Sometimes I forget how angry I am over cladding

Chris Northwood
7 min readAug 18, 2023

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a solicitor. Attached was a letter from the administrators of East West Insurance Company Ltd. Inside was the text “the Company is now able to confirm that the Policy responds positively to a number of the defects for which you are claiming”.

I burst into tears.

In 2007, construction started on the building I now call home, with OCON construction starting on site. In 2008 the original developer, City Lofts, collapsed and the development was bought out of administration by the Scarborough Group. In 2011, I made an offer on a flat (which had been left empty until that point — the credit-crunch effect on the property market at the time) and moved in in January 2012.

A view of an empty flat, looking at over a balcony
The day I moved in, in January 2012.

Our building is set up with a Residents Management Company (RMC) which is responsible for the common areas of the development. In 2017, the landlord decided to sell the building and give up control of the RMC, where I and a number of other residents decided to step up, as a kind of residents’ committee with actual power to do stuff. Only a few months later, the disaster at Grenfell Tower unfolded and attention turned to other buildings that used cladding. The property manager we appointed reviewed the documentation to find we did not have the Grenfell-style “ACM” cladding, but there were some other concerns identified over the use of the insulation in our building which had never been tested as fire safe. Fire safety experts did a review of the building and told us that this would be fine, as long as the other fire safety measures in the building were in place. We got a survey done to make sure.

The survey was not good news.

It turns out that the fire barriers were not properly installed. The insulation has been installed before putting the barriers in, so they did not act as barriers. The builders clearly knew it was wrong, and they didn’t even try. The barriers were hanging loose inside the cladding, only affixed on one side. And that wasn’t all. Huge gaps between apartments where there should be fire barriers, an entire corridor not built to spec which would be overwhelmed by fire. None of the fire doors would actually stop a fire for the rated time.

This is just one story out of hundreds unfolding across the UK. Every one unique, but the theme the same. Builders doing bad jobs and cutting corners. Developers picking the wrong material for the jobs. And no-one had any clue how it was going to be put right.

The response from developers and freeholders was simple. The lease says that these costs belong to us as residents, and we must pay to put it right. But it wasn’t fair.

We thought we were lucky, we still had a few months left on our 10 year new build warranties provided by Zurich. That’s exactly what this warranty is for, right! We filled in the application form and made a claim, only to get back a legalese filled letter telling us that each defect would be a separate claim, subject to its own £1500 excess, and anyway, we can’t prove that there’s even a problem. So they won’t pay out.

How naive we were to think it’d be as simple as making a claim on the new build warranty.

So we joined in with the Cladiators and End Our Cladding Scandal in campaigning for a systematic fix for the issue, based on the “polluter pays” principle. Simply, those who made our homes unsafe should be the ones to pay to put it right. That’s fair right?

At the same time, we pursued our own action, looking at options available to us to sue the people who sold us these homes from new, putting increasing pressurer on the warranty provider and whilst slowly biting the bullet and building up our own funds for what look liked the increasingly likely situation where we would have to pay for it ourselves. Which we certainly would if we wanted to get the work done at any speed.

The Cladiators and End Our Cladding Scandal campaigns were incredibly successful, and the launch of the Building Safety Fund opened up avenues that would cover a huge chunk of putting the building right. A lot of work was still left unfunded, but at least we could start making our homes safe. Thousands of people have had to put their lives on hold too, unable to sell their flat and move to take advantage of new opportunities (short of becoming an “accidental landlord”, renting it out even though they don’t want to), but at least we’d be able to get things moving again.

So we spent money on lawyers, prepared court cases just in case and sat and waited whilst our insurers made a decision, or the developer did the right thing. 4.5 year after the initial claim, they finally turned round and said “yes, this is exactly the kind of thing a new build warranty covers, and yes, we will cover you”.

4.5 years living in an unsafe building. The stress of having to constantly push, chase and fight for remediation. The legal costs, and the upfront costs we undertook to get the work started. I had recurring nightmares of a fire in the building.

4.5 years of waiting for our insurer to find a way of wiggling out of it, before they finally admitted they can’t.

The cladding scandal has shone a light on fundamental unfairnesses in our society, and how layers of business process, legalistic mechanics and leadership failures exist to protect systems and institutions at the cost of people. It is an example of how our society has entrenched unfairness, because it serves to protect those with money.

Not long after Grenfell, Zurich sold off its building warranty portfolio to East West Insurance — part of a Bermuda-based financial group called Armour Risk. We were not the only building who’d tried to make an insurance claim, and our solicitors made us aware of another building in Manchester (the Zagora case) which were suing East West to get them to pay out. The radio silence, the solicitor suggested, was because East West were waiting to see what the outcome of that case was in the court of appeal, and use that precedent.

East West lost and not long after went bust saying there were too many claims, and it wouldn’t be able to pay out. The government’s FSCS stepped in to pick up the rest. But yet more years of radio silence before eventually, they said they’d need to inspect the building themselves to confirm the findings. But the waiting list for inspectors was long. But they finally did their own inspection, and they confirmed, after that 4.5 years, they said they’d cover the costs.

Every building has its own story. I know in Manchester of one which made the building safe at quick speed, but speeding along and doing the work left residents disqualified from financial support. I know another that got the work done, and they even got the original developer to pay for it, but has now found that even more things are wrong and work has to start again. And I know of buildings where the responsible parties are still trying to avoid the whole situation leaving people abandoned.

When I tell people the story of the cladding of my building, I find myself talking about the small steps of almost logistical concerns to get our building safe. Then after I re-tell it, I find myself again angry at the whole situation.

Why did building culture get so poor that unsafe work almost feels like it became the norm. And how did the financial services sector become allowed to sign off buildings as safe, but get away with not carrying through on it.

Why did companies like Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan bring products to market that they knew were dangerous, and lie about their safety records. Why did the staff at those companies think this was fine, and why are they not being punished for this?

Why can companies get away with putting their heads in the sand and try to wriggle out of doing the right thing — and eventually, it turns out, the thing they legally have to do.

Housing is one of the most important things we provide as a society. Everyone deserves a safe home. And the cladding scandal has left a scar through the lives and homes of thousands, and the knock-on effects are real.

We must construct additional homes to tackle the housing crisis in this country, but we have a skills shortage, and now those valuable skills that could be applied to building new homes are being taken up putting right mistakes of the past. And because no-one trusts anyone else, fire safety inspects are doing and re-doing building inspections because no-one trusts reports commissioned by anyone else.

I am happy we have finally have a resolution in sight for my building. That we can now afford to do the necessary work, and soon we’ll know exactly when that work will complete. But I am so angry that this situation arose, and how long it’s taken to get people to do the right thing.

A good society is one where people work together for a better whole, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. But too many systems and institutions are incentivised against doing the right thing because it involves individual compromise.

I want a better society, one which comes together in times of need and takes pride in doing the right thing, not one which wastes time and energy in fighting against doing the right thing. And despite everything I’m put through, I remain hopelessly optimistic I can do my part in pushing it in that direction.

My home, in the process of being made safe



Chris Northwood

A technologist wanting to share knowledge and iterate towards a better world.