he apartments at East Village were at the very heart of London’s triumphant stint as host of the 2012 Olympic Games – providing a temporary home for the world’s greatest athletes, before being converted into homes for Londoners.
But Super Saturday was a long, long, time ago, and today people living in the former athlete’s village are trapped in the cladding fiasco.
Sam Williams, 30, and his wife Harriet, 31, bought a 30 per cent share of a £390,000 two bedroom flat in East Village, Stratford, in 2014. Three years later the couple, who are both accountants, were able to buy out the housing association and become full owners of the property which, by 2017 was valued at £455,000.
In late 2019 the young couple were ready to move on – and their lives began to unravel.
“We had actually sold the flat, or we thought we had,” said Sam. “We had also had an offer accepted on a terraced house in Leytonstone. Then our buyers’ bank asked for information about the external walls. We naively asked our landlord for the information, and we hit a brick wall. “They were unable to provide a guarantee that the walls were safe, and the sale collapsed.”
The cladding crisis was triggered by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The 2017 fire had led to a widespread concern about the safety of tall buildings, particularly those covered with potentially flammable cladding.
In 2019 the Government unveiled a hit-list of cladding materials it considered dangerous, and put the onus on freeholders to get their building checked by carrying out a so-called External Wall Fire Review (EWSI). Banks will not give mortgages on blocks which don’t have a EWSI.
When Sam and Harriet’s building was inspected it was discovered not only had it got sections of the same cladding as Grenfell Tower (now removed), but there were also problems with its timber balconies and fire breaks (or lack of).
The Government has pledged to pay to remove ACM cladding, but Sam, Harriet, and their neighbours, have no idea whether their block’s other problems will be covered by its various repair funds.
The couple, like thousands of other people stuck in flats they cannot sell, had hoped that their situation could be helped by the Fire Safety Bill. It included an amendment to protect leaseholders for having to pay for Grenfell-related repairs. But on Monday night, MPs voted to remove the clause.
“We had all these plans, and we are now stopped in our tracks,” said Sam. “We had thought that we were going to be buying a house with a garden, and I guess children would have been the next step.
“Now, with two of us working from home, it would not be possible.
“We are hopeful that by the end of the year we might be in a position to sell, but we really don’t know. It dominates every conversation.”
Cladding: Anatomy of a scandal
Over the past two decades cladding became a popular way of finishing tower blocks – cheap and, it was thought, rather cheerful.
The fashion came to an abrupt end after the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster when it quickly became clear that the green and blue aluminium composite material (ACM) panels the building had been covered with had played a major part in the terrifyingly rapid spread of the blaze.
In the aftermath the Government said that all towers with ACM panels must have them removed.
In December 2018 it updated its safety guidance adding several other types of cladding to its danger list. It also introduced a new testing system, the so-called EWS1 test, to examine blocks’ walls and insulation.
The EWS1 opened a Pandora’s box which, so far, the Government has not worked out how to close.
Mortgage lenders began demanding proof that a building had a valid EWS1 in place before agreeing to lend on flats within it, meanwhile a huge backlog for tests was built up, leaving owners in limbo in unmortgageable homes.
And many, many buildings have failed altogether, often because of added structural safety issues including dangerous timber balconies or flammable insulation.
The scale of the problem is vast. Nobody is quite sure how many flats are affected, but Stephen Mackenzie, an independent fire safety consultant, said there are 462 blocks with ACM cladding, another 2,800 with other forms of cladding, and more being identified all the time.
Because of the confusion many owners only realised their plight when they attempted to sell up and move on, only to have the deal collapse when the buyers could not get a mortgage on the property.
In February, the Government announced a £3.5bn rescue funding to remove unsafe cladding from high-rises, in addition to £1.6bn previously pledged to help remove ACM. However, the money is unlikely to cover all impacted buildings. A select committee report last year estimated that repairs would cost a minimum of £15bn, but the worst-case scenario could be £100bn.
House builders and contractors have been slow to step forward and bridge the funding gap, leaving many thousands of leaseholders facing average bills of £40,000 each – and up to £115,000 in some cases – to repair their homes.
Meanwhile the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is ongoing. This week it emerged that a resident had warned its landlords back in 2010 that “inferno” could engulf the building and “trap the residents … with no escape.”