Lack of access to relief for residents of unsafe buildings described as a scandal
Ritu Saha, co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group
Only 14 grants from the Government’s £30 million Waking Watch Relief Fund have been paid out in London, totalling less than £1.7 million.
The fund was introduced in December 2020 to cover the cost of replacing waking watches with fire alarm systems in buildings that have fire safety defects.
Waking Watches were introduced in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire and involve 24-hour patrols of buildings that have fire safety defects to warn residents in the event of a fire and coordinate evacuations.
Londoners pay more on average for waking watches than people elsewhere in the country, with a mean cost of £20,443 per building per month in London compared to £15,279 elsewhere in the country.
Following the launch of the Waking Watch Relief Fund last year, City Hall was allocated £16.1 million and was placed in charge of administering claims in London.
But despite 111 applications for the fund having been made in the capital, 72 of which have so far been approved, only 14 payments have been made as of 1 November.
The figures were revealed by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan following a question from Labour Assembly Member Anne Clarke recently.
Ms Clarke has said it is a “scandal” that so many people are unable to access money from the fund to replace costly waking watches, but that “some progress is being made”.
She said: “Now many more applications have been approved, I have received assurances from the GLA that it is working with building owners to get the necessary contracts signed to ensure more grants are given out.”
A total of £8.7 million has been allocated to 72 successful applicants in London since the fund opened, but the first payment was only authorised at the end of August. Despite a slow start, seven grants were paid out during October.
The fund reopened on September 15 with an additional £5 million available for successful applicants. Applications must be submitted by December 10 to be considered.
But even once fire alarm systems are installed, some buildings still require a waking watch in place to report false alarms, as some temporary alarms are highly sensitive.
Ritu Saha, co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, said that she has “literally been a prisoner in my own home” since the start of the year as she has had to be on hand for 24 hours three days a week to report false alarms.
Just months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Ms Saha’s building became one of the first to have a waking watch put in place after ACM cladding – the same type found on Grenfell Tower – was discovered.
She said: “We were one of the first buildings that found out. We had the waking watch put in place immediately. There were two people who just turned up at the foyer area and we found out about three months later that those two people were costing my building £24,000 per month. There are only 57 flats in my building and for all of 2018 we had the waking watch. In three months, the finances of our building were completely destroyed, just to pay these two people. We had those finances built up over 20 years, and it all went in a flash just to pay for the waking watch.”
Ms Saha said that residents had to take up waking watches themselves “so we didn’t go bankrupt”.
She said: “I work full time. I would go to work, leave the house before eight o’clock, rush back home by six thirty, and from seven o’clock until midnight on weekdays, I was patrolling my building. I couldn’t go home for dinner, I was just patrolling my building. I had retired neighbours who did waking watches themselves from midnight until 7am three days a week instead of enjoying their retirement. So, you can imagine the sort of toll that had on our mental health.”
In 2019, the residents of Ms Saha’s building paid £120,000 to have a temporary fire alarm installed but had to continue waking watch patrols in case of a false alarm.
Though the cladding has since been removed from her building, Ms Saha has said that waking watches are still required until the alarm can be replaced with a new, permanent one which could cost up to £80,000. The building is not eligible for a grant from the Waking Watch Relief Fund as it already had an alarm installed.
Ms Saha said, “Because we had done the right thing and put the alarm in, we were excluded from the fund.”
Joe Talora - Local Democracy Reporter
November 5, 2021