Faces of Portishead residents caught up in fire safety scandal
- Credit: Stephen Sumner
Residents at Portishead Marina caught up in the fire safety scandal exposed by the Grenfell Tower tragedy say they lie awake at night fearing for their lives.
For others the biggest concern is financial – they believe their flats are as safe as they ever were but worry they could be bankrupted by 'skyrocketing' costs.
Seven properties in North Somerset are caught up in the scandal, all at Portishead Marina, housing around 1,000 people.
The buildings contain potentially hazardous materials, with some lacking important safety measures.
It has left residents forced to pay for costly waking watches operating up to 24 hours a day to alert them if a fire breaks out, and fear they will also have to foot the bill for the work to make their homes safe.
Almost all the blocks are below the 18-metre threshold for government grants, which could leave leaseholders lumbered with loans to replace materials that have been there since the flats were built, plus bills for work not covered by the scheme.
Single mum Rhian Durnell bought her flat in Ninety4 on the Estuary off plan and has lived there since it was built by Crest Nicholson in 2014.
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She said. “It’s just absolutely devastating. I invested quite a big inheritance in my flat. I never thought I’d own a property like that.
“To be told you can’t sell it and your life is at risk is scary. I lie awake thinking about it.
“We’ve been put in an impossible situation. I don’t want to be made bankrupt when Crest Nicholson keep making millions of pounds.
“I can’t see a way out.”
The government is making £5billion available to fully fund the cost of replacing unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings 18 metres and over.
Ms Durnell said her apartment block is 'millimetres' below that limit and called for leeway, arguing that the danger to residents is the same.
Like for many buildings caught up in the scandal, the insurers have insisted on a 24-hour waking watch – patrols to alert residents if a fire breaks out that on average cost £11,000 a month, another cost to be shared among residents.
She added: “It’s frightening. I worry about how I’d get my three-year-old daughter out.
“It’s constantly in my head. It only takes someone to forget to blow out a candle.
“I’m completely reliant on the government making the right decision to support us.”
The House of Lords has called on the government to cover the cost up front and recoup it from developers, construction firms and manufacturers.
This week MPs including North Somerset’s Liam Fox again voted to reject a move to give more protections to leaseholders and tenants from footing the bill for fire safety work.
Ministers said the proposal was unworkable and would lead to further delays in making buildings safe.
Dr Fox said of the 18-metre limit: “There needs to be a cut-off to stop taxpayers having to sign a blank cheque, but the cost for remediation should be met by those who are actually responsible for the problems in the first place.”
Portishead South councillor Huw James lives in one of the affected flats. He said leaseholders are caught in a dispute between developers, regulators, insurers and the government. Cllr James said: "They don’t care who pays, as long as it gets done."
David Trevett, a leaseholder in his eighties, said: “If it all goes wrong we’d end up with nowhere to live.
“It’s a total disgrace. It’s got to be sorted out. Tenants have been left to pay the bill.
“Everyone is trying to sweep it under the table. Between the government and developers, they have to sort it out.
“We’ve been advised the costs could be huge – more than we paid for the property. We could go bankrupt.”
There is some support available for buildings below the 18-metre limit. The government is offering loans to help residents cover the cost of removing dangerous cladding, with capped monthly repayments.
Robert Brown, who lives in the Moorings, said: “We got a warning at the start of the year we’d each get a bill for £40,000. Things have changed and the government said we wouldn’t pay more than £50 a month [to repay the loan]. I could be paying that for the rest of my life.
“I’m not a worrier. I just hope it gets fixed. Hopefully the government will stick to its promises.”
He said he could still face a hefty bill for work not covered by the loan, such as replacement of his balcony.
Ben Aldridge, a town councillor who works across the South West as a fire consultant, said: “There are astronomical sums of money at work. The funding on offer is a drop in the ocean. The can of worms hasn’t been opened yet.
“The only thing residents can do is to continue to lobby their MP. We have to continue to lobby government.”
The scandal has left leaseholders unable to get mortgages without a fire-risk certificate known as an EWS1 form. Getting one requires cooperation from developers and management companies.
Speaking in a House of Commons debate last month, Dr Fox said tenants have paid 'extortionate' sums for the surveys, only for them to come back littered with inaccurate information.
He said: "Those who have built substandard dwellings need to be held to account."
The Fire Safety Bill currently going through the Parliament was brought forward to strengthen regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people.
Inspections on other flats after the tragedy found many were covered in combustible cladding, including the seven buildings in Portishead.
Wendy Underwood lives in a three-storey building that has been listed as B2.
She said: “I’m fed up with the obstruction from [management company] Remus. They don’t want us to know what’s going on.
