When Keeba Critchlow picked up the keys to her first home in 2014 she was thrilled at becoming a homeowner.
Not for a moment did she envisage the nightmare that would await her six years on – unable to sell her one-bedroom flat as a result of red tape introduced in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Following the tragedy three years ago, the Government quite rightly wanted to raise fire safety standards for flats. But an unforeseen result of the new regulations is that homeowners such as Keeba, 32, are now trapped – and potentially face financial ruin.
Stuck: Keeba Critchlow in front of the flat that has been made safe but is unsellable
Keeba, an editor who during lockdown worked from home in her third-floor flat in Greenwich, South-East London, is far from alone in her predicament.
She is one of millions of people living in 1.5million flats in 40,000 tower blocks, according to the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, a charity that provides advice to leaseholders.
Unbeknown to most of them, many are unable to sell their property and face a potential ten-year wait before someone can buy their home. This is despite the majority of such homes being safe.
The delay stems from the requirement that flat-owners typically living in blocks of five storeys or more hand over a fire safety form called an ‘EWS1’ – External Wall System certificate – to a solicitor when they want to sell their home. This proves that the block they live in has passed rigorous new safety checks.
Failure to produce such a form means most banks will refuse to lend money to someone wanting to buy the flat.
Yet with only 300 qualified fire engineers available to check the 40,000 blocks for fire safety, such forms are well nigh impossible to get hold of. Experts say the task of looking at all the blocks affected by the new regulations could take a decade.
Check if YOU fall foul of cladding chaos
● In the aftermath of the fire that swept through Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London, in 2017, killing 72 people in the 24-storey block, an inquiry found that at least 600,000 flat-owners still live in tower blocks that contain potentially combustible material, though tests are ongoing. Replacement cladding can be costly, with leaseholders liable for bills in the region of £30,000 each, but in some cases this can reach £78,000 each.
● Shared ownership is a popular way for cash-strapped buyers to get on the property ladder – enabling them to buy between 25 and 75 per cent of a home from a housing association. But under leasehold law, a flat owner may have to pay for all of the cladding repairs. Even if they have bought just 25 per cent of a flat, they may be liable for 100 per cent of the cost of stripping external combustible cladding and replacing it.
● A £1billion Government fund to help leaseholders foot cladding bills has been fully allocated. This means that those who have not already applied can no longer benefit.
It does not matter how desperate homeowners are to sell their home. In this cruel game of roulette they can only cross their fingers and hope the check will happen sooner rather than later.
This is because engineers do not answer the call of individual sellers, but only take on blocks of flats as single projects after having been contacted by the freeholder – a private landlord or a housing association.
Even when an assessor gets round to checking a block, nine out of ten are expected to fail the stringent test and leave leaseholders with a crippling repair bill of perhaps £30,000 per flat to ensure they comply with the tough new rules.
Six years ago, Keeba could only afford to buy her flat through the shared ownership scheme, buying 40 per cent of the £305,000 property from the housing association London & Quadrant (L&Q).
In March, just two days before lockdown, she married her fiance, 31-year-old junior doctor Ben. With Ben about to start a job at a Hertfordshire hospital, they looked for a home nearer his new workplace.
Tragedy: A fire swept through Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London, in 2017, killing 72 people in the 24-storey block
At first, things seemed to be going smoothly. L&Q informed Keeba it had found a buyer soon after the flat went on the market. But, a few days later, she was told there were issues about the block’s cladding.
‘Perhaps I am naive, but it never occurred to me this might be a problem,’ Keeba says. ‘The developers had already invested in new cladding following the Grenfell tragedy. I even had a letter from the builders confirming the safety work had been completed.’
But the Government insists that anyone living in an apartment block more than 18 metres (59 feet) high – typically with five or more storeys – must get an EWS1 form before they sell.
The legislation is well intentioned. It is possible that 600,000 of the 1.5million flats in such blocks have flammable cladding – and, of these, about 20,000 could have cladding similar to that found in Grenfell Tower. But the red tape has not kept up with work on the ground.
Keeba says: ‘It is so frustrating knowing the old cladding has been replaced and the block is now perfectly safe – but it is impossible to sell my flat because the block does not have the required certificate.
‘I am stuck waiting for a fire engineer to check our block and I have no idea when that will be.’
She adds: ‘It is, of course, essential for blocks of flats to be made or confirmed safe, but you cannot help but suspect the EWS1 is an arbitrary piece of paper issued simply to cover the backs of the surveyors and mortgage firms – to the detriment of homeowners.’
Government insists that anyone living in an apartment block more than 18 metres (59 feet) high – typically with five or more storeys – must get an EWS1 fire safety form before they sell
L&Q says: ‘We appreciate it is frustrating for residents. In some cases the buildings containing our homes are owned by another company – in which case we are not responsible for the external wall or EWS1 certificates. Our property management teams work closely with agents to provide residents with regular updates.’
It means Keeba and Ben now spend nearly £2,500 on accommodation a month – £257 for the mortgage on the Greenwich flat, £625 in rent and service charges to L&Q and £1,500 rent on a three-bedroom home in Harpenden. In addition, the couple must pay off student debt.
The average repair bill for a flat in a block with flammable cladding is £30,000. In some cases, leaseholders pick up the entire tab – with those in shared ownership contracts often footing the full bill while housing associations pay nothing.
Martin Boyd, chair of trustees for the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, says it is a ‘catastrophic state of affairs that the Government must fix immediately’.
He adds: ‘The way this EWS1 form has been introduced is bad enough – in a heavy-handed manner without consideration about how long the checks might take. But there is also the likelihood that a building will fail the test – and leaseholders must pay for the whole sorry mess, leaving flat-owners in a terrible situation.’
He fears up to nine out of ten EWS1 checks could result in demands for work to be done because assessors are likely to be over-cautious – for fear they will be blamed if something goes wrong.
It is already having a knock-on effect in the housing market, with many estate agents turning away flat-owners wanting to sell. And there are fears it will restrict the number of properties for first-time buyers.
The final word goes to Keeba: ‘The Grenfell Tower fire was a terrible tragedy and it is absolutely right new rules have been introduced. But it’s wrong that insufficient resource has been put into ensuring safe tower blocks are given the all-clear.’