Richmond House was completely destroyed when a fire took hold in September 2019
Residents who lost everything when a fire destroyed their homes have slammed the Government’s ‘penny pinching’ fund to fix unsafe flats.
Gut wrenching before and after photos show the devastation caused when flames rapidly tore through Richmond House in September 2019.
The south west London building in Worcester Park was damaged irreparably in just 11 minutes due to poor construction, and could not be saved despite firefighters rushing to the scene.
The four-storey block was fitted with defective cavity barriers – a key safety feature that is supposed to stop fire and smoke spreading through walls that was also missing from Grenfell Tower.
The 2017 tragedy plunged the issue of flammable cladding into the national spotlight, but flat owners across the country are discovering the fire defects with their homes go far beyond that in a building safety scandal that is threatening to leave millions financially ruined.
Experts have warned defective or missing cavity barriers is a ‘systemic nationwide problem’ that could risk another fatal fire on the scale of Grenfell, when 72 people died.
But it is not covered by the Government’s widely criticised £5bn Building Safety Fund (BSF) which only offers aid to developments over 18 metres that have unsafe cladding.
Richmond House was engulfed in flames in just 11 minutes (Picture: Rex)
The fire destroyed all 23 flats (Picture: Rex)
Missing cavity barriers caused the rapid spread of the flames (Picture: PA)
Richmond House would not qualify for the BSF if it were still standing.
Residents say this highlights the huge cracks in Government support.
Midwife Jess Davy recalled in terrifying detail witnessing the rapid spread of the fire after being woken up at 1.30am to a neighbour banging on her door telling her to get out.
The 31-year-old rushed downstairs in her nightgown just in time to see the building crumble before her eyes.
Jess, who was living in a second storey flat with her four-year-old son, told Metro.co.uk: ‘You could see there was a huge fire but I think what was more scary was how quickly it was taking hold.
Jess Davy’s flat was destroyed in the Richmond House fire (Picture: Jess Davy)
The flat above hers caved in, causing more damage on top of the fire (Picture: Jess Davy)
Everything Jess owned was destroyed or contaminated (Picture: Jess Davy)
‘You could hear the popping of what we think was the boilers, everyone was screaming. We ran out in time to just stand and watch a fire cripple the entire building.
‘The fire engines came very quickly. I was watching my flat hoping the fire brigade could put it out before the fire reached it but there was no chance. The floors gave way so the flats fell in on the ones below.
‘If someone was deaf or had mobility issues, they would have died. The Government are aware that buildings under 18m are not safe, they are deliberately ignoring millions of people in unsafe buildings.’
In October last year, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) Andy Roe told a London Assembly committee that Richmond House had been damaged beyond repair ‘in approximately 11 minutes once the fire had taken hold … entirely due to problems with internal compartmentation and poor standards of construction’.
Midwife Jess was living in the property with her son (Picture: Jess Davy)
Inside Jess Davy’s flat before the fire burned it down (Picture: Jess Davy)
This image shows the scale of destruction caused by the fire (Picture: Jess Davy)
An independent fire report from LFB and Probyn Miers said cavity barriers in a 16cm gap inside the timber-frame exterior walls should have slowed the flames. However, they were ‘too small’ or ‘missing completely’ allowing the fire to rage ‘almost unhindered’.
Although everyone escaped uninjured, residents say they have been mentally traumatised by ‘losing everything’.
Jennifer Frame, who was out at the time of the fire, said returning to find her home of seven years reduced to ashes has left her struggling to sleep at night.
‘We don’t want any other family to go through what we have been through and to lose everything like we have,’ said Jennifer, 42.
Richmond House in the aftermath of the fire (Picture: Jennifer Frame)
The ruins of Jennifer Frame’s flat after the building was destroyed by fire (Picture: Jennifer Frame)
‘Mental health has been a really big issue for our residents. It wasn’t immediately after the fire for lots of people but almost everybody including children suffered from shock, PTSD, anxiety, depression and eating disorders from the sudden change to people’s lives and the loss of control.
‘Richmond House would not be covered in terms of what the Government is proposing for leaseholders. Cladding is still the only thing that is getting attention and buildings over 18 meters are getting preferential treatment.
‘Missing cavity barriers is what caused the speed of our fire, so you might be living in a smaller block that’s easier to get out of but the missing barriers is like a chimney effect.
‘The fire just swept over the side of the wall and took over the building in minutes.’
A spokesperson for St James, the division of the Berkeley Group that built Richmond House, said: ‘Compensation has been paid to Richmond House residents and our insurers are ready and waiting to deal with any additional personal injury claims yet to come.’
In many ways, Jennifer said she considers herself luckier than some caught up in the scandal, as the rebuild is being paid for through the building’s insurance.
Richmond House, before it burned down, would not qualify for the Government’s fund to fix unsafe buildings (Picture: Jennifer Frame)
The building has been demolished and is being rebuilt (Picture: Rex)
Jennifer Frame is campaigning for all buildings to have access to the Government safety fund (Picture: Jennifer Frame)
Across the country, people in flats with similar safety issues are facing a choice of forced loans or bankruptcy to pay for repairs, with no idea when the remediation will go ahead.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said leaseholders shouldn’t have to pay to fix historic defects, but there is no legislation to stop developers and freeholders passing on the costs.
A recent survey by Inside Housing found 68.3% of leaseholders require repairs to defective fire breaks; 59.3% require the removal of combustible balconies and 53.6% require repairs to internal compartmentation.
None of this is covered by Government funding, leaving homeowners facing average remediation bills of £30,000 to £50,000 and over £100,000 in some cases.
