The people trapped in unsafe buildings five years after Grenfell

Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, when 72 people were killed as an early-morning blaze ripped through the flammable cladding of a west London high-rise.

Their families are still searching for answers. The Government has promised widespread planning reforms to ensure that such a tragedy will never be repeated. But little has changed over the past five years.

In April, more than 35 housebuilders agreed to put £2 billion towards fixing unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings in England.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove had asked 53 homebuilders to contribute towards fixing sites they had a role in developing. But even with two-thirds on board, a further £3 billion is required to address fire safety problems in high-rise buildings across the country.

Mr Gove said a new “building safety levy” would help raise the extra £3 billion over the next decade or so. The tax will be charged on each new development that seeks building control approval, but it will take an estimated 10 years to scrabble together enough cash to address the crisis.

In the meantime, more than a million people across Britain are still stuck in towers like Grenfell. Their flats are currently unsellable, blighted by major fire safety flaws exposed in the aftermath of the blaze. The threat of fire hangs over them. Some of them are still unable to sleep.

Charlotte Meehan, 33: ‘I have these horrible knots in my stomach — Do people know that they shouldn’t be smoking on the balcony?

Charlotte Meehan said she is “furiously angry” at the opportunities she has lost out on over the past five years since the Grenfell Tower fire plunged more than a million people into cladding limbo (Photo: Charlotte Meehan)

Charlotte Meehan did everything right. She started working aged 18 and saved up enough to buy her first property in east London with her boyfriend six years ago. It wasn’t until 2019, two years after Grenfell, that she realised her investment had become a burden.

“We had a neighbour that found out they couldn’t sell their flat because they were being asked for an EWS1 form,” she says, referring to the Government’s “external wall fire review process” certificates that came into force in December 2019 to prove buildings were free from dangerous cladding. “That was kind of the beginning of our nightmare.”

Charlotte soon found out that her development was wrapped in a flammable laminate cladding. Highly-combustible Kingspan insulation remains inside the building — the same brand used in the Grenfell Tower. Cavity barriers are missing, which are usually installed in empty spaces to prevent fires being drawn upwards throughout buildings in a chimney effect.

For the past few years, Charlotte has been trapped in a state of limbo. “It’s actually taken me two years to get the developer to engage with us,” she says.

Housebuilder Bellway earlier this year announced it will spend £187m remediating 33 sites across the UK covered in dangerous cladding. But Charlotte still has no idea what this will mean in practice, or whether it will cover the entire cost. She spends her evenings, weekends and holidays trying to find answers.

“We’re stuck in this merry-go-round,” she says. “There’s this constant torture from various different parties about who’s going to pay for it. I don’t know if I’ll be pushed into bankruptcy.”

Charlotte’s building in Bow, east London, is mixed height, meaning some parts were deemed eligible for Government funding to remove cladding, with those living in shorter parts were not (Photo: Charlotte Meehan)

To make matters worse, residents in the Bow development have been forced to shell out for fire wardens to patrol the building 24/7 in the absence of suitable safety measures — a service known as Waking Watch. The fees have more than doubled in the past few years to around £400 a month.

“My block is in a real state of disrepair at the moment because most of the money is going on Waking Watch. There’s no money to pay cleaners. There’s no money for any upkeep of the grounds. We live in a block of flats that is deteriorating. It doesn’t have any security. The lift is broken,” she says.

“All it would take is anti-social behaviour, or for someone to flick a cigarette off the balcony, for the whole thing to happen again. When people move into the property I have these horrible knots in my stomach — I think: ‘Have they been told that the building is unsafe? Do they know that they shouldn’t be smoking on the balcony?’”

When Charlotte’s nephews come to stay she puts them on the sofa bed in the living room. “That’s closer to the back doors if we had to jump,” she says.

The 33-year-old operations manager is angry at the developers. She’s angry at central Government. But mostly she feels desperate. “What I can’t understand is what they’re waiting for. It’s a ticking time bomb,” she says.

The five-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on Tuesday will serve as a poignant reminder of lives needlessly lost. But it will also serve as a marker of how little has changed.

“If you asked me five years ago whether I’d still be here now, having the same chats with the same people, I’d have said you were crazy,” says Charlotte.

Mr Gove announced earlier this month that the Government will ban ACM cladding — the type used on Grenfell Tower — for all newbuilds taller than 18m from December.

But it won’t help people like Charlotte. The changes only apply to future builds, rather than existing properties or projects already under construction.

“I feel just a general sense of all-round, all-encompassing desperation,” she says. “I’ve lost that unwritten contract you’re meant to have with your home which is that you’re meant to feel safe when you go back there. I want to get out.”

