Sophie Grayling was full of pride when she bought her first home in 2017. However, that quickly turned into a nightmare due to the cladding scandal, which has taken a huge toll on her mental health. Jack Simpson speaks to her about her experiences and why she decided to seek clinical help
“I did think, ‘how do I get out of this?’ I just wanted to free myself from the burden,” Sophie Grayling says when recounting the time suicidal thoughts first crept in as a result of being embroiled in the cladding scandal.
“Having a child is probably my saving grace, that really slapped me into reassessing the situation and seeking help.”
Ms Grayling, a mother of one, is a leaseholder living in the Cunard Square block of Marconi Plaza in Chelmsford, a building clad in aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, the exact same used on Grenfell Tower. The deadly material was the main contributor to the fire spread on that fateful night in June 2017.
One of the tens of thousands of leaseholders facing despair as a result of the cladding scandal, the situation has taken a toll on Ms Grayling’s physical and mental health.
“I feel like I have flu all the time, the anxiety attacks, the nausea, the stomach aches – everything in my body hurts,” she explains.
“I don’t know if you’ve cried so much that you actually get a constant headache? Well, that is me. I’m always shaking, I feel weak, it is like something traumatic has happened to me. I’m not myself, it really is impacting my capability of being a good parent.”
With her building underneath the 18m threshold for funding from the government to remove the cladding, the height of the building also means leaseholders will not be able to get support through the £30m waking watch scheme.
Instead, Ms Grayling has seen the sale of her home fall through, she likely faces a bill worth thousands of pounds to fix the block’s issues, and puts her child to bed every night with the knowledge that the building they live in is wrapped in the same material that contributed to a fire that saw 72 lives lost.
“I know that ACM is just not OK on any building,” she says.
“I think I’m having nightmares about it but then I realise they are not – this is actually the reality”
When she bought the flat from housing association Colne Housing, now Eastlight Community Homes, through the shared ownership scheme, it was a time of excitement for Ms Grayling. She was pregnant with her first child and, as a single mother at the time, was proud that she could independently provide a home for her soon-to-be-born son.
But like many leaseholders and shared owners living in blocks across the country, this hope converted into a living nightmare.
“I have difficulty sleeping, it is the first thing you think about when you wake up and I’m thinking about it all night,” she explains. “I think I’m having nightmares about it but then I realise they are not – this is actually the reality.”
Ms Grayling attempted to sell her home last year, a decision largely driven by the need to find her son a better school.
“He has got suspected autism,” she explains. “That is one the reasons I wanted to move – the schools in this catchment are not great for early learning, so I found a house closer to a suitable schools. It is really important kids like him get that early years support.”
However, that sale has now fallen through, due to the buyer struggling to get a mortgage sorted because of the fire safety issues. And Ms Grayling and her son must stay put.
“I don’t have a choice in the matter now and this is going to affect his future. I feel like I have completely failed as a mother because I can’t provide him a safe place to stay,” she says.
Her building was built by Bellway in 2016 along with the other blocks that make up Cunard Square, all of which have ACM but do not qualify for funding because they are under 18m. Bellway has also indicated that because of the height, it is not part of its remediation programme.
Ms Grayling bought the property in in 2017, taking up a 25% share in the property and putting down a deposit of £30,000. However, as a shared owner, she now faces 100% of the estimated £7,000 remediation bill and, potentially, any costs from the interim fire safety measures.
She says that while she knows these bills are nowhere near the figures of £100,000 some leaseholders face to remediate their buildings, this is still unaffordable for her – and she fears the costs could grow.
“I mean, I wouldn’t be using affordable housing in the first place if I had that kind of money. I’m seeing that because of supply and demand, the prices are just so inflated now, you see estimations going up three-fold – that is where my fears of increased prices come from,” she explains.
“I feel like I have completely failed as a mother because I can’t provide him a safe place to stay”
The financial pressures could have an impact on Ms Grayling’s future employment. There have already been reports of some leaseholders having to declare bankruptcy because of the cladding bills. In some professions, such as law and financial services, bankruptcy means you cannot work in the sector.
“I’m working in financial services and this could completely take away my future income – financial services are quite strict on these things.”
The culmination of all of these pressures has seen Ms Grayling “hit rock bottom” with her mental health in a matter of months. This prompted her to seek help from her local GP.
“I was completely paralysed with stress, so I decided to go to my doctor,” she says. “The driver, for me, was the fact that it was affecting my relationship and ability to be a care giver.”
She explains that it was a difficult step to take but encourages others to do the same and get help.
“It was really good to speak to someone outside of the situation and unload, he [the doctor] was really supportive,” she says.
Ms Grayling, who had never been on any form of long-term medication before, was prescribed Sertraline, an anti-depressant aimed at treating depression as well as panic attacks and post-traumatic stress.
The doctor was so shocked by her situation that he decided to write to her MP, Vick Ford, about the situation. The letter calls on the MP to take Ms Grayling’s case to the House of Commons and highlights her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts as a result of the impacts of the cladding scandal.
Ms Grayling believes the support from her doctor has been a great help, as well as the support from her fiancé.
“The letter really lifted my spirits because I felt supported. He volunteered to write it, I didn’t know that was a thing.”
She says that she wants to speak out to other leaseholders to show that it is “OK not to be OK”.
“Mental health is serious. I’ve been hearing about people committing suicide as a result of this, although I haven’t been able to verify that, it is not a far stretch to think that people are suffering gravely from this action,” Ms Grayling says.
“This is life-ruining in every form.”
If you are affected by any of the topics covered in this story, you can get help from The Samaritans day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
Bellway spokesperson: "Bellway is fully committed to taking all necessary action to ensure the fire safety of developments built by Bellway where we have a legal responsibility to act. We have sought to adopt a proactive and responsible approach – making sure that we adhere to all Government guidance, and we remain fully committed to working with building owners and all those responsible - to put right any non-compliance with the Building Regulations.
"In relation to the Marconi development, following changes in Government guidance, we undertook a full review of the buildings on this development and working with NHBC and fire engineers we completed remedial work on site to put right defects in fire stopping, and the building was signed off as compliant with Building Regulations in September 2020.
"However, our response across our portfolio must remain guided by Government and existing building regulations. We will continue to review any changes in guidance from Government over the coming months, and step in and take action where it is required, and where we are responsible for doing so."
A spokesperson for Pinnacle Group, the managing agent of the Marconi Evolution Development: “We have worked to support our residents throughout this challenging time. As the managing agent for these properties, Pinnacle has worked with the freeholders and developers to communicate the results of building surveys through face to face meetings along with more regular updates along with continually ensuring the safety of the properties in line with Government guidance.”
A spokesperson for Eastlight Community Homes said: "We believe all residents should be able to live happily in a safe and affordable home.
"Working with Pinnacle and our residents, we will do all we can to provide transparency and help minimise the financial and emotional impact this is having on their lives. We sympathise with this leaseholder and are talking to her about how we can help.
"This week we wrote to all Eastlight Marconi residents living in apartment blocks reassuring them that their homes are fire safe and asking them to contact us if they have concerns."
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We understand many people are worried and recognise the impact that living in these buildings can have – that’s why we’re providing £1.6 billion to make the highest risk buildings safer, quicker.
“However, building safety remains the responsibility of the building owner and they should meet the costs of remediation without passing them on to leaseholders wherever possible - as has happened with more than half of the private sector high-rise buildings with ACM cladding.
“We are considering a range of options to fund future remediation work and this work is ongoing.”
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