Woman living in 15-storey tower block with dangerous cladding will 'tie sheets together to escape'

  • ITV News Anglia's Sophie Wiggins spoke to Sophie Bichener about her dream that turned 'into a complete nightmare'

A woman who has been told her 15-storey tower block is a fire risk has said she has considered tying bedsheets together if she ever has to escape in a hurry.

Sophie Bichener said she felt lucky to be only on the second floor of Vista Tower in Stevenage, where 100 people live.

But she told ITV News Anglia she had had enough of being left in limbo as she and her fellow leaseholders wait for work to be done to make the tower safe.

Mrs Bichener said: "Often I say to people, I've thought about how I'd go out the window.

"I thought about how I would tie bedsheets together. That's my reality and that's my norm going to sleep, not knowing whether we're safe or not in our beds."

Vista Tower was ruled to be a fire safety risk three years ago and repairs have still not started, despite encouragement from the government to the building's owners.

Leaseholders say they cannot sell up and are having to pay thousands of pounds to fix a mess that is not theirs.

Vista Tower in Stevenage Credit: ITV Anglia

Mrs Bichener saved up to buy her leasehold five years ago, which she said was a significant achievement for her at the time.

In 2020, three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, she received a fire safety inspection report that made for grim reading.

It revealed the building had unsafe cladding, flammable materials and missing fire breaks, something Mrs Bichener is having to pay for.

She and her husband married recently but do not want to start a family until they know their home is safe.

She said: "This feels like a prison. We haven't been able to move, or fix the building. We can't start that project ourselves. We're at the mercy of the building's owner.

"So we were feeling completely trapped. I think that there's such a lack of care for people's lives, that these people shouldn't own buildings. And what was a dream for us has just turned into a complete nightmare."

Sophie Birchener at her computer Credit: ITV Anglia

Grey GR is the freeholder of the tower block, which is owned by the company RailPen.

In October, Grey GR became the first freeholder to be taken to court by the government for failing to fix the issues.

Stephen McPartland, the Conservative MP for Stevenage, said: "My message to Railpen, the building owners, is just pay up, get on with it, work with my constituents, work with the government.

"The building safety fund's there, [and] the government's having to take you to court because you're not performing your duties.

"So stop being selfish. Start working and helping the people in my constituency to actually get on with their lives."

Grey GR said internal work to make the building safer was under way and should be complete in May this year.

It said a deal had been done to free up money for the work from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and once that was finalised, work to make the cladding safe on the outside of the building could be started.

The company said: "The internal compartmentation works have been carried out through most of the building. We are also addressing additional protections to the building's risers.

"Grey has significant plans to address external works, including the replacement of cladding, once funding has been finalised.

"Ensuring residents are safe in their homes remains our priority."

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