Natalie Hadlow, 36: ‘The cladding scandal will probably be the difference between me having a family or not

Natalie Hadlow on move-in day on 6 June 2017, less than two weeks before the Grenfell Tower fire (Photo: Natalie Hadlow)

For some trapped in the cladding scandal, the past five years have blocked the doorways to some of the big moments in life.

Natalie Hadlow was in her early thirties when she bought her one-bedroom flat in Colindale, north London, just 11 days before the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

The building, completed in 2010, is covered in green, grey and stone-coloured cladding. “It’s very arty-looking,” she says. “It was built in that time period where everyone was putting cladding on everything to try and step away from the regular tower block look.”

But after the Grenfell Tower, that cladding became a colourful reminder that the 400 or so flats in the Edition development were desperately unsafe. Natalie got in touch with Fairview New Homes, the building’s developers, and was told the usual assurances.

“They said: ‘Oh yes it’s fine, it’s a very safe building,’” she says. “They basically made out that I had nothing to worry about because it was a new building and it had gone through all the checks.”

But like most others trapped in cladding limbo, a drip feed of documents that trickled in over the proceeding months soon told a different story.

Natalie failed her EWS1, but the developers wouldn’t say why. After chasing the local council, which tracked down the CEO of the development firm, she was told the flat was missing cavity barriers and firebreaks. It also had flammable cladding and insulation. Natalie found out her balcony was timber-stacked — meaning it would act like kindling in any blaze — and that a fire brigade wouldn’t even be able to access the internal courtyard in an emergency.

The Edition building in Colindale, north London, which contains Natalie’s one-bedroom flat (Photo: Natalie Hadlow)

Her flat is currently rated at zero, which means it can’t be sold, and she can’t even get anyone to value the property.

“Not one single person is willing to do an evaluation on a cladding-affected property,” she says. “We’re just sat in the dark. We still don’t know to this day who’s paying or how much it’s going to cost. I think the not knowing is the worst part — is it going to be £100,000? £15,000? Nothing?”

Natalie and her neighbours have even taken to protesting the developers’ showrooms demanding answers, after being repeatedly hit with automated emails saying things like: “We have no updates at this time. Apologies for any inconvenience.”

During the pandemic, 20 of them took to the newly-opened Regency Heights in Edgware with banners and facemasks to try and shake Fairview into action. The police were called, who agreed they were doing nothing wrong.

“What do the developers expect us to do, sit and wait?” asks Natalie. “We don’t know how long the work’s going to take, who’s going to do it. We’re stuck in limbo waiting.”

For Natalie, now almost 37, that period of waiting has had a profound effect on her life. “I bought the flat as a single thirty-something and in that time I’ve met someone, got married, and we want to start a family. We can’t do that in a one-bedroom flat that we can’t remortgage, because we bought it through Help to Buy.

“This cladding scandal will probably be the difference between me having a family or not.”

Giles Grover, 43: ‘Things are starting to change but it’s way too little, and way too slow’

Natalie and Charlotte are just two out an estimated 1.1 million people affected by the cladding crisis, depending on which metrics you use.

The true figure is unknown, according to Giles Grover, who heads up the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign. He says the Government has focused its efforts on the 600,000 or so residents that live in buildings over 18m tall that have ACM cladding — the same type as Grenfell.

“But that’s a totally arbitrary measure,” he says. Brian Martin, a top civil servant working on the cladding scandal, claimed last year that ministers had plucked the 18m cut-off out of thin air because the Government “didn’t have time to come up with a better number”.

According to fact-checking agency Full Fact, it means the real number of people trapped in the cladding nightmare is probably somewhere just over the million mark — once you add in buildings over 11m with cladding and those with other fire safety issues. But even the housing secretary is unsure. Asked by LBC last week how many people were still stuck in unsafe buildings, Mr Gove was unable to provide a figure.

The fact that the exact number of people affected by the cladding scandal is unknown is an important point, says Giles, because it means all progress is hailed as good progress, without an understanding of how much new announcements are really chipping into the issue.

“It’s hiding the true scale of the crisis,” he says. Giles, who lives in a cladded flat in Manchester, has spent the past few years trying to find accurate figures and solutions for residents.

He got involved with the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign after setting up Manchester Cladiators, a voluntary group helping around 350 locals stuck in buildings with dangerous cladding.

The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign has provided help for thousands of residents stuck in unsafe buildings around the UK (Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The two groups have offered faith to residents where official bodies provided little. “It’s a cheesy analogy but our process is almost like when you help people going through grief,” says Giles. “It starts off with depression, then of course there’s denial — people ask ‘how can this happen?’ — then they become angry, and then there’s bargaining. We try and help them come to some kind of acceptance — help them with the reality of the situation and what they can do about it.”

And the need for practical help has become even more pronounced in recent months. While the changes recently unveiled by Mr Gove have ushered in a “sea change” in the Government’s response, they have also made things wildly more complex, according to Giles.

