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24/7 fire wardens cost our development £60,000 a week

Residents of a development of six buildings in east London are struggling to cope with escalating waking watch costs. Here, a leaseholder tells us their story.

This is a guest post by Philip Chapman. All views expressed are Philip’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

As a leaseholder of a flat I’d been following the developing cladding scandal closely last year – I was only too aware of the horror stories affecting some buildings, but I felt confident that my building wouldn’t be implicated.

That was seemingly confirmed when my building, part of a development of six, received an ‘A1’ rating on the EWS1 form in March 2020, which specifically confirms that ‘there are no attachments whose construction includes significant quantities of combustible materials’.

With that result confirmed, the apartment next to mine was successfully sold.

Our rating was downgraded

But in September 2020, a letter arrived advising me the development had been registered for the Building Safety Fund, I assumed it was an admin error – after all, we had the A1-rated certificate stating the walls were fine. It wasn’t until the following week that our managing company wrote again to inform us that the exact same assessor had now decided to downgrade our rating to B1.

‘B1’ means that there are combustible materials in the external wall, but that the fire risk is ‘sufficiently low’ for no remedial works to be required. I was frustrated that the same assessor could change their mind so easily, but not overly concerned as banks accept ‘B1’ grades as adequate for lending. I was also reassured that no eye-wateringly high repair bills were coming my way.

In December, the frustration returned: we were told our freeholder was arranging yet another inspection. I couldn’t understand why they were still looking into it, but reassured myself that it was a modern building built by two respected construction companies – surely there was nothing to fear.

A small army of fire wardens

My trust had been entirely misplaced. On 1 April 2021 we were told that the building was covered in flammable insulation and that its cavity barriers were missing. Within hours, a small army of waking watch (fire wardens) arrived: 21 marshals patrolling the development 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Naturally, all leaseholders asked the same question: how much is this costing us? We were told not to worry and that the building’s reserve funds were being used. But when we finally arranged a video call with the building managers, a cost of £51,000 per week was revealed. More than £204,000 a month.

There was stunned silence followed by gasps as one resident quickly calculated we had already spent £153,000 since they started.

The reserve fund we have paid into for seven years will soon be wiped out, and then we can expect the increased service charge demands to arrive.

For many in our development, this is the final straw. Some have been furloughed since March last year, unsure if they even have a job to return to. Others have already been made redundant and are relying on food banks.

We don’t have that sort of money

My neighbour is an NHS nurse who volunteered to work at the Nightingale hospital. He simply cannot afford these extra costs, and now faces the reality of losing his home.

The mental health impact is huge. Every time we step outside our front door, we are confronted with yellow high-vis jackets, emblazoned with ‘Fire Marshall’ across the back – it’s a constant reminder of where our hard-earned money is going, and of the horrendous situation we find ourselves in through no fault of our own.

We have been warned the waking watch will be here for several months. Many leaseholders simply do not have that sort of money available and are distraught at the thought of potentially being made homeless with children to look after. 

An additional four wardens

As we approached the May bank holiday, some neighbours on our chat group sarcastically joked about what bad news we might get – referring to how we were originally told about waking watch just hours before Easter. Sure enough, bad news arrived on Friday 30 April….

An additional four marshals had been introduced, along with an extra manager to oversee them. The new cost between us is £60,480.

One of our unemployed leaseholders volunteered to do the job themselves to save everyone else some money – they were told they were not qualified. This can’t carry on – eventually the only option will be bankruptcy. There are 750 homes here, but they will remain unsafe because we do not have the money to pay for ongoing interim measures and remediation.

This was a guest post by Philip Chapman. All views expressed were Philip’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?