Six years on from Grenfell: This is life in the shadow of the tower

Residents living on the Lancaster West estate, home to Grenfell Tower, say rising charges and an ongoing refurbishment are making moving on impossible

Residents described a refurbishment disrupting lives, soaring charges, and an inability to move on from the tragic fire. Image: Andy Parsons

Black ash still comes through Virginia Sang’s kitchen window, six years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster. It blows in off the scorched shell of a building that still stands, wrapped in plastic, a reminder that the Lancaster West estate, where she’s lived for 45 years, is forever changed.

“Every day I go in and you have to clean, and it’s all black ashes,” she says, sitting in a leisure centre on her lunch break. At the memorial wall metres away, she points to a picture of a man who died in the Grenfell fire. They used to go drinking together.

“The majority of the people in the tower, I grew up with. We went to school together,” Sang says.

But now residents are facing rising charges and an increasingly unliveable estate. “After the fire we have been living on a building site,” Sang adds.

This is life in the shadow of Grenfell tower, six years on.

The Big Issue spoke to residents on the Lancaster West estate – home not only to Grenfell Tower, but also to hundreds living within metres of the tower.

Ahead of the sixth anniversary of the fire, on Wednesday 14 June, they described:

  • Leaseholders facing £60,000 bills if they move out of their flats
  • Life on a building site, with conditions worsening since the fire
  • Soaring, unaffordable service charges
  • An inability to move on from the tragedy and grieve properly thanks to ongoing issues

The council for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest areas in London, has received and spent hundreds of millions to fix the situation. The cladding scandal uncovered by the fire has received national attention, and the government has been spurred into action in response to the tragedy. An inquiry – yet to report its final findings – has eaten up £150m in legal fees. And yet those who see the tower every time they leave their homes have been unable to move on from the fire, finding life on the estate worsening in the years since. 

“Since the tragedy of that night, nothing’s really changed. Things have gotten worse, to be honest,” says resident Sammy Hammachi, who was born on the estate.

Grenfell Tower looms over the Lancaster West estate. Image: Andy Parsons

Grenfell Tower, covered in tarpaulin, still stands in the centre of the Lancaster West estate.

Built in the 1970s as part of a programme of slum clearance, Lancaster West is the second largest estate in the borough. At the foot of the tower are three long, parallel blocks – Hurstway Walk, Testerton Walk, Barandon Walk – known as the three fingers. Inside, flats are arranged either side of central walkways as carless, indoor streets. 

On the other side of the tower, by a school and the leisure centre, is the Grenfell memorial wall. Several residents spoke about how the sunny weather brings back difficult memories. Hammachi described talking to a friend on the phone as he burned to death in the fire. 

“I’ve seen people burn to death in front of my eyes, 20 feet away from me,” he said. “You’re never going to forget that”.

Sammy Hammachi says life on the estate hasn’t improved since the fire, despite millions being spent. Image: Andy Parsons

A key part of the council’s “recovery” strategy after the fire is a refurbishment of the Lancaster West estate. This was supposed to be complete by June 2020, according to one draft commitment published by the council, making the estate “somewhere residents are proud to live”.

In January 2020, it became an ambitious carbon-neutral transformation, turning Lancaster West “into a model 21st century social housing estate”, the council promised. The architect, Penoyre and Prasad, described the refurbishment as a way to “rebuild the lives of the community affected by the 2017 tragedy.” Made up of government grants, council contributions, and various funds, the total budget is £120m, and the refurbishment is expected to be completed by 2025/26.

Much has been made of residents’ involvement in how it looks, with locals and architects discussing the future at an “ideas day” in 2018. In winter 2022, blocks voted for choices of windows, external facade, and fire doors, with 54 per cent of residents voting

As it gets underway, however, residents say the impact on their daily lives has been profound. For some, the constant drilling has interrupted sleep, for others there’s a lingering uncertainty about when the work might begin on their flats.

“Since the fire we’ve been living on a building site,” says Sang.

Residents have been offered noise-cancelling headphones or the opportunity to go to a respite flat – an empty flat elsewhere on the estate. The council has also offered residents the chance to move into permanent or temporary flats elsewhere on the estate.

Leaseholder David O’Connell has been told he could be billed around £60,000 for refurbishments if he leaves his flat. Image: Andy Parsons

For leaseholders, the refurbishment comes with a cost. David O’Connell, who has lived in a one-bed leasehold flat with his partner for the past 14 years, is not getting it for free. Moving out isn’t an option, as his property value has dropped significantly in the wake of the fire.

“The important thing to remember is, I’m paying for this. I’m not going to get the refurb for free,” he says. Costs to leaseholders will be capped at £15,000 by the government, but only if they continue living in their flats. If he moves out or tries to sell, he has been told the cost is likely to be £60-80,000. He remains essentially trapped in his flat, with a daily reminder of what happened, feeling abandoned by the government’s decision not to abolish the leasehold system.

“Leasehold gives us no power. We are the least able to say anything. We have no ability to withhold our payments,” he says. “We’re trapped in a feudal system which has no place in modern England.”

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Bilal Gommari, another leaseholder, doesn’t know how much the bill will be. He expects to pay up to £13,000 for the work. Despite the renovation adding value to his property, he doesn’t have faith in the council to get it done.

“They have been talking about this refurbishment since two years after the fire,” he says.

“Here we are in 2023 and nothing really has been done, so I don’t trust them.”

14 June 2023 marks six years since the fire which claimed 72 lives. Image: Andy Parsons

Over half of the internal refurbishments have already been done, and the council says satisfaction rates have been 90 per cent. 

