Cladding scandal: Trapped in a ‘matchbox’ in Bow East

Resident of the Mojo Development, Charlotte Meehan, tells her story of being trapped in a building riddled with fire safety hazards, and the impact it’s had on her dreams.

There are many factors that young couples consider when deciding whether to start a family. Income levels, the support of grandparents, whether a crib will fit in the second bedroom, whether there is a second bedroom even, all have to be taken into account. 

How to evacuate a baby from a third-floor flat should not be one of them. But this is preventing Charlotte Meehan and her husband Joe from taking this next step in their life. 

‘We’ve got neighbours that have got children, and they’ve discussed their evacuation plan, and it’s throwing a mattress off the balcony and then throwing the child onto the mattress. We couldn’t do that, how could we bring a child into that situation?’

When the couple, first-time buyers who are now in their early 30s, bought the flat in 2016, it was an achievement that validated all their hard graft. Both Meehan and her husband worked from home throughout the pandemic in professional roles, she as an Executive Assistant in media, and he as an accountant for a production company. 

Meehan has family that grew up just minutes away on Tredegar Road, and they both felt such joy in putting down roots in this familiar community they have felt honoured to be able to join. 

But they have ‘outgrown the space,’ and yearn for a second bedroom where they could have a family to stay, or potentially, put in a crib. 

‘In these living circumstances, we feel like prisoners. I feel like I’ve done everything right in trying to plan for a family, and it’s like it could just be ripped away from me and it might not be an option.’

Selling the small one-bedroom flat simply isn’t an option. It was in late 2019 that they first realised something was wrong. A neighbour shared that the sale of his flat had fallen through and he suspected that it was due to the safety of the building. 

Since then, a plethora of fire safety issues in the building have come to light. Cavity barriers are missing; these should be installed in empty spaces to prevent the chimney effect that draws a fire upwards to higher floors at incredible speed. High-pressure laminate cladding has been used and still remains in parts of the building; this is known to be highly flammable. 

And finally, Kingspan insulation remains in the building, the same brand of insulation that was used in Grenfell Tower. At the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, it was found that employees at Kingspan who conducted fire tests on their products kept the reports “secret”.

‘We literally live in a matchbox,’ Meehan says. ‘If there was a fire, it might just be an accident or anti-social behavior… from the reports that we’ve seen, we’d go up pretty quick.’

Since July 2020, ‘Waking Watch’ has been in operation 24/7. Composed of a team of fire wardens, their role is to patrol the building checking for fire. Operating from a large blue shipping container that is based outside the building, their presence has more than doubled the service charge levied on Meehan and her husband each month. 

The couple is paying around £400 building services each month, on top of their mortgage, for a flat that is, in essence, worth nothing. Until the grave fire safety hazards are fixed, which may cost tens of thousands per flat, it is unsellable. 

The recent Fire Safety Bill, for which Meehan and her residents’ association campaigned, was passed into law, however, Meehan and many campaigners say that the version passed – which is not the version they campaigned for – has failed to keep its promise that leaseholders should not pay the costs of making their buildings safe.

The five billion pounds of funding that the government has promised to put towards paying for the removal of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings only applies to buildings over 18 meters. Meehan’s block is under 18 meters, and anyway, their fire safety issues go far beyond cladding. 

There is a solution to the situation. One suggestion put forward by Liam Spender of the Trustee of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership would be for the government to provide cash flow funding to do remedial works whilst it comes up with a scheme to collect the money of the developers, construction contractors, cladding manufacturers, building inspectors and others who are ultimately responsible. 

This is the solution Meehan believes in and continues to campaign for. Without it, or a similar plan, she and tens of thousands of others – many of whom are living in flats unaware of their fire safety risks – face financial ruin. 

For the past two years, campaigning for the property developers to pay for the dangerous defects that make her flat unsafe, has become a ‘second job’ for Meehan. She is asking people to write to their local MP, hers is Rushanara Ali, or to their Councillor, who in Bow East is Rachel Blake, to ask them to take action. She also asks that people learn from and give support to the UK Cladding Action Group, and End Our Cladding Scandal

The Leaseholders Together rally will take place on 15 July in central London to call for an end to the cladding scandal to be at the top of the political agenda, and Meehan hopes to see some local faces there. 

The view from Meehan’s balcony – from which she would jump if there was a fire; ‘that’s the plan’ – is beautiful. She can see tens of other buildings’ rooftops, balconies, and gardens. During the first, intensely warm lockdown she and her husband took great delight sitting out in the sun, waving to neighbours, listening to music from across the street, or joining a rooftop exercise class from a distance. 

Yet the view is also a reminder of all the homes and lives that she cannot live. She and her husband must stay in this one, indefinitely, unable to progress with their lives, unless there is an end to the cladding scandal.

If you found this article on the cladding scandal interesting, take a look at our piece on how the UK’s hostile immigration policy has shattered the life of a single mother in Bethnal Green.

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8 thoughts on “Cladding scandal: Trapped in a ‘matchbox’ in Bow East

  • We are in the same situation, living in a development with 250+ flats built just over 15 years ago off Roman Road. It seemed a dream when we found it and it has turned into a living nightmare, with never ending bills, anxiety and uncertain over the future (in addition to the uncertainties and stress of living through a pandemic, like everyone else).

    The government needs to put an end to this scandal and misery affecting innocent people who worked extremely hard to buy their first (mainly small) properties. So many don’t even believe this could be true, as it’s so extremely difficult to believe a country like the U.K. could allow it to happen – yet that is exactly our reality.

    Charlotte, best of luck – I will be at the protest in July!

    • Thank you so much, Sara. So sorry to hear you’re caught up in this mess too.

      Thank you for reading and wishing you all the best too – looking forward to the protest. See you there!

    • I’m sorry to hear your troubles, Charlotte. It’s an absolute scandal. Which development are you in?

    • I’m sorry to hear your troubles, Sara. It’s an absolute scandal. Which development are you in?

  • We are in a similar situation in a one bed flat by bow roundabout. No cavity barriers, despite them being part of regulations at the time of building. 3 years of discussions with the original developer and still the works to rectify haven’t started.
    We also have wooden balconies that need to be changed aswell to meet new regulations.
    So no ability to sell or move. Life on hold. Even when works do start we don’t know how much it will cost for us and then there will be atleast 60 weeks of scaffolding and major works to put it right. Before we can even think of selling.

  • The amount of money spent or rather wasted by the Council on Liveable Streets consultation process could have resolved the cladding issue in several if not all buildings in the borough.

    It could have covered the cost of technical means to replace the costly fire watch.

    Here we have named residents exposed to defined and specific risk, yet the money is spent to protect virtual persons from an undefined and unquantifiable risk.

    This is not a cladding crisis, it is a crisis of governance and priorities.

    • The problem isn’t prioritising solutions for safe streets and clean air, it’s deprioritising solutions for cladding. It’s not one or the other. Don’t try to shoehorn your pet issue into something unrelated.

  • Of course developers and anybody involved who wanted to make a quick ££££££££££ should forfeit and pay. Plenty of wasted money that couldve been put towards this..no excuses….it seems as though its not deemed as essential……….How many more people have to die to make this point?? definatly about priorities…IM so sorry for the people caught up in it…cant sell and move…life in limbo.
    It s scandal


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