“Gove’s essentially triangulated this massively complicated ‘solution’. You have all sorts of bodies and institutions involved now. And the action on the ground never matches all the rhetoric. We’ve seen this so many times: it’s way too little, and it’s way too slow.”

He suggests the delay is the result of twin failures from both the developers and central Government, who have spent five years passing the buck back and forth between them like a hot cake.

“It’s very easy to say it’s the developers’ fault — yes they built them. But the Government held the responsibility for the regimes,” he says. “We’re further along five years down the line, but I think we’re still a long way from the finish line unfortunately.”

Natalie Carter, 44: ‘I lived through a Grenfell-style fire but the work being done to fix the building is hell

Natalie Carter still has trouble sleeping after a major fire in her apartment block last year (Photo: Natalie Carter)

The Government said at the end of last year that 407 buildings across the UK have had dangerous cladding removed, with a further 70 either awaiting removal or in the process of being refitted.

But there are still at least 9,793 tower blocks in the country that are “unsafe” due to dangerous cladding and other associated fire risks, according to Government figures.

And there’s no more visceral reminder of just how unsafe such buildings are than an actual fire breaking out. As End Our Cladding Scandal‘s campaign slogan spells out: “Fire won’t wait.”

Natalie Carter was 37 when she bought her flat in the New Providence Wharf building in 2015. She enjoyed several years of bliss in the east London apartment block before everything fell apart. “Those first two years were great,” she said. “And then Grenfell happened.”

Natalie was among a stampede of residents in the 559-flat complex that went straight to Ballymore, the building’s developer, seeking assurances that the same wouldn’t happen to them. “They said they couldn’t tell us. We said that’s ridiculous — you built the property,” she said, adding that Ballymore eventually agreed to do a survey on the building’s safety.

About a year later Natalie received a response from the developers telling her that New Providence Wharf was swaddled in ACM cladding.

“And then began the fight over who would pay to remove it,” she said. Over the following years, Natalie and her neighbours received little information from the powers that be, relying instead on a WhatsApp group where residents pooled their research into the various fire safety failures and Government proposals to fix it.

As it turns out, that very same WhatsApp group saved her life. On 7 May last year, while on a 9am work call inside her apartment, Natalie noticed a flurry of messages pop on her mobile. “The WhatsApp group just started going nuts,” she said. “There were all these messages saying: ‘Major fire! Major fire! Get out!’” Natalie grabbed her bag and ran out the building. No fire alarms went off. The building didn’t have any sprinklers.

A London Fire Brigade review into the blaze later concluded it was “minutes” away from a Grenfell-style tragedy.

The incident pushed the developers into action. Three days before the fire, Natalie had been informed that it would cost £11.6m to “remediate” the building. The Government agreed to chip in £8m, noting that the block was over the crucial 18m mark. Ballymore, which had raked in almost £100m in profits in the year to March 2020, initially offered just £500,000, leaving residents with a £3.5m bill.

Several weeks after the fire, Ballymore had agreed to cover the shortfall. After years of pursuing developers, local Government and Cabinet ministers, Natalie’s building is one of several hundred Grenfell-style towers where work has begun to remedy safety failures.

But the scaffolding that has gone up is just the beginning. “Contextually, I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “But this period now has been one of the worst experiences ever.”

Scaffolding around the flat, where Natalie works from home, blocks out almost all natural daylight. That’s not to mention the serious safety concerns that the remediation work has raised. She now carries a portable alarm with her when she’s walking around the building. “In a high-rise, you’d never expect someone to walk past your window,” she says. “But the workers walk past all day every day. Just men looking in. Those of us as single women or people with young children — it’s scary.”

And even though remediation work has begun on her building, it could be years before the development is declared safe enough to put on the market. And then there’s the whole sales process to go through.

“I’m worried this might eat up another five, six, maybe seven years of my life,” she says. “It’s good that the Government are slowly getting to the point where they’re starting to agree who pays, but I don’t think they’ve moved anywhere near fast enough.”

According to Natalie, there’s been too much focus on the fact that Grenfell-style towers are unsellable, and too little attention to the face that they are still unsafe.

“Any time the fire alarm goes off we all panic. There are children in the block who still don’t sleep through the night because they were traumatised by the fire,” she says. “I haven’t been able to properly sleep for at least a year.”

Like others trapped in the cladding scandal, Natalie’s sense of injustice isn’t just about financial matters, but also about the years wasted on trying to find answers.

“It’s years that I will never get back,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe how insidious and stressful this whole thing has been.

“You’d think because of how utterly destructive this process has been that the conversation would be about compensation, rather than how much you might have to pay to fix a problem that isn’t your making. It’s bonkers. It’s hell.”

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