First-time buyers fear ruin as 'dream' flats fail fire safety test

A 2018 fire at the Orwell building, in Camden's West Hampstead Square development.

In 2018, a fire at Camden's West Hampstead Square revealed it had flammable balconies. Now residents have learned it has flammable insulation too. - Credit: Siorna Ashby / Lucas Cumiskey

Residents of a Camden housing development have been told their homes are covered in flammable insulation.

Inspectors said insulation at West Hampstead Square must be replaced, leaving leaseholders in “despair” over potentially huge bills.

The discovery came two years after a blaze at the development uncovered other fire safety concerns.

“Easy Living”

“The living is easy,” promised the website promoting West Hampstead Square, a development of 198 flats across seven buildings.

West Hampstead Square, in Camden, was finished and opened in 2017.

The West Hampstead Square development, in Camden, was finished and opened in 2017. - Credit: Siorna Ashby


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A shared-ownership scheme, allowing people to buy shares in the flats with small deposits, attracted lots of first-time buyers.

Will Collier, 29, got a mortgage for 25 per cent of a flat in Milne block.

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Over time, he could purchase an increasing share, paying rent on the portion he did not yet own.

He moved in a week after the Grenfell tragedy.

“You can see Grenfell from here," he said. "But we were sold this as a very safe, brand new building.”

A year later, leaseholders learned it was not as safe as it seemed.

A website promoting the West Hampstead Square development in Camden.

A website promoting the West Hampstead Square development told would-be buyers it would be 'easy living' at the Camden site. - Credit: www.westhampsteadsquare.com

Blaze

In July 2018, a discarded cigarette set light to a balcony on the Orwell block.

The fire shot up the side of the building.

Investigators found that within 19 minutes of the first sprinkler going off, five apartments “were exposed to fire and heat”.

This, a London Fire Brigade (LFB) report said, was “unprecedented in a residential fire".

Without the sprinklers, “the outcome could have been more serious and potentially fatal”.

A fire at the Orwell building, West Hampstead Square, in 2018.

A fire at the Orwell building, West Hampstead Square, in 2018. - Credit: Lucas Cumiskey

The LFB issued a “notice of deficiency”, raising concerns over “inadequate” fire safety measures.

Camden Council said materials on the balconies “posed a fire hazard” and ordered changes.

Developer Ballymore agreed to cover the cost, but to date, works have not begun.

Last year, residents learned the balconies were not the only hazard.

“Double-Whammy”

Mike*, 34, moved to his apartment in 2017. 

Last year, when his income was hit by the pandemic, he decided to sell and go somewhere cheaper.

He was told he’d need an EWS1 form. Introduced after Grenfell, this assesses whether a building is a fire hazard.

But it found insulation “across the majority of the development” failed the inspection.

The site got the worst possible rating. Mike was advised that no bank would lend on his flat until the insulation was replaced.

“We couldn’t sell, we couldn’t re-mortgage, we couldn’t move on,” he said. “I’m in total limbo. I've been having panic attacks. I’m terrified because I don’t know how much it’s going to cost.”

Until the insulation is replaced, a “waking watch” has been ordered, at residents' expense.

The cost of the remedial works is also “recoverable from leaseholders via the service charge,” said Ballymore.

“We are stuck in apartments we can’t leave, which might be tinderboxes,” said Will. “It’s a double-whammy. You feel terrified that your apartment may go up in flames – and the increase in the service charges could be so substantial that the value of the apartments will drop dramatically. This has the potential to ruin me. I could lose my entire investment.”

Damage to a flat in West Hampstead's Orwell building after a 2018 fire.

Damage to a flat in the Orwell building after a 2018 fire. - Credit: London Fire Brigade

“Despair”

Like Will, teacher Julia Seal, 31, bought a 25pc share of a flat in Milne block.

“It just seemed like a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t get a mortgage for a one-bedroom flat on a teacher’s salary, but I could on shared-ownership.”

But the dream “turned into a nightmare.” Now she fears she will be “financially crippled for life”.

There will be no summer holiday this year. Since 2017, Julia's rent and service charge has increased by over £200 per month.

She is already working three extra tutoring and babysitting jobs and has a nanny placement lined up for the summer.

When remedial works are added to her service charge, she expects to be billed for 100pc of the costs linked to her property, despite only being a 25pc owner.

“I feel completely trapped," she said. "The whole thing is just unbelievably stressful – to always have, in the back of your mind, the burden of thousands of pounds that you could never pay on a key worker salary... It makes me despair.”

Camden teacher Julia Seal, who lives in the Milne building at West Hampstead Square.

Teacher Julia Seal said the potential cost of replacing the insulation in the Milne building left her in 'despair'. - Credit: Julia Seal

"Too Early”

Ballymore said: “It is too early in the process to predict likely remediation costs. We will only know this once the design stage, which is underway, and a scope of works has been produced.”

It said materials used in the construction were signed off by Camden Council.

It hoped “most” of the costs would be covered by government’s Building Safety Fund, saying a May 2020 document suggested insulation would be considered part of the cladding.

West Hampstead Square development, by Ballymore, in Camden

Developer Ballymore said it was too early to know the cost of replacing the flammable insulation, but that it hoped the government would cover most of the bill. - Credit: Will Collier

But Mike believes leaseholders should pay nothing towards external works.

“I couldn’t paint the walls pink if I wanted to,” he said. “I’m not even allowed to hang my washing out on my balcony. My freedoms as a leaseholder are limited to the four walls of the property I own.

“I have no say in how it’s built. We've poured a lot of money into this flat. It was our first home together. Now we feel like it’s worthless.”

*‘Mike’s name has been changed at his request.

For more, click here: West Hampstead flat owners face £100k bills for flammable cladding

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