The real cost of Britain’s cladding scandal is not just the danger of living in a home with flammable walls, or the fire-safety bills that — for some — cost more than their homes. It is not just the three million lives put on hold. It has shaken those caught up in it to their very core. They feel like failures, even though they are the ones that have been failed. And they no longer trust the institutions that should keep us all safe.
This is the conclusion of Jenny Preece of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence at the University of Sheffield, who has interviewed 32 flat owners trapped by the scandal to analyse its impact on their wellbeing. Her report, also the subject of a BBC documentary called Britain’s Dangerous Buildings: Is My Home Safe?, movingly captures the immense human impact of nationwide fire risks exposed by the Grenfell disaster. With fire-safety bills as high as £120,000 each, the threat of financial ruin outweighed the fear of a fire for many of these homeowners.
Over years of reporting on the scandal for our Hidden Housing Scandal campaign, I have encountered many people who cannot move jobs or start a family or retire, because their flat is in a block that turned out to have fire risks. It still hits home. It still moves me. Just as Preece’s report does.
It is time for politicans to be moved by these stories as much as Preece and I are — and act decisively to restore trust.Amy, who was in her twenties when she bought a flat in a smaller block in Brighton, now has a partner with a son who has to sleep in their living room when he comes to stay. “We’re trying for a baby . . . that has just made me so stressed, because where would the baby go? I’m having to make my partner choose between a child he wants in the future with me, or one he already has,” she tells Preece. Emily, over 54, had planned to downsize from her Manchester flat to retire mortgage-free at 60. “I’ve worked since I was 16 years old. Now . . . I can’t see how I can sell the property without making a massive loss,” she says.
What stood out from Preece’s research is how the scandal changed victims’ perceptions of themselves and the world. “Many individuals experienced feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame for the situation they were faced with. These feelings were being stoked by some government narratives around the building safety crisis, with leaseholders feeling very strongly that this was a deliberate strategy to discredit and deny their experiences,” her report finds.
“We feel like failures,” says Hannah, in the 35-44 age bracket, who lives in a mid-rise block in London. Michael, a similar age and in a London tower, adds: “If I compare myself to my friends . . . they own a property . . . I’ve failed to make much of an impact and one day I’ll have to explain this to my kids. That’s not a nice feeling.” Sofia, in the same age bracketand living in a tall block in Leeds, feels “so small and useless . . . We are opening our wallets and everybody takes the money as they want. The day it runs out we are going to lose the flat.”
Preece found that the scandal “damaged people’s ability to trust the government and its systems, but also leadership and organisations more broadly”. Lucas, also in the 35-44 age bracket and in a London tower, compares it to “being unplugged a little bit from the Matrix . . . You expect certain standards to be in play and I think that’s what’s really done the damage . . . everything is built on sand . . . I don’t trust anybody really now.”
Kate, over 54, who lives in a tower in Manchester, adds: “Every single part of my life is affected negatively. Everything I believed in was a lie. It was all a façade.”