By Westminster Producer Lewis Denison
A young mum who fell foul of the UK's cladding scandal has revealed she "cried for weeks" after being told the flat she paid almost £60,000 for was "valueless" because material on the building's exterior made it unsafe.
Zoe Bartley is among millions of home owners facing huge bills to make their properties safe - many with costs exceeding £100,000 - because of regulations brought in following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
She "massively" regrets buying her one bedroom flat in 2017, before starting a family, because she is now "trapped" in the property with her 12-week-old baby and partner, unable to move to somewhere bigger because she cannot sell it without making it safe.
Victims of the cladding scandal, including Zoe, have told ITV News they are facing bankruptcy over the cost of making their flats safe, despite being told they were safe when forking out tens of thousands of pounds just four years ago.
First time buyer Sophie Bichener was told by her housing management company in August that she needed to pay £208,000 in order to make her property safe - she paid £230,000 for her flat in 2017, just one month before Grenfell.
She's since been diagnosed with anxiety after learning her flat in Hertfordshire, is now "worth minus £208,000" because safety defects mean "the property itself is valued at zero, and then you've got a bill 208,000 pounds to make it worth anything", she said.
Tens of thousands of properties have been deemed unsafe since Grenfell, with the government insisting dwellings need remedying and property managers, working on behalf of freeholders, are telling leaseholders they must foot the bill.
Leaseholders often learn of the huge costs when they receive their service charge bill from their property management firm.
Campaign group Manchester Cladiators estimates at least 3.7 million people live in potentially dangerous homes, with almost all impacted home owners likely to face a remediation bill.
The government said a £5 billion fund, to be provided as grants, will "bring an end to unsafe cladding" in high rise tower blocks higher than 18 metres - but Manchester Cladiators say that's just a third of what's required to remedy the nationwide problem.
Four years after Grenfell many of these buildings remain covered in unsafe cladding, and those applying for government grants say the process of receiving the cash and remediation work starting is slow.
Analysis of figures released by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows that it will take at least another three and a half years to remove the cladding from high-rise buildings.
Meanwhile, properties under 18 metres, which may still be considered unsafe, do not qualify for grants from the £5 billion pot - instead the government says they can apply for low interest loans, however details of borrowing scheme have still not been set out, months after the announcement.
'I cried for two weeks straight'
It came as a devastating blow when 28-year-old Zoe Bartley was told she could not move to a bigger home to start a family as unsafe cladding on her building made the flat unsellable.
She and her partner were about to start a family and had a new, bigger property lined up to welcome the birth of their son.
She had found a buyer and was ready to proceed with selling her home - she owned a 30% share of a £190,000 house, which they paid £57,000 under a shared ownership scheme.
But at the last minute a surveyor sent by the new buyer's mortgage provider assessed that the house was unsafe due to cladding on the building.
She was told the sale could not go ahead and her flat was "valueless".
“I was devastated - I think I cried for two weeks straight," she said, "I was just desperately trying to proceed with buying a bigger home but eventually we realised it just wasn't going to be possible and we had to pull out of the purchase - it was really tough”.
She's since given birth to a boy, and as the 12-week-old baby gets bigger, her one bedroom flat feels smaller and smaller.
"It doesn't seem like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel," she said, and the "nightmare" just "doesn’t seem to be ending".
The block she lives in with her baby, partner, cat and dog in Essex, contains around 80 flats - Zoe says most of her neighbours are in the same situation: "They all want to leave."
But because their block is shorter than 18 metres, they do not qualify for government grants and would only be eligible for a loan scheme, which is still unavailable.
She said owning the flat feels like having a "noose around my neck", because without government support she says there's no way to escape.
All the while dangerous cladding remains on her building and she can't help but worry.
"My partner and I have had conversations of what if the building went up and how do we get our young baby, cat and dog out of the flat," she said.
Despite being told in 2020 her flat was unsafe, she still hasn't been told what the repair bill will be.
"I'm preparing myself for bankruptcy," Zoe said, with the remediation bill likely to be at least £10,000.
However for Zoe, bankruptcy poses additional risks - she works in law and has ambitions to one day qualify as a solicitor, but rules dictate she will be banned from doing so if she is forced to file for bankruptcy.
She's desperate for the government to help, either by fully covering the cost or remediation works in the form of grants, or by legislating so that the original builders are forced to pay.
"The government just keep saying 'the builders should do the right thing’ without actually making it a legal requirement for them to do the right thing," she said, "and of course they're not going to do the right thing if you’re just asking them".
She added: "I appreciate they don't want to spend taxpayers' money fixing the problem but they should be making those responsible pay for it. At the moment they seem to be happy to let thousands of lease holders go bankrupt.
"I just want them to fix the problem for us so that we can move on with our life and not make me homeless with a baby."
'I was diagnosed with anxiety'
With a £208,000 bill hanging over her and the prospect of bankruptcy seeming like the only way to escape, the stress for Sophie Bichener became so much that she was forced to see her doctor.
The battle over service charges relating to the cladding on her flat in Hertfordshire resulted in her being diagnosed with anxiety.
"I was really, really struggling," she said, "I've never had any experience of anxiety but I was literally sat in my house and I just felt like I couldn't catch my breath and my lungs were just trapped."
And the first time buyer suggested she is by no means not the only one battling mental health issues over the cladding scandal.
"There isn’t one young person that you're going to speak to in all of this who isn't on medication," she said, adding: "There are lease holders who we know now have committed suicide over this."
Her 73-flat tower block - which has a total repair bill of £14.9 million - is eligible for government grants to cover some of the costs, but Sophie expects to be left with a bill of at least £70,000 even if her building's bid for funding is accepted.
She said she's "just feeling let down" by the government's response to the cladding scandal.
"Funding was a good thing," she said, but the things it covers are "not broad enough - it just isn't enough money".
The 29 year old has been told to not pay the bill by her building management firm, which has said she should wait to see how much of it the government will cover.
"I’m in a weird limbo stage where we don't know, we haven't had any confirmation that we're getting funding and I've got that bill in my name," she said.
In the meantime, she was forced to pay £600 a month for a waking watch patrol around her tower block while waiting for a fire alarm to be installed - £12,700 a week for the building as a whole.
The government announced a £30 million fund to help people pay for alarm systems to replace the need for fire patrols, but nothing to cover the huge cost leaseholders have already paid for waking watch patrols.
Leaseholders in her tower block have also collectively paid £10,000 for legal advice, to see if there was any way to force the original builders to pay remediation costs.
They were told there was not, with government support being the only way to avoid paying the bills.
Sophie says her life has been "on hold" since being landed with the huge bill: "I just can't see an end to it. It's pretty depressing."
"You're not only losing your home and your property, you're being told you're unsafe in your home. I've lost my future."
A spokesperson from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We have been clear that building owners should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders – and we are introducing a new legal requirement for owners to prove they have tried all routes to cover the cost of fixing their buildings.
“The government is providing £5 billion to remove unsafe cladding in the highest risk buildings and we have so far processed over 600 building applications, with estimated remediation costs of £2.5 billion. We are progressing the remainder as quickly as possible.
“The secretary of state is looking afresh at this issue to make sure everything is being done to protect and support leaseholders, and further details will be set out in due course.”