rhian Fraser, one of a number of leaseholders affected by this scandal that Yahoo News UK has spoken to, outlined the lengths her fiancé is going to so they can save enough money before they are billed for remediation work of their London flat block.

The 31-year-old said: “We’ve cut down our food bills. My partner’s not eating enough food for a man.

“It’ll get to a point where he has to start eating more because he’ll be really underweight."

She went on: "I need a new pair of shoes and I’m reluctant to buy a new pair.

Rhian Fraser at a cladding scandal protest outside Downing Street. (Rhian Fraser)
Rhian Fraser at a cladding scandal protest outside Downing Street. (Rhian Fraser)

“So we’re sacrificing necessities because we don’t know how bad this is going to get.

“We’ve had conversations about bankruptcy. And what we’d do."

The wider cladding scandal came to light after it emerged that the Grenfell Tower fire, which caused 72 deaths in June 2017, was caused by unsafe flammable panels wrapped around the west London building.

Successive prime ministers promised to take action.

TOPSHOT - Pedestrians look up towards Grenfell Tower, a residential block of flats in west London on June 14, 2017, as firefighters continue to control a fire that engulfed the building in the early hours of the morning.
Shaken survivors of a blaze that ravaged a west London tower block told Wednesday of seeing people trapped or jump to their doom as flames raced towards the building's upper floors and smoke filled the corridors.   / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS        (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Pedestrians look up towards Grenfell Tower on the morning of 14 June, 2017. (AFP via Getty Images)

One year after Grenfell, Theresa May said "we must take the strongest possible action to stop such an unimaginable tragedy from ever happening again".

Three years later, Boris Johnson was saying "this government is committed to ensuring this never happens again".

Yet, more than four years on, hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in the UK are still living in unsafe buildings – whether due to cladding or other defects.

Buildings with Grenfell-style cladding are still going up in flames. Fortunately, there were no fatalities after a blaze ripped through the New Providence Wharf development in Canary Wharf, east London, at a deadly speed in May.

Damage to a 19-storey tower block in New Providence Wharf in London, where the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was called to on Friday morning to reports of a fire and more than 100 firefighters are tackling a blaze that has ripped through the block, believed to be covered in cladding, in east London. Picture date: Friday May 7, 2021. See PA story FIRE CanaryWharf. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA
Fire damage to the 19-storey New Providence Wharf block on 7 May. (Yui Mok/PA)

If the fear of living in unsafe buildings isn't bad enough, many people are facing the threat of bankruptcy due to massive bills to pay for fire safety issues.

Simply moving out is not an option, either. A government scheme requiring fire safety certificates for high-rise new builds caused widespread delays and confusion, with lenders refusing to offer mortgages on any homes without an EWS1 form.

Though the government has since backtracked, saying that buildings below 18 metres no longer need the form, cautious banks are still turning down mortgages on thousands of these properties.

Despite the May government's commitment to fund the removal of all aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding from high-rise buildings – those above 18 metres – by August 2020, the latest data show 75 such buildings in which people are living still have this cladding.

TOPSHOT - British Prime Minister Theresa May (C) speaks with Dany Cotton (L), London Fire Brigade commissioner as she visits the remains of Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in west London which was gutted by fire on June 15, 2017.
Firefighters searched for bodies today in a London tower block gutted by a blaze that has already left 12 dead, as questions grew over whether a recent refurbishment contributed to the fire. / AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN        (Photo credit should read TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Theresa May outside Grenfell Tower on 15 June, 2017. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

That's not even taking into account the 1,700 high-rises, inhabited by about 321,000 people, with unsafe non-ACM cladding. It was only February when the government committed to funding the removal of this.

Leaseholders living in buildings under 18 metres are not eligible for any government funding, and could still be faced with a bill for the removal of unsafe cladding.

Instead of paying to remove the flammable materials, the government plans to offer leaseholders loans to help them pay for works, potentially saddling them with vast debt and wiping thousands off the value of properties.

The scandal is not just about cladding, though. It has also come to incorporate further fire safety defects on apartment blocks such as Fraser's.

She and her fiancé have lived in the Waterside Park development in Newham, east London, since 2012.

Rhian Fraser said she is probably going to have to cancel her wedding. (Rhian Fraser)
Rhian Fraser said she is probably going to have to cancel her wedding. (Rhian Fraser)

She tells this website how in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, it emerged the building was missing fire breaks and had flammable balconies and flammable insulation. It also has the lowest possible “B2” fire safety rating.

It's Fraser and her partner who are among the leaseholders footing the bill for remediation work, even when it's not their fault. The bill is still to come through, and she says it could be "anywhere between £5,000 and £100,000".

Meanwhile, they were also due to pay a first £3,000 instalment for six months of “waking watch”, a system where guards continually patrol the block to check for fires.

They are due to get married next year, but Fraser is already resigned to it not happening.

She says: “Weddings are ridiculous amounts of money. There’s no point spending that kind of money on a wedding when we could lose our house.”

'It sounds like the kind of corruption that would go on in South America'

In response to Grenfell, the government introduced the Fire Safety Bill. This became law on 29 April, but to widespread indignation: critics argued hundreds of thousands of people would still be facing bills of tens of thousands.

