The flat I bought six years ago is now worthless and fixing the issues will likely cost more than I paid for it. I’m not alone in being trapped in the building safety crisis, confounded by government failures: there are hundreds of thousands of people in my situation up and down the country.
My story starts in February 2016, when I purchased a one-bed apartment in Cardinal Lofts, near Ipswich’s vibrant waterfront. At 23 years old, this was a huge personal achievement and a moment I still look back on with pride. As the apartments within Cardinal Lofts are long term leasehold, I am a leaseholder of the property and not a true property owner. Almost five years after becoming first-time buyer, I was prepared and excited about taking the next step on the property ladder.
It started with a fire risk assessment
Everything changed in 2020 when a fire risk assessment was undertaken on the block. The assessment found multiple safety defects, including dangerous cladding, lack of compartmentation – which could allow fire and smoke to spread – as well as unsafe wooden balconies, faulty fire doors and smoke vents.
Even with weak regulations in the early 2000s, the building should never have been signed off by building control as it’s now been revealed that Cardinal Lofts didn’t even meet standards at the time of construction.
Surprisingly, the fear of what this could mean if a fire did start in the building is not the biggest cause of stress and anxiety for me. It’s finding out that my home is valued at £0. This is because lenders won’t approve any mortgage applications on properties within affected buildings. As if this isn’t bad enough, there’s also a financial onslaught coming my way.
The planned remediation work to replace the flammable cladding and insulation on the external wall of the 32m (104 ft) tall building has been budgeted at £7.7m.
Government funding failure
Back in December 2020, the building owner Grey GR applied to the government’s £6bn building safety fund. The fund is in place to help protect flat owners from the cost of addressing fire-safety risks, caused by unsafe cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings. Work was due to start in July 2021 but was postponed.
After being left in the dark over the progress of this application throughout 2021, it now appears that Grey GR are ineligible to apply for funding because they are a shell company. Research conducted by fellow leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts, found that Grey GR has been set up as a shell company to protect the true identity of the majority shareholder. It turns out to be Railpen, an investment company responsible for a £35bn fund for railway industry pension scheme members.
At first, I thought a wealthy and self-proclaimed ‘ethical investor’ would provide funds to fix my home at the earliest opportunity. However, as each day, month and year goes by it appears that Railpen are content to pass on life-changing bills to innocent leaseholders like me and are set to repeat this action for at least 12 other affected buildings in their property portfolio across the country.
It doesn’t end there. An additional mind-boggling aspect of this crisis is that all planned works will have VAT included. So, for example, the £7.7m external wall remediation project will actually cost £9.24m. This astronomical bill split across the 80 flats at Cardinal Lofts, means we could each receive a bill of £115,500!
This figure eclipses the £113,000, I originally paid for my property and it’s at this point I wish someone could offer to demolish the building instead.
Fire marshal cost
To add insult to injury, all leaseholders will meanwhile have to cover the cost for 11 months of 24/7 fire marshal patrols (waking watch). Plus our buildings insurance has doubled since the discovery of fire safety faults.
Unsurprisingly, every leaseholder at Cardinal Lofts is approximately £12,000 in debt with their service charge, and at any point the building owner Grey-GR could demand payment for this amount, with 28 days’ notice.
This terrible predicament has turned me into an activist. Over the past 16 months, I’ve tried to help other leaseholders across Ipswich who are in a similar situation. I’ve set up a campaign group called Ipswich Cladiators.
We’re far from alone
My original estimate that the group would represent about three buildings was way off. We are currently made up of affected leaseholders from 19 buildings located in the town. The crisis at Cardinal Lofts is not unique and there are literally thousands of stories just like mine.
My home ownership dream is now a fire safety nightmare and I’m not afraid to say that it’s had a serious impact on my mental health. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that life-changing bills could land on my doorstep at any point, whilst the only route out is to hand the keys in and file for bankruptcy.
Finally, one detail I keep going back to is that I was 11 years old when Cardinal Lofts was constructed. Both the developers and Ipswich building control were responsible for the original failures. On what planet is it my responsibility to pay?