Cladding crisis: Jewellery Quarter families left living under a cloud of plastic

Residents living in a city centre apartment complex have been left in darkness under plastic sheeting for eight months

Families have been left living in darkness under giant plastic sheeting for months as they wait for works to remove dangerous cladding from their flats to be completed.

Islington Gates apartment complex, located on the banks of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal by the Jewellery Quarter, was among the first in the country to undergo remediation work following the fatal Grenfell Tower disaster.

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Seventy-two people died in the London high rise tower block when a fire spread from a kitchen appliance in one apartment due to the building’s cladding - burning for 60 hours before finally being extinguished in June 2017.

Inspections were carried out on apartment blocks up and down the country to see if they, too, had faulty cladding which could expose residents to a similar fatal risk.

Dangerous material, which was different to the cladding used on Grenfell, was found and removed from the nine-storey Islington Gates in April.

But since then some residents have been left living in cold and dark homes covered in huge plastic sheets while they wait for the cladding to be replaced with non-flammable material.

Residents at Islington Gates applied for a grant from the government’s Building Safety Fund, and although around 80% of the work is covered by the fund, it doesn’t cover all of the costs of the cladding replacement and other fire safety measures.

This has meant that leaseholders have had to fork out thousands of pounds to pay the difference for the removal of materials themselves while waiting in the dark.

Jim and Katie Illingworth

‘We’re siting here with four or five layers of clothes on’

Jim and Katie Illingworth, who are both in their 60s, moved to their one-bedroom flat in Islington Gates six years ago with their son Patrick, 27, also buying a flat in the apartment complex.

Speaking to BirminghamWorld, Jim, 63, said: “When we first heard about Grenfell, we were obviously worried about the metal cladding which is what the Grenfell building had, but we looked at our building and thought - we have wooden cladding so it wouldn’t be a problem - as you would do because they were talking about the metal style cladding, which was on Grenfell.

“But when they started investigating all the other types of cladding they discovered the cladding on our building was flammable too.”

Due to the fact that the building’s cedarwood and aluminium cladding no longer met safety guidance, leaseholders were also hit with rising insurance costs, and service charge bills increased, leaving residents dealing with the financial and emotional impact.

Islington Gates, Birmingham

The white sheeting was put around Jim and Katie’s section of the building and flat a little further down the line, but they have still been living with the plastic surrounding them for months now.

“The last six months have been very difficult because we’ve had the scaffolding up and we’ve got the white sheeting covering our flat,” Jim said. “And it’s cold because all the insulation has now been taken off.

“We’ve got one major room and there’s only one window, and of course that is all covered up by the plastic sheeting, and there’s no balcony or anything so we’re just totally enclosed.

“Our flat is on the first floor but if we want to see what the weather is like then we actually have to go out and come back or ring someone up to find out.”

Like all of Islington Gates, Jim and Katie’s flat is covered with white sheeting

Like many of the residents at Islington Gates, Jim and Katie have also had to deal with leaks due to some of the walls being exposed after the removal of the cladding.

“At the moment we’re living in a building site and will be for another seven or eight months,” said Jim.

“The particular block that we live in is also colder than all of the other ones because it has two garages underneath it.

“It’s been cold and depressing, and you have this worry of finding the money, because there’s the money that you need to find to complete the external works, but you’ve also got the money for the internal work because all of the insulation has been removed, and then you’ve got hikes in fuel costs which are going up anyway.

“So without the insulation we’re siting here with four or five layers of clothes and blankets on trying to make sure we don’t put as much heating on - and that’s the same for a lot of people, especially the pensioners who haven’t got a fixed income.”

Jim, who is a food consultant, moved to Islington Gates with his wife from their four-bedroom house in the Derbyshire countryside.

“We did what a lot of people do when they get older,” he said. “Your children leave home and you move to a smaller place.

“We moved to the city for the convenience and to be more green so we wouldn’t have to use the car so much. It was also to have the facilities of a large city - the theatres, restaurants and everything else, and of course, it’s all backfired on us.

“With Covid you can’t go out - and we can’t afford to now either.”

Jim and Katie’s flat is dark and cold

What is being done about the cladding?

Jim said that it is hoped the cladding works on the first Islington Gates block will be completed by March or April 2022, and the second (where his flat is) by June or July.

He said it’s likely the scaffolding on his section will not be removed until July next year, but even once it is, he says there will still be internal compartmentation issues, which he says are expected to cost around £3m to remediate.

The government’s Building Safety Fund is providing only the cost of removing the installed flammable cladding.

The works project is managed by building consultants, who report to the Voluntary Leaseholder Board.

A statement on behalf the Voluntary Leaseholder Board, said: ‘The Leaseholder Board is well aware of the unpleasant conditions imposed by the removal of the cladding. Working with our building consultants and the works contractor Woodman Bros. Ltd., we are doing all we can to get the fire safety works finished.

“The voluntary Board includes leaseholders who live in apartments potentially affected by the works. Unfortunately the plastic sheeting covering the site and other impacts of the works are unavoidable as we push forward with the fire safety works.

“As Islington Gates overlooks the canal, it has been required by the Canals and Rivers Trust to prevent pollution of the waterway.

Islington Gates before the cladding was removed

“We regularly review the site operations. As works move forward, we have asked our contractors to modify the next phase plastic sheeting, where possible, to allow more airflow.

“As the flammable cladding is removed awaiting replacement, there may be some inevitable short-term loss of normal insulation. The Leaseholder Board has asked our contractors to minimise this, but as the works move into phase two, covering the whole site, some impacts will be inevitable.

“The Leaseholder Board will be monitoring these closely to minimise discomfort to our fellow leaseholders.

“There is no government grant to pay for alternative accommodation for residents. The cost of this would be substantial and fall on leaseholders already facing large bills for fire safety works.”

Pedestrians look up towards Grenfell Tower in London on June 14, 2017, as firefighters continue to control the fire that engulfed the building in the early hours of the morning. Picture: Adrian Denniss/AFP via Getty Images.

What happened at the Grenfell Tower disaster

The deadly fire at Grenfell Tower in west London started in a kitchen on the fourth floor and spread through the 23-storey building rapidly upwards and across the eastern side of the flatblock.

The building design was meant to contain a fire to a single flat, but 72 people died as the tower was destroyed in the tragedy.

Following an enquiry, Professor Luke Bisby said evidence “strongly supports” the theory that the polyethylene material in the cladding was the primary cause of the fire’s spread.

After the fire, safety checks were carried out across high rise buildings across England, which is when the cladding on Islington Gates was found to be unsafe.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood

MP calls for amendments to the Building Safety Bill

Birmingham Labour MP Shabana Mahmood (Ladywood), has added her name to amendments to the Building Safety Bill aimed at “protecting leaseholders from extortionate remediation costs”.

Ms Mahmood was a signatory to the McPartland-Smith amendments to the Fire Safety Bill which the Labour Party says would have ensured leaseholders were not liable for any costs of remediation.

These amendments were opposed by the government.

The new amendments tabled to the Building Safety Bill are as follows:

  • Amendment NC5 will give power to the government and local authorities to designate dwellings with cladding and fire safety defects as defective and to provide grant support for remediation.
  • Amendment NC 6 will place a duty on the Secretary of State to provide funding for cladding and fire safety remediation and also for Parliament to approve these plans.
  • Amendment NC13 prevents the costs of any fire safety or building safety remedial works being passed on to leaseholders.

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