Thousands of British homeowners face mounting debt to replace building materials ruled unsafe after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire
By Zoe Tabary
LONDON, Feb 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -The British government on Wednesday announced a 3.5 billion-pound fund to remove exterior building panels ruled unsafe after a deadly 2017 fire at London's Grenfell tower block.
It faced increased pressure in recent months to support thousands of homeowners who face bankruptcy and homelessness due to the cost of replacing dangerous cladding, with many flooding social media with stories of mounting debt.
Here's what you need to know about the UK's cladding crisis:
What is unsafe cladding and why is it causing an uproar?
About 700,000 people in England live in buildings with flammable exterior cladding similar to that used at Grenfell Tower - which was used widely to improve buildings' aesthetics and energy efficiency – according to the End Our Cladding Scandal (EOCS) campaign.
A fire tore through the 23-storey block, owned by the west London council of Kensington and Chelsea, in June 2017, killing 72 people in Britain's worst blaze in a residential building since World War Two.
The government's new fund will remove and replace cladding on all buildings over 18 metres, but housing groups say this excludes thousands of leaseholders – leaving homeowners to shoulder the expense themselves.
"Many people living in buildings under 18 metres will still have to bear the cost – saddled with debt around their necks for 30 years," the EOCS campaign said in a statement on Wednesday.
How has this affected residents?
The crisis has rendered up to 1.5 million flats unsellable because their owners cannot demonstrate the safety of their cladding, according to the EOCS campaign.
Rachael Loftus, who works for the National Health Service (NHS), said she'd spent 12,000 pounds on interim fire safety measures for the seven-storey block where she lives in the northern city of Leeds, including a 24/7 watch and new alarm.
"I wake up every morning wondering if there'll be another twist, another problem or just another bill," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I spend my whole day working, knowing I have earned nothing," said Loftus, whose two-bedroom apartment is currently valued at zero due to the building's safety risks.
The UK Cladding Action Group, which represents residents in unsafe buildings, found that one in five leaseholders surveyed had experienced suicidal thoughts or a desire to self-harm.
"I go to bed every night wondering if it would be worse to wake up to an alarm, or to not wake up at all," said Loftus.
What has the government pledged to do?
The government last year provided 1.6 billion pounds to pay for work to remove unsafe cladding on buildings over 18 metres.
The housing ministry says 95% of the highest risk buildings with unsafe cladding similar to that on Grenfell Tower have been made safe or have work underway compared to a year ago.
But homeowners say those measures fall short.
"The government fund is way too small and isn't being allocated on the basis of risks levels of affected buildings but on a first come first served basis," said London homeowner and single mother Timea.
Loftus said it was "heartening" to see public support for leaseholders, but the government needed "to help us live in safety" rather than make taxpayers pay for fire alarms and patrols for unsafe buildings.
This article was updated on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 14:30 GMT to add new information.
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)