“We should never have been included in the first place.
“Residents here can’t sell, can’t remortgage. I want to know it’s safe. The developers aren’t speaking to us.”
That concern was echoed by Jillian Gray, a director at Merchant Square, who said she had been 'stonewalled' by developer Persimmon as she tries to process the building’s EWS1 form, and deal with a litany of other issues including leaks and black mould.
She said: “The buildings were considered totally safe. Suddenly, because of Grenfell – which happened in special circumstances – the buildings are reclassified.
“There’s been a net thrown. There’s been a whole load of buildings included that should never have been involved in this disaster.
“It’s dire for people who through no fault of their own have bought these flats, thinking they were built to modern standards.
“People get frightened when they hear it’s going to cost £100,000 per apartment to fix. That’s the anxiety people are living with – are they going to leave their children a debt rather than an inheritance? People are worried they’re going to go bankrupt.
“If the government don’t do something to make the builders and developers responsible for it, it’s inevitably going to come back to leaseholders.”
Tim Salvidge, who lives in the same building, said: “Persimmon have built a really shoddy building and we’re paying the price.
“They haven’t put fire breaks in. There’s only one way out of the building. There’s no fire alarms. Because it’s more than six years old, Persimmon can say it’s not their problem.”
Sally Ann Gibbins owns five affected properties around the marina, at Merchant Square and Mizzen Court.
She said: “None of us feel unsafe. The big fear is bankruptcy and being left with huge bills."
She said she was concerned that leaseholders will continue to rack up bills if there are delays in the planning system.
The building that has made the most progress after successfully securing funding from the National House Building Council is 110 on the Quay. It had its first application rejected by North Somerset Council and is waiting to see if revised plans are approved.
What the authorities are doing
With looming funding deadlines, Portishead Town Council is calling for planning applications to fix the issues to be fast tracked. Cllr Paul Gardner branded the situation a 'national disgrace'.
Following a motion backed by councillors earlier this month, North Somerset Council chief executive Jo Walker wrote to communities minister Robert Jenrick to say: “Many of these residents are long leaseholders and first-time buyers who purchased their homes in good faith but now find themselves trapped, paying high service charges to maintain a waking watch, uncertainty if fire safety works are required or when will commence and ultimately how to pay for those essential works to make their homes safe.
The council is calling on the Government to review the level of support available to building owners and occupiers and replace the offer of loans with 100 per cent grants.
The authority also says the Government should provide support to increase the number of experts to conduct surveys; set up a database of affected buildings; and closely monitor the impact of the revised guidance for obtaining EWS1 surveys.
What the developers said
A Crest Nicholson spokesperson said: “When Crest Nicholson completed 110 at the Quay, we obtained all statutory design approvals required at that time.
“The NHBC accepted a claim on this building in 2019 for remedial works to be carried out and we understand that it has been liaising with the management company to ensure that the works are carried out.
“The government introduced guidance in respect of balconies on multi-storey apartment buildings after 110 at the Quay was completed. As a result, we understand the balconies will require some upgrading works. It is the responsibility of the current building owner to ensure any changes to regulations and guidance are met if such changes occur after construction.
“To replace the need for a waking watch, and as additional measure to ensure safety of residents until the NHBC and building owner resolve the works, Crest Nicholson paid in full for the installation of an alarm system throughout the building.”
A spokesperson for Persimmon Homes said: “We announced in February that with any building we have constructed that contains now-banned cladding we would work with building owners and the management company to keep residents safe. No leaseholder should have to pay to remove now-banned cladding.
“We have recently received a report from the managing agents on behalf of the building’s management company and our technical experts will consider the findings before we discuss next steps.”
A spokesperson for Remus said: “Cladding is a regrettable and distressing situation for the residents at Merchant Square and Mizzen Court as it is for all properties caught up in this unfortunate situation throughout the UK.
“As the agent, Remus Management have been in regular dialogue with its client at Merchant Square and Mizzen Court in relation to the cladding concerns.
“Remus have been working with the client on this issue and will continue to assist them in achieving the best outcome for all residents at the property. Actions have been taken in a timely manner by both the client and Remus and residents have been kept informed of progress to date.
“As further enquiries and progress are made, residents will continue to be informed as instructed by our client. Understandably, recent communications have led to several enquiries from residents at one time, all of which will be responded to in due course.
“There are issues at the property regarding water ingress from the roof which has resulted in scaffold being erected at the Merchant Square as well as some maintenance issues for one of the lifts.
“Remus cannot comment on this as it is a matter in hand by the developer for the property, though it is anticipated that this will be resolved shortly. The lift was temporarily removed from service for 18 days whilst works were carried out to bring it back to a serviceable condition.”