Laurel Agnew and Jonathan Quayle fear they could have to fork out over £135,000 to fix defects to their Manchester building, which is so unsafe it needs to be partially demolished and rebuilt. Leaseholders have been told repairs could cost £150,000 per flat owner, with non-cladding issues making up the bulk of the bill.
Laurel, 30, said: ‘Based on talking to builders we are expecting a £12k discount (for the cladding) so will be paying over £100k each.
‘We would have to stay here until we could pay it all off or declare bankruptcy and walk away.
Laurel Agnew and partner Jonathan Quayle say they might not be able to have kids if they are stuck in a fire trap flat (Picture: Laurel Agnew)
Labour estimate 11 million people could be caught up in the building safety scandal (Picture: End Our Cladding Scandal)
‘We don’t have kids and I don’t think we will ever be able to afford to have any, it’s not in our plans at all now because of this. We were planning on moving, getting a house, starting that next stage in our lives. Unless this gets resolved in the next six months our future is looking very different to how we imagined it.
‘I have had nightmares about burning to death.’
Laurel’s situation is not unique. Metro.co.uk has spoken to leaseholders from London to Wales whose buildings have a host of issues that do not meet building safety standards but are ineligible for the Government rescue fund.
That includes the Olympic Village flats that Boris Johnson once called ‘swankier than the most swanky Marbella.’ The east London development where athletes lived during the 2012 games is not only wrapped in Grenfell style cladding but is also missing fire stops, has combustible insulation and timber balconies.
In the Victoria Wharf complex in Cardiff, residents have had to pay £3,000 each for ‘Waking Watch’ patrols while their insurance premiums have risen 10 fold due to missing fire breaks and wooden balconies that need replacing, as well as some cladding.
Independent fire risk expert Stephen Mackenzie said the Government is risking ‘Russian Roulette’ with lives by excluding buildings under 18m and non-cladding issues from the Building Safety Fund.
He said the Government needs to stop ‘penny pinching’ and adopt a fix now pay later approach to speed up the remediation process, warning: ‘Grenfell two is out there’.
He said a national risk register should be set up urgently to decide what buildings should be prioritised, which should take into account internal defects and the vulnerability of occupants as well as height.
He said alone, defective cavity barriers are not much to worry about. But when these are missing on buildings with wood, timber, and flammable cladding and insulation, the consequences of a fire could be fatal, regardless of the building’s size.
Mr McKenzie said: ‘The whole thing is a mess, we need to go back and audit all the buildings, determine what’s on them and triage them into very high, high, medium, low and very low risk. Then we need to tailor the state aid relief package and determine what is needed to fix these buildings. I don’t think we are going far enough with the measures.’
Housing Minister Robert Jenrick announced a further £3.5bn to strip unsafe cladding off buildings earlier this month, but he was accused of ‘betrayal’ for failing to axe the 18m threshold, saying anyone in buildings under this height will have the option of a ‘long-term low interest scheme’ with £50 a month minimum payments.
A Government spokesperson said expert advice shows buildings above 18m pose a greater safety risk.
But some have called this into question after a video emerged last week of a top civil servant admitting the 18m threshold had been picked simply because ministers ‘didn’t have time to come up with a better number’.
Critics also point out that although funding is only available for buildings over 18m, Government advice says buildings of all sizes need to be checked. This has left millions of leaseholders stuck in unmortgagble homes as banks are increasingly refusing to lend on buildings that aren’t proven to be safe, regardless of size.
Experts warn auditing and fixing tens of thousands of buildings could take 10 years and cost as much as £100 billion, with non-cladding safety issues expected to be as widespread and expensive as cladding.
On Wednesday night, an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill that would have protected leaseholders from paying for repairs was not accepted, meaning MPs did not get the opportunity to vote on it.
More than 30 Conservative MPs had signed the modification, put forward by Tory Stephen McPartland, who warned the current terms of the bill could allow freeholders to simply pass on the costs of any remedial work the fire service order them to do.
The rejection has come as another blow to the estimated 11 million leaseholders caught up in the scandal.
End Our Cladding Scandal’s statement
Giles Grover, of the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, said: ‘We initially welcomed today’s debate as an opportunity for the Government to show it was willing to listen to the millions of trapped leaseholders facing financial ruin to fix buildings that are unsafe – buildings they do not own.
‘Successive Conservative Prime Ministers and Ministers have said numerous times that building owners and developers must do the right thing, yet, when it has come to the Government doing the right thing, it has chosen not to do so.
‘It is nearly four years after Grenfell and Ministers have utterly failed to address the serious failings the tragedy exposed. Our lives are still being ruined, with no end to our suffering in sight. Robert Jenrick’s attempt at what he believes is a fair and proper solution — forced loans on leaseholders — is deeply inadequate and will fail to address fairly the wide range of safety issues we face.
‘The first duty of the Government is to protect and safeguard the lives of its citizens; today it has failed in that duty and, in doing so, has failed leaseholders. Tonight, millions of people will go to sleep feeling trapped and abandoned. We won’t forget this — and we will certainly not stop fighting in our campaign for fairness.’
A Government spokesperson said: ‘Our approach to fire safety is based on longstanding independent expert advice and evidence – which shows higher buildings have a higher risk and this is recognised globally.
‘We’ve rightly focussed on buildings over 18m with unsafe cladding and we’re spending billions of pounds to make people’s homes safer.
‘We support the intention to protect leaseholders from remediation costs but disagree that the Fire Safety Bill is the right vehicle to address this issue.’
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].
For more stories like this, check our news page.