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.
January 4, 2022

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Building Safety

Report highlights impacts of building safety crisis on mental health of leaseholders

A new study has revealed the impacts on the mental health of leaseholders who are stuck in their flats and face huge costs for remediation of unsafe cladding or other building safety defects. Ron Alalouff shares the results of the study, and examines the impact of the crisis on the mental wellbeing of those knowingly living in un-safe buildings.

The building safety crisis arises mainly from buildings with flammable cladding and insulation, but also includes missing or inadequate firestopping, compartmentation or fire doors, and flammable materials on balconies. Many leaseholders living in affected buildings are unable to sell their homes until external wall systems can be assessed, risks identified and remediation works carried out. While government funding exists for some building types – notably high-rise residential blocks – many buildings do not quality for funding and not all types of work are covered by the fund.

The study, living Through the Building Safety Crisis – Impacts on the mental wellbeing of leaseholders by Dr Jenny Preece of the University of Sheffield, reveals that the underlying issue for most leaseholders was uncertainty, and participants were in different stages of discovery. Some had had survey results, others knew invasive surveys had been carried out but had been not allowed to see the results, and some were still waiting for a survey to be carried out. Communication from building owners and managers was found to be generally poor.

To underline the high levels of uncertainty among leaseholders, few participants had received demands for payment for remedial work, but more had endured an increase in insurance costs – as well as those for fire alarms or waking watch patrols – sometimes amounting to hundreds or thousands of pounds a year. But the biggest worry was the potential for remediation bills into the tens of thousands of pounds.

Remediation costs significant source of stress

For all respondents, the potential financial impact of having to pay bills for remediation was a “significant” source of stress, which in many cases sat alongside a gradual increase in day-to-day costs. There was a large degree of uncertainty about specific remediation costs that would be incurred, and how much of these costs individuals would be responsible for. Many spoke of the stress such uncertainty was causing, and of their fears of bankruptcy, losing their homes or losing their jobs.

The impacts on mental wellbeing ranged from constant worry and an inability to concentrate on other things, to anxiety and depression. Several participants said that they or someone in their household had experienced suicidal feelings and several were involved in talking therapies. Participants frequently reported feeling trapped, stuck in limbo and finding their worries intruding on their thoughts throughout the day. For many, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the mental harms arising from building safety problems, because they were forced to spend more time at home.

For some, the fear of a dangerous fire breaking out was a “very significant driver of negative mental health outcomes”. For a small number of participants, the perceived physical danger and fire risk associated with their home was a “significant source of stress”. For most, however, this was eclipsed by anxieties created by the potential financial impact on them.

Escape plans made

Making plans to escape if a fire broke out was one way in which leaseholders sought to exercise some control over their lives. It was common for participants to have considered escape plans, such as knowing where the nearest fire exits were, describing the potential for climbing onto other structures to escape, and having a packed bag. Escape plans were not based on waiting for rescue under stay put policies, but were focussed on evacuating buildings as quickly as possible.

All participants reflected on their increased inability to control their own lives, plan for the future or make choices about that future. This was especially the case with life stages, such as family planning, moving to a larger home, retirement, or moving for work or to care for someone.

The pressures that households were living with could put significant strain on relationships, due to the all-consuming nature of the building safety crisis. Relationships outside the home and support networks were also affected.

Corruption in high places?

Many leaseholders experienced the crisis as a ‘dislocating force’, impacting their self-belief, self-perception, and their view of their place and value in wider society. Many experienced feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame, and they believed these feelings were being exacerbated by some government narratives which they saw as a deliberate strategy to discredit and deny their experiences. It was also common for participants to believe that the building safety crisis had exposed high levels and corruption and greed at the heart of government and the housing industry.

The perceived arbitrary nature of government funding – according to building type and characteristics of safety problems – also fed into the feeling of unfairness. It was also commonly noted that a range of organisations were likely to be making substantial profits from the crisis in providing waking watches, surveys or building works.

Most leaseholders believed the Government should lead a process to identify, assess and remediate buildings systematically, based on risk, and that while government funding would be necessary, other relevant organisations should be held accountable where failings are identified.

Commenting on the publication of the study, Dr Preece said: “To move forward, leaseholders need to see clear and decisive action from the Government and to have a timeframe in which they will be able to move on. Crucially, this must be backed up by comprehensive funding that is not limited by building height, and there must be a systematic attempt to hold organisations to account for failures that have been identified.

“The ad hoc approach that we have seen to-date is not working, and we quickly need new action to protect leaseholders from unaffordable remediation bills. There is a cost to doing nothing, not just to individual leaseholders in terms of their mental wellbeing, but to wider society as well.”

Link to BBC programme: Britain’s Dangerous Buildings: Is my home safe?

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Dr . Malcolm CHESHIRE
Dr . Malcolm CHESHIRE
April 20, 2022 5:59 pm

. . . the term Mental Health is now a commonplace misnomer ! HEALTH , as defined by the World Health Organisation [ WHO ] – in 1988 is : a State of Physical Psychological & Social Wellbeing ; and , NOT simply the absence of Disease ! ” . What many people mistakenly term Mental Health is actually a reference to Psychological Wellbeing ; but , Wellbeing , as outlined in the WHO definition is NOT HEALTH ! In over 35 years of Clinical Practice I have assessed many patients who have presented with what they believe to be… Read more »