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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
June 26, 2023


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Anxiety, mistrust and anger: The resident’s view of the Building Safety Crisis

A heartfelt view from two homeowners who have become involved in the wider campaign on fire safety remediation was given at FIREX 2023 in May. Ron Alalouff reports.

IFSEC Insider long read – Snapshot summary:

  • Uncertainty around remediation, waking watch measures and low quality fire safety inspections has caused residents of high-rise buildings to take matters into their own hands
  • Residents left in states of stress, anxiety and sleepless nights over fears of building safety
  • Challenges in communicating with developers, housing associations and responsible persons 

A leaseholder in a high-rise block and a new build homeowner became so frustrated with the uncertainties surrounding fire safety remediation work at their properties, that they joined forces to challenge freeholders and developers.

Deepa Mistry, CEO of Building Safety Crisis, told delegates that her building was one of the first to be remediated after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. But it was only when the scaffolding was up and she saw the workmen pulling off cladding that she realised how serious this was.

“This created a lot of anxiety,” said Deepa. “For months, I was living in emotional distress thinking: ‘I’m on the sixth floor and I have three very young children – how would I get out of here?’”

It got to a point, she said, where she had sleepless nights and panic attacks. When she was awake she just practiced her evacuation procedure in her head and kept go-bags by the door in case they had to evacuate.

“What I didn’t really know was that in the event of a fire, do I stay put or do I leave? What do I do, given what’s happened with Grenfell?”


Deepa Mistry and Nichola Venables speaking to a packed out FIREX audience about their experiences of the Building Safety Crisis

Waking watch lacking

When residents were told that the building had the same cladding as Grenfell, it took Deepa a while to digest the information. But it really hit home when she saw the waking watch team on site. While they were supposed to inspect the block every few minutes, she found they were not doing so.

“If they have got headphones in their ears, how do I know they can hear a fire alarm and ensure our safety when we’re sleeping?” asked Deepa.

“We were advised to call the housing association to let them know if they were not doing their work, but this call goes through to an after-hours service, from which you don’t get a response until the following morning. That could be too late.”

This situation led her to have little faith in what the waking watch were doing, which is why she didn’t believe it was worth the money being paid for it. Her housing association provided a certain level of support, but what she needed were some real action points, such as: ‘If you think it’s dangerous, just go!’

In cases where the fire alarm did go off she would just evacuate, even though she knew a stay put policy was in place.

It took four to five years from when the building was first remediated to gain its EWS-1 certificate, but there was very little explanation to residents as to why it took so long. “We’ve been in a building that has been safely remediated, but I didn’t have a certificate to prove that, and it’s very difficult to feel safe and assured of your safety when you’re in this situation.”

This led Deepa to form a community with other leaseholders who are also stuck in properties with cladding, and are experiencing the same problem. This resulted in some lobbying work with government and parliament on legislation to protect people in similar positions, most recently ‘Polluter Pays’ amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which provides for the builder and developer to pay for defects in breach of building regulations at the time of construction.

Faulty fire cavity barriers

Nichola Venables, CEO of New Build Database, said she purchased a new build home seven years ago and then saw Grenfell happen. After a 2019 BBC Watchdog programme about missing or incorrectly installed fire cavity barriers in new build homes, she and her fellow homeowners individually reached out to their developers to ask for an inspection of their properties. After a couple of months someone came round.

“What that looked like,” said Nichola, “was someone who had been a painter and decorator during the build phase popped up to the attic, had a quick look around, and was out of the door in less than 10 minutes.

“Then the developer told me that everything was fine with the property. I was furious at that point, as I knew that person wasn’t skilled to do that inspection, hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time looking at the property, and only looked at the eaves.”

So started a battle with the developer. She repeatedly asked for an independent inspection, only to be rebuffed by the developer saying her home was safe. But she didn’t feel safer – she constantly felt anxious, especially with a two- and four-year old at the time. She upgraded the smoke alarms and bought fire extinguishers.

“I was just really worried that when we were asleep, there would be a fire and we wouldn’t get out in time. That gave me nightmares – I thought about it all day. I didn’t feel safe in my home and it just made for a really miserable time.”

Nichola then started contacting different Facebook groups who had the same developer, and there was a surprising number with the same issue. Initially the developer was saying it was limited to a specific region of the country, but she very quickly found that there were properties in at least 32 counties with the same issue. But still the developer said there was nothing to worry about.

Media spotlight

It was then that she and some of her fellow homeowners took part in a Wales This Week TV programme. Only after that programme and further lobbying did the developer give way and agreed to independent inspections.

32 homes on her estate – the owners of which were previously told they didn’t have any issues – were found with defects. It took around two years for all of those houses to be remediated, though Covid did cause delays to the work.

At that point Nichola had started reaching out to different campaign groups finding out more about the cladding issue, met Deepa Mistry and became firm friends with her. Nichola wanted to learn more about the issues they were dealing with, so she obtained a Level 3 Award in Fire Safety Management, a site manager safety training scheme and the NEBOSH General Certificate.

She then started New Build Database, an online database which captures information such as snagging issues, customer service issues and, of course, fire safety issues. She has also worked with Deepa on lobbying for amendments to the Building Safety Act and Fire Safety Act.

She concluded: “Like Deepa, I’m still chasing a report that tells me my house is safe. So I’ve had a second independent inspection, but they will not give me a report to say that my house is definitely safe.”


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