First-time buyers fear ruin as 'dream' flats fail fire safety test
- 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.
“The living is easy,” promised the website promoting West Hampstead Square, a development of 198 flats across seven buildings.
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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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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