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22 Dec 2021

'When we move, we'll have a full-size tree': the cladding scandal at Christmas

Leaseholders are facing another Christmas trapped in unsafe flats
Christmas trees in front of apartment blocks

With rising Covid cases and possible new restrictions on the way, this Christmas has a grey cloud hanging over it for all of us. But for leaseholders affected by the cladding scandal, that cloud is even darker.

After a year of campaigning for a solution that doesn't leave them on the hook for cladding-related costs, leaseholders are facing another Christmas trapped in unsafe flats with unaffordable bills on their doorsteps.

In November, housing secretary Michael Gove said he'd update the House 'shortly' on 'a series of measures' to help leaseholders, but so far he's made no announcement. Parliament's session has now ended, leaving leaseholders waiting once again.

Here, Which? talks to an affected leaseholder about how their circumstances have impacted the festive season, and looks at what could be on the way for leaseholders next year.

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'When we move, we'll have a full-size Christmas tree'

Every winter, for the four years since she moved into her one-bed flat in Chelmsford, Zoe Bartley has wanted a real Christmas tree.

'When we move, we'll have a full-size Christmas tree. That's what I've said every year since I've lived in this flat,' she told Which?. 'The past four years we've had a small tabletop tree.'

Zoe with her baby
Zoe Bartley and her four-month-old baby

Zoe was meant to move last year. She had a sale ready to go until she found out she'd need an EWS1 building safety examination first. Her building received a B2 rating, meaning it needs remediation. It also makes it near impossible for her to sell the flat.

'Since then we've just been waiting and waiting and waiting for them to give us information on how much it's going to cost, when the work's going to take place, exactly what works are needed. They don't really give us much information.'

Zoe owns 30% of her flat through shared ownership, but she knows she could be charged the full cost of remediation if her developer doesn't pay. Since her building is under 18 metres, it doesn't qualify for government funding.

'What if there were a fire and I've got a dog, a cat and a baby to try and get out of a flat?'

Zoe's currently on maternity leave with a four-month-old baby. She told Which? she needs to move not just to accommodate this newborn, but also to have more room for when her partner's two children from a previous relationship come and visit. They live in Wales, so it's better if they can stay for longer periods.

As for whether she feels unsafe, Zoe says her proximity to fire exits does reassure her. 'But we don't really know the extent of it. I try not to think about the extent of it. What if there were a fire and I've got a dog, a cat and a baby to try and get out of a flat?'

Despite all this, Zoe wasn't going to put off her dream of having a real Christmas tree any longer.

'This year I put my foot down and said, u201cNo I'm having my Christmas tree; I'm not putting this off another year.u201d So last weekend we had to take apart our dining table, put it in the back of our car, and make two or three trips to my mum's house so we would have space for our Christmas tree.'

'We put up our Christmas tree last weekend, and I'm happy I've actually got one. But it's almost a bit bittersweet. I'm really glad I'm not letting them take that experience away from me anymore. But at the same time, it's not the same as being in a house. It's just not exactly what I've always pictured.'

Zoe's Christmas tree along with baby and pets
Zoe had to take apart her dining table, to make space for the Christmas tree in her flat

Is more help for leaseholders on the way in 2022?

Michael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in September. Since then, he has said that leaseholders shouldn't have to pay to fix unsafe buildings.

Gove paused work on a potential financing scheme, which many leaseholders likened to forced loans, that was announced by his predecessor.

'I'm still unhappy with the principle of leaseholders having to pay at all,' he told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in early November. 'No matter how effective a scheme might be in capping their costs or not hitting them too hard at any one time. My question is, why do they have to pay at all?'

But Gove hasn't followed up with further measures to help leaseholders. This means that no additional funding has been put forward to pay for remediation, and building owners are still able to pass costs onto leaseholders if they wish.

Gove did say he would reveal a 'series of measures' to help fix the crisis 'shortly' at the end of November. But there has been no update on this since then.

Which? has approached the Ministry of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.