The tower block residents who want their old cladding back
Housing providers up and down the country have been removing potentially dangerous cladding in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster which left 72 people dead. But in the Essex town of Grays, some residents in a number of towers say they want the cladding put back. Why?
“It is a damp, cold hell-hole,” says Rebecca Noakes, who lives in one of the six Grays tower blocks where cladding was removed last year.
Since the cladding was removed, the mother-of-one and a number of her fellow residents in other Thurrock Council-owned Seabrooke Rise estate tower blocks have been fighting a losing war against the cold and mould.
The council says it takes any reports of mould “very seriously” but also claims the reports from residents have been “sporadic” and believes very few of the issues raised relate to its decision to remove the cladding.
“Everything is covered in mould” says Ms Noakes. “It is not very nice to be living with. It is coming through everything, it is everywhere.”
“It has been like this since they took the cladding down.
“It makes me want to cry, it is just not fair,” says Ms Noakes.
From the window of her seventh floor flat, Ms Noakes can see Thurrock Council’s offices. It is a view that makes her livid.
“They’ve just built an extension to those offices,” she says.
“That’s gone up with no problem. It is an insult. They’ve got nice new offices and we are living here. They wouldn’t want to live here.”
She and her son are currently sleeping in the front room because the bedrooms are riddled with damp and are currently being used to house a growing pile of furnishings, which are covered with mould.
She is buying food daily because anything left in her kitchen, she says, is rapidly covered in mould.
“We’re always ill with coughing, constantly. And I’m wondering each day whether it is Covid or the mould, Covid or the mould,” says Ms Noakes, who says the situation has left her depressed and frequently tearful.
‘Everything we own has been damaged’
Rob and Liz Gordon say the growing amounts of mould and damp in their tower block flat is making their children poorly.
Mr Gordon says the problems gradually emerged after the cladding was removed in the early summer of 2021.
The family has lived in the block for six years and say they had never experiences such issues previously.
“It changed when the weather turned and has been accelerating. Now that it is cold, the whole block is not insulated and everybody is getting cold at once.
“The mould is going through the whole block,” he says. “It is not going to better while it is cold.
“My daughter has been hospitalised with bronchiolitis, my son is continuously unwell with colds and runny noses and I have developed something like asthma.”
Mrs Gordon tells how their three-month-old daughter had to be put on oxygen in hospital.
“It was horrendous,” she says. “I was in pieces and because of Covid it was only me allowed in hospital.
“Everything we own has been damaged,” says Mrs Gordon. “It is unmanageable.”
‘I’m wondering already how I’m going to survive each month’
“They decided to take the cladding down from all six blocks without replacing it,” says 28-year-old Jodie Buxton. “They’ve started the job without being able to finish it.
“Our windows have all got air coming through them, my front door is cracked, so the flat is cold. The wall is cold.
“I can’t have any furniture near any of the walls because they get infested with mould.”
She has already had to discard some pieces of furniture, including a new wardrobe and a chest of drawers because of the mould.
Her eight-week-old son has already been in hospital twice with bronchitis.
Ms Buxton’s daughter has also had a chest infection.
She has bought three extra electric heaters to try to reduce the cold in her flat.
Her energy bill a year ago was £120 per month. It is now £400 per month.
She says the contractor which carried out the cladding removal has given residents £120 a month towards meeting the extra energy costs.
“For most of us, that lasted one or two weeks,” says Ms Buxton.
They have also been offered a £30 voucher. “What am I going to do with that?” she asks.
“I want the windows sorting and I want the cladding put back on,” says Ms Buxton. “Because without the cladding on we are not warm.
“We are fighting to survive with our electricity bills. The council says if there is mould we should open the windows. But why would I spend this much heating the flat up only to let it all go out of the window?
“They’ve also suggested getting a dehumidifier but I can’t afford that on top of everything else.
“I’m wondering already how I’m going to survive each month.”
The Grays tower blocks are part of a wider £20m council effort to refurbish nine tower blocks in the authority area. The council says it is part of a “planned programme to prolong the life of the blocks and also improve thermal efficiency”.
Martin Kerin, the Labour member for Grays Riverside on the Conservative-run Thurrock Council, says: “What my residents are having to put up with is a scandal.
“I have residents who are so cold they can see their own breath in the air; residents who are fighting a losing battle against mould; residents who are being treated for bronchial conditions directly attributed to this fiasco.
“It didn’t have to be this way.
“The whole refurb programme was supposed to be concluding in May of this year.
“Yet now, because they failed to measure the windows properly, they are unlikely to even start fitting the yet-to-be-designed new windows by then.
“Due to the fact that the cladding cannot be fitted until after the windows, it is clear that my residents are in for a long haul of bitter cold, disgusting mould and unaffordable energy bills.”
But Luke Spillman, the council’s cabinet member for housing, says: “We take every single report of damp and mould very seriously.
“However such reports remain extremely sporadic within all six blocks, with the vast majority of cases resulting from causes not related to the removal of the cladding. Many reports pre-date the removal of the cladding.
“Every case will be treated on its merits with suitable repairs and resolutions applied in a timely fashion.
“I ask any resident unsatisfied with the council’s efforts to resolve damp and mould in their property to contact me directly.
“I will personally take on their case and make representations directly to senior management in the housing department.
“In addition to investing £11 million in the refurbishment of these six blocks, the council will continue to monitor and mitigate any negative impact related to the temporary removal of the cladding.”
All images by Stuart Woodward and Simon Dedman