August 2022 update: Optivo announced in May 2022 that it would cover remediation costs for leaseholders at Norfolk House in Deptford, including waking watches and fire alarms. This story is from October 2020 and does not reflect the current situation.
Buying a shared-ownership flat was meant be a way to escape London’s often ruthless rental market. But the residents of a block in Deptford have been left “trapped” after learning that their flats are wrapped in unsafe material which could cost them millions of pounds to replace. EMILY FINCH reports.
853 exclusive: In April, while the pandemic saw everyone confined to their homes, leaseholders at six-storey Norfolk House on Brookmill Road were told that their building was covered in “significant quantities of combustible insulation” while their timber balconies could “assist with the spread of flame on the external wall”.
Lana Ross* says she has been living with “anxiety and uncertainty” since hearing the results of the facade inspection which was undertaken in January. Like most of the 57 households in her building, she bought her flat through a shared ownership scheme with the housing association Optivo, which owns the freehold.
Under the scheme, residents pay a percentage share of their home – usually 25 to 75 per cent – and the remainder is covered through rent.
Ross says her flat was initially worth just under £400,000 but is now worthless until it is made fire safe. “At the moment, you cannot remortgage, we cannot sell. The property value is zero. We cannot rent the flat, or move. There is a feeling of being trapped. With the pandemic, we now feel even more trapped,” she says.
Residents and Optivo representatives took part in an online meeting chaired by Deptford’s Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft last Thursday. Optivo refused to rule out asking residents to foot the £3 million bill for remedial building works, fire wardens and a temporary fire alarm system.
Ross said: “Some residents have said anything above a £1,000 bill will mean bankruptcy for them. There are people who have kids here. We bought a shared-ownership flat because we are not wealthy people.
“I don’t think residents can be responsible for the materials that someone chose to build our homes. I think the government needs to play a part because of the regulations that were in place a few years ago, they should provide the funds.”
Building safety regulations have become more stringent following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington which killed 72 people in June 2017. A report by Facade Remedial Consultants for Norfolk House called for Optivo to “seek urgent professional advice on the measure(s) that need to be taken to ensure that the external walls meet an appropriate standard of fire safety”.
The government announced a £1billion building safety fund for remedial works on properties in the Budget in March. But Norfolk House is not eligible because it is below 18 metres tall. Inside Housing warned last week that the fund was “vastly oversubscribed” with 2,780 buildings already registered before applications from social housing providers were counted.
Ms Ross said that it was “obvious” that her mental health was suffering and added: “It keeps growing and growing. There’s lots of anxiety and uncertainty, it’s very stressful.”
Norfolk House was one of five blocks – including one 26-storey tower – built by Galliard Homes as part of the Seager Distillery complex, which was approved by Lewisham Council in 2009.
Other parts of the complex feature silver-coloured cladding similar in appearance to those on Norfolk House. There is nothing to suggest they have the same fire safety issues. Galliard Homes declined to comment when asked by 853 if its properties at the Seager complex had been surveyed to see if they still fall within the most recent fire safety guidelines.
A spokesman for Optivo said that “resident safety is our number one priority” and added: “The change to simultaneous evacuation and interim fire safety measures, which are now in place, have mitigated any increased safety risk to residents.”
He added: “This includes a temporary common alarm system which has now been installed. This system will alert all residents if there’s a fire within another home.
“As with any remediation work of this scale, there is a cost involved. But recharging leaseholders for this will be an absolute last resort. We completely understand this will cause concern and we’re sorry for any distress caused.
“We want to reassure residents we’re continuing to explore all options to recover these costs. This includes seeking to recover as much of the cost as possible from other parties involved in the construction. We may also be able to claim under warranty or insurance.
“We’re unable to apply for the Building Safety Fund from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, because only buildings which are 18m in height or above qualify. However we, along with other social landlords, have been lobbying the government to extend the criteria for the Building Safety Fund as a way of reducing the financial burden on residents. We’ll keep residents informed should there be any changes.”
*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee.
EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune.
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