Editorial comment: It is time for proper regulation in building trade

Residents from Chalcots tower blocks now need windows replacing.

Residents from Chalcots tower blocks now need windows replacing. - Credit: Archant

My thought this week are with all residents of Camden’s five Chalcots tower blocks.

Last June, I watched as they were suddenly evacuated from their homes late on a Friday evening and forced to sleep on sleeping bags in a leisure centre.

Like many volunteers, I was at that Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre to try to help and I witnessed first hand their anguish, panic and distress as they were forced to leave behind possessions and belongings to eventually be put up in temporary hotel accommodation for weeks.

Since then residents have been shepherded back into their flats, but have lived with the constant anxiety and stress of sleeping in buildings without proper fire safety measures and with their comings and goings monitored by council ‘security guards or fire wardens.’

Then scaffolding went up last August and workmen descended on their homes to remove the flammable cladding covering their building – a huge job which means they have been and will continue to live on a building site until summer 2019.

And all this has cost the tax payer £50million plus the immeasurable cost to residents piece of mind, welfare and feeling of security.

I have seen their anguish poured out on the Facebook group Chalcots Estates Residents Info set up by the community to share information, vent frustrations and support each other.

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Yet now, if that is not enough, they are being told that every single window on all five tower blocks needs to be replaced due to a “variable standard or workmanship, and non approved materials being used” among other issues, see page 5.

I hope that the council lawyers now scouring through the original legal contracts for the building project will hold someone accountable for this chaotic mess and get to the bottom of how it was allowed to happen.

I cannot imagine the insecurity, disruption and frustration Chalcots residents are feeling at the moment.

But I know how stressed I was when three years ago builders who did a loft conversion and kitchen extension at our home turned out to be the builders from hell. And my experience was nothing compared to what Chalcots neighbours are going through.

We went with the cheapest quote and the personal recommendation of our estate agent. All seemed good at first but warning bells should have started to ring when a few things started to go missing, such as an iphone and a video camcorder while they were working at our house.

At this time, our roof was off and I felt completely dependent on these builders to finish the job. I ignored the signs. Everything seemed ok when the job was completed. We got the relevant building control certificates and I was glad to see the back of them.

It was just over a year later that the two huge skylight windows they had installed on the extension spontaneously shattered one day. Thank goodness nobody was sitting under them at the kitchen table as glass came crashing down. The builders were long gone. The last I heard they went bust and the company owner had disappeared abroad.

We were guilty of the oldest mistake in the book, being lured by the cheapest quote. Our insurance wouldn’t cover the damage and there was nothing I could do.

When last month we ran a story about a house collapsing in West Hampstead while undergoing building work, I did momentarily wonder if my builder was back on the scene and had been working on this project too.

While it is uncertain now who is ultimately responsible for the Chalcots catalogue of errors or if the contractors are to blame, surely a message we can take away from all these examples is that something urgently needs to be done to regulate the building trade and identify bad builders.

When we allow builders into our homes we are putting our lives in their hands.

Yet unlike financial services where there is one clear transparent watchdog, there is not such thing for the building industry. There needs to be.