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Housing

‘Every time I buy a coffee I think I should be saving for my cladding bill’

Sheffield leaseholder Jenni Garratt tells The Big Issue how the building safety crisis is putting her life on hold as she faces skyrocketing bills to fix the Wicker Riverside building

Jenni Garratt was 11 when the Wicker Riverside building on the bank of Sheffield’s River Don was approved – but that decision has left her putting her “future on hold”.

First-time buyer Jenni, 24, became a leaseholder at the 10-storey block in April 2019 and was full of excitement to start her new life in Sheffield after a year spent saving money living with her parents post-university.

But the pandemic also spelled the beginning of Jenni’s building safety crisis nightmare. As well as dangerous cladding, a litany of fire defects was uncovered. Flammable insulation, a smoke ventilation system that “never worked” and compartmentation problems that prevent a fire from being contained dog the 132-flat property.

The matter came to a head in December when, two weeks before Christmas and ahead of a third national Covid-19 lockdown, residents from the top five floors were evacuated by the fire service over safety fears.

The Westminster government acted to fast-track part of the £30m Waking Watch Relief Fund to pay for a 24-hour service where fire marshals patrol the building.

But Jenni, who lives on the second floor of the building, claims the £137,000 from the fund took two months to arrive and was short of the £197,000 residents had spent on fire patrols at the property, including a £600-a-month bill for Jenni.

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The financial burden of the building safety crisis has taken its toll on residents. Jenni, who works as a client manager for an auditing company, tells The Big Issue: “For about a month and a half, it was like we were living week to week, not knowing if the whole building would be closed down.

“Because if we couldn’t pay the Waking Watch at the end of that week, they would have to be removed and the whole building would be shut down. I kept having to tell my boss: ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to work on Monday because we might be evacuated.’”

Residents have now applied for the government’s Building Safety Fund to cover the external repairs but face an anxious wait to see how much the internal work will cost.

The uncertainty means Jenni and her partner are frantically saving cash and she believes the government should draw a line in the sand by offering to pay the upfront costs before going after the people responsible for the defects.

“At the moment, people like me have two huge burdens weighing down on us,” she says. “Worrying that any minute we could have to get out of the building, we could lose everything. But the other side of it is in your day-to-day life. It’s that financial burden every single time I go and buy a coffee with a friend, I’m thinking I shouldn’t be doing this, I need to be putting this away in case the cladding bill is whatever it’s going to be. The government do have the power to absolve us of that worry.”

A government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “We have been clear throughout that owners and industry should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders – and we will ensure they pay their fair share with a new levy and tax to contribute to the costs of cladding replacement.

“The government is bringing forward the biggest improvements to building and fire safety in 40 years, including a comprehensive £5 billion plan to help protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders and a finance scheme that will ensure no leaseholder in lower-rise buildings pays more than £50 a month for these costs.”

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