Grenfell United, a campaign group made up of survivors and bereaved relatives from the disaster, said it was "indefensible" and a "grave injustice that many innocent leaseholders will be financially ruined over fire safety issues that were not of their own making".

The Building Safety Bill was then introduced on 5 July. There had been hope this could change things.

While it proposed a new building safety regulator with the power to prosecute rule-breaking developers, there is still nothing to protect leaseholders from huge remediation bills. Labour labelled it a "betrayal".

When Stephanie – who does not want to reveal her surname – tells her friends about this, and her personal situation, they don’t believe her.

“They say it sounds like the kind of corruption that would go on in South America,” she tells this website. “I completely agree.

“I would never believe politicians could be that brazen about protecting their party interests. I thought we were a bit better than that.”

Stephanie on the cladding scandal: 'It’s making me physically unwell and this affects my mental health as well. It spirals out of control.'
Stephanie on the cladding scandal: 'It’s making me physically unwell and this affects my mental health as well. It spirals out of control.'

Stephanie owns a flat just outside Manchester city centre. She was told last summer that when the block was built, it was not done according to fire safety standards set out in its planning permission.

Stephanie now faces a monthly bill of £660 to pay for remediations to fix defects which she lists as non-compliant insulation under the cladding; fire barriers not fitted between walls and the cladding; improper compartmentalisation between flats and corridors; and badly fitted fire doors.

She's a year in to her payments and still has another 12 months left. The total bill will exceed £16,000.

She bought the flat in 2014, but had to relocate in 2015 and has rented it out ever since.

Stephanie understands landlords are not the first people to win sympathy, but adds: “I’m not an unscrupulous land baron. I just want the flat to pay for itself [through tenants’ rent] until I can sell it.”

Read more:

How can a building with Grenfell-style cladding go up in flames four years after Grenfell?

The cladding bomb: Why millions of UK homes have become unsellable

Instead, she’s now having to “magic £660 out of the ground” every month, and that is taking a "horrendous" toll.

“I’m on antidepressants. I’m having to see a therapist every week. It’s exhausting, making me physically unwell and this affects my mental health as well. It spirals out of control.

“I wish I had gone travelling with the money instead.

“I’m stuck. Because I’m now living in the South East, the rent is horrific. I’m really struggling to survive at the minute.

“It’s on my mind day and night. You can’t sleep for worrying. It shouldn’t be like this. People shouldn’t be put in a situation where they buy themselves a home and are made homeless.”

'Absolute stress rollercoaster'

As if the financial burden wasn’t stark enough, many leaseholders have also been forced to deal with job insecurity caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Alex Fisher, who owns a flat in the Queensland Road development near Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in Islington, north London, knows this all too well.

He says he faces a bill of up to £80,000 as a result of unsafe cladding and missing fire barriers.

Alex Fisher outside his block in Islington, north London. (Alex Fisher)
Alex Fisher outside his block in Islington, north London. (Alex Fisher)

Fisher tells this website: “I own a restaurant and given the pandemic, wasn’t able to operate fully. And we had a landlord breathing down our neck asking for rent.

"It’s been an absolute stress rollercoaster.”

For him, the issue is even more galling because he lives in one of two "affordable" blocks which have the lowest possible B2 rating. The "luxury" blocks in the same development have the highest A1 score.

“It feels like something very large is sitting on our chest and we can’t move it or push it off," he says.

'I go for midnight walks as I can't sleep'

When Yasmin Hill achieved her home-owning dream in April 2015, moving into a flat in the Royal Artillery Quays development in Woolwich, south-east London, she probably didn't envisage stalking the building's corridors in the middle of the night.

But, faced with a potential bill of up to £70,000, that is what she has been doing.

“I go to bed at 11pm and wake up at 1am and can't get back to sleep. So I go for walks around the block because I’ve just been so stressed out about it.

"If you’ve ever suffered from a lack of sleep you’ll know how much of an impact it has on your days and makes things a whole lot worse. I haven’t been functioning properly."

'I haven’t been functioning properly': Yasmin Hill. (Yasmin Hill)
'I haven’t been functioning properly': Yasmin Hill. (Yasmin Hill)

An investigation into the building found it was either missing fire breaks or had fire breaks that were made of plastic.

Hill sums up the situation facing hundreds of thousands of leaseholders: "Ultimately it’s us against the big dogs.

"And that's not fair at all given that for most of us, it’s out first step on to the property ladder. People have been saving up their entire lives to get here and are suddenly just slapped with another huge bill which may bankrupt you."

Or, as Stephanie puts it: "You have more rights buying a toaster."

Government response

In response to this article, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: "We’re spending £5 billion to fund the remediation of unsafe cladding in the highest risk buildings and are making the biggest improvements to building safety in a generation.

“Building owners and industry should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders – and our new measures will legally require building owners to prove they have tried all routes to cover costs.

"We are also stepping in with a finance scheme for the remediation of unsafe cladding on medium-rise residential buildings of 11 to 18 metres.”

Watch: Blaze rips through New Providence Wharf development in May