High rise repairs: Pension plans wiped out due to cladding crisis

When Debbie Oakes’ mum sold her London home at the age of 80 to move up north, it was a chance for her to finally be close to her daughter.

For Debbie, it was a relief to know that she’d be just around the corner to help with things she couldn’t quite manage any more. But she also knew that the older she got, the more help she was likely to need and looking after her full time might not be feasible alongside her job owning a shop.

Knowing she’d want to make sure her mother was cared for no matter what, but realising how expensive full-time care is, she made the decision to invest her mother’s pension and future-proof that care. 

As a former estate agent, Debbie says she knew what to do: "Always invest in bricks and mortar", she said. 

An opportunity arose when her son moved to Leeds for university and started renting a flat in West Point apartment block very close to the city centre. Debbie fell in love with the city, the views and the booming economy, which suggested to her this was a safe bet.

In 2018 she used her mother’s pension to buy the penthouse apartment. Aware that her mother’s health could suddenly deteriorate, it was reassuring to know she could sell up and use the money to pay for her care. 

But three years later and she’s completely trapped. 

Debbie is one of thousands trapped in unsellable high-rise buildings in Yorkshire. Credit: ITV News

In March 2020 a survey was done on the building to test the external wall, including cladding covering the building. While the cladding was found to be safe, changes to building regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire mean the insulation underneath is not. 

However, faults that did not meet regulations at the time it was built were also found. Cavity barriers were found to be missing. That means space inside the wall that should be blocked to help prevent the spread of fire has been left open. And if there was a fire, this can act as a chimney, allowing flames, hot gases and smoke to travel from one compartment of a building to another.

All the insulation must now be replaced, meaning the whole external wall of the building must come off. Until that happens all of the 364 flats in the building are unmortgageable, effectively valued at £0. And the cost of all this? £8 million is the current estimate. 

The money invested in the flat may be needed for Debbie's mum's care. Credit: Family Photo

The costs that could be forced onto Debbie would wipe out her mother's pension, money her and her brother need to pay for her care.

So upset by the prospect that her mother’s care is hanging in the balance, Debbie has been unable to tell her mum: "She’s not particularly well and she doesn’t know anything about this. It actually makes me feel quite sick. My brother and I, we both have power of attorney.

"And we made the joint decision and it’s been a terrible decision to have made. And it would kill her. She would have no ability to understand what this meant."

Debbie is one of a growing number of pensioners whose retirement plans have been left in tatters because of failures to fix dangerous buildings since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in unsafe flats are being hit with crippling bills to pay to fix serious safety defects that aren't their fault. 

Many are young couples whose lives have been put on hold, but an exclusive ITV Calendar News Survey has revealed the heartbreaking stories of pensioners across Yorkshire who have seen their savings disappear after investing in flats to provide vital retirement income.

Our exclusive survey found that:

Six floors down from Debbie’s flat, Ian Long bought his home 13 years ago after separating from his wife. It was a chance for him to move within walking distance of work and save some money for retirement.

At 56 years old, he looked to sell his flat last year to move into a bungalow with his new partner. But after working for nearly 40 years, Ian is now not only trapped in his home, but potentially facing financial ruin. If costs are passed to him they could reach £20,000  

"I haven’t got that amount of cash lying around, very few people have. Whilst we’re trying to be patient, it is quite difficult to maintain a positive outlook," he said.

A £5.1 billion government fund is available for buildings with dangerous cladding. The management company for the building has applied and is currently waiting to see what they’re eligible for.

But the fund is to fix flammable cladding. West Point’s cladding is safe. Leaving Debbie and Ian’s future completely hanging in the balance. 

He said: "We don’t know if it’ll even cover our problems. And without it, costs can legally be passed on to us."

In April, a new bill was passed to strengthen regulation for fire safety. It was hoped amendments added to the bill would protect leaseholders from being passed on crippling costs.

But, despite a significant rebellion of 32 Conservative MPs, the government defeated an amendment to protect residents of buildings from the bills.

Currently, it’s estimated that 20% of flats in England are unsellable because of fire-safety issues. And while the argument over who pays continues, there’s concern that even if these buildings are fixed, people won’t have the confidence to start buying flats again.

Alex Goldstein is a property consultant covering the whole of Yorkshire: "If you’re a buyer, why would you then want to buy into one of these buildings, even if legally it’s all been sorted it just puts a huge amount of doubt in your mind.

"So again companies, investors looking to come into the area...it could have a very adverse effect."

A spokesperson for the property management company said: "We understand how difficult the uncertainty is for residents and homeowners, and we’re doing all we can to support them.

"We have just received confirmation that West Point has been approved as eligible for funding and we're currently working through the full application process to get to a position where remedial works can begin.

"Until this process is completed, we are not able to confirm the amount of eligible available funding. In the meantime, we will continue to keep the West Point residents updated regularly throughout the funding application process."

ITV Calendar asked the freeholder of West Point if they had any plans to contribute to costs to fix the building, but hasn’t received a response.

When we asked the original building developer if they had plans to provide any funding, Shepherd Construction Limited told us: "I can confirm Shepherd Construction Limited (SCL) built Leeds West Central (now known as West Point, Leeds) in the period 2003 - 2005.

"With the building now past its contractual limitation period, and in line with industry practice, all maintenance and liability for the building now rest with the building owners and management company.

"As with all buildings constructed by SCL, it would have been completed to the design specified by the appointed architects and approved by building control and regulatory authorities at the time."

A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: "The Government is bringing forward the biggest improvements to building and fire safety in 40 years.

"This includes a comprehensive £5 billion plan to help protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders from the cost of making the tallest buildings with the most dangerous cladding safer.

"We will also ensure that industry pays its fair share towards the costs of cladding remediation through a new levy and tax, striking the right balance in protecting leaseholders and being fair to taxpayers."