In an interview with the Big Issue about the issues raised by residents for this story, Kim Taylor-Smith, Kensington and Chelsea council’s deputy leader and lead member for Grenfell, housing, and social investment, points to a spend of £160,000 per flat – “more than we’re spending elsewhere” – and argues the eventual improvements will reduce energy bills for residents.

“I wanted something really positive to come out of a terrible terrible tragedy, and that for me was our social housing”, says Taylor-Smith.

“It’s still a long-term process. But the work we’re doing on the buildings is quite extensive. It’s not painting the door or decorating the flat, it’s putting in a lot of energy and heat conservation into the buildings, to make sure they last a long time into the future,” he adds.

“We’re on a journey. It’s not going to be completed until 25/26. It’s a building site, and I can’t get away from that fact. All I can do is try and mitigate the impact on residents.”

Consulting residents also means the timescale is naturally increased. Could things have been done by 2020?

“Theoretically, you could if you were doing it without getting anybody’s permission and just sending the builders. But we’ve committed to discussing everything with residents, and getting the residents picking what is going to happen to their estate, because they’re going to live there,” Taylor-Smith says.

“This was very much linked back to Grenfell, because of a sense of feeling with Grenfell is that they weren’t being listened to.”

Bilal Gommari’s service charges have increased to £6,600 a year. Image: Andy Parsons

Service charges for residents shot up in April. The service charges for O’Connell’s flat went up to £3,230 a year, up from £2,131 the previous year – more than a 50% increase. 

These fees include repairs to buildings, estate repairs, garden maintenance, insurance, heating, and boiler repairs. Gommari’s service charges for the four-bedroom flat he shares with his brother rose to £6,650 a year in April, up from £4,100 the previous year, and from £3,500 two years ago. That’s an increase of 62% in the last year, and 90% in the past two years. Sang, whose total charges including rent rose from £750 to just over £1,000, hasn’t been paying hers since the increase.

 “I am not giving you near enough £1,000 a month, I am living on a building site,” she says.

Virginia Sang went to school with many of the victims of the fire. Image: Andy Parsons

The council has offered an energy bills discount of around five per cent to all residents in council homes with communal heating, as well as two grants totalling up to £600 for certain residents.

There is anger at the condition of the blocks, despite the increased charges. Leighton Evans recalls saturday football games of 40 children, former resident and England striker Les Ferdinand – who lived on the estate from age six until 22, into his playing career for QPR – looking on. Those communal areas and green spaces are now overgrown, he says. 

What happened on the estate should warrant consideration, says Sang. “We would like to see our service charges go down, and we would like to see our rent go down because of the conditions that we are living in,” she says. “We are not like other estates. Other estates didn’t have a tragedy.”

A big part of the increase is heating costs, as residents receive communal heating. According to bills seen by the Big Issue, gas heating costs for the whole estate more than tripled from £239,000 in 2022/23 to £761,000 in 2023/24.

This is due, in part, to the fact the council bulk buys its gas in advance, with gas for 2023/24 purchased in the winter of 2022, when prices were at record highs.

Aside from heating, Taylor-Smith says, service charge increases have been limited to 90p a week for a one-bed flat.

“We’ve done what we can but unfortunately people on this estate are not immune to increases in utilities,” says Taylor-Smith.

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Residents blame an outdoor communal boiler for much of these costs. Heating for the estate was provided by a boiler at the bottom of Grenfell Tower, which has been replaced by a temporary, outdoor boiler at the back of the estate.

It is behind a fence and not covered by a roof. Residents say the boiler, which broke down in 2018, is poorly insulated, responsible for higher bills and intermittent heating.

“You get up in the mornings and take a bath, and you realise it’s cold,” says Sang.

”Sometimes the heating’s on all summer, sometimes it’s cold all winter”, says Hammachi.

“They just passed it onto us. The fact is we are paying more for that boiler because it’s inefficient. We’re paying more for our heating because our windows are from 1972,” says O’Connell.

When the boiler is replaced in 2025 it will be with a district heat network, which Taylor-Smith claims will reduce charges.

“We recognise that they have an older boiler, a temporary boiler, which is less efficient, so we’ve actually factored in a discount to reflect the fact that they’ve got an older boiler,” he says.

Along with the refurbishment, Taylor-Smith says wholesale changes have been made to the way the estate is run, with a new management organisation, W11, involving residents in decisions.

“I think it really would be unfair to say nothing has changed, and I think actually quite insulting to suggest that it’s exactly the same as it was before. Because it’s not. And I can say that hand on my heart. It might feel like that to individuals,” he says.

Leighton Evans moved back to the Lancaster West estate after the fire, to support his community. Image: Andy Parsons

The ongoing issues have made moving on from the tragedy – in which friends and relatives died metres away – impossible for many. The eventual deconstruction of Grenfell Tower will bring further disruption and emotional trauma. A vote is being held to decide its fate. Initial estimates said it would be demolished by the end of 2018

“Everyone thinks it’s all sorted,” said O’Connell, whose partner has been unable to work since the fire due to trauma.

“It’s supposed to be recompense for the fire and years of neglect, but instead it’s turning into ongoing torture,” he adds

“All we want is for the work to be done, get off our estate so we can move on with our lives. Half of us might not be alive,” by the time work is complete says Sang, who adds there has been no time to grieve.

Hammachi recalls meeting then-prime minister Theresa May at a local church after the fire, and being told the situation would be resolved within six months. Wednesday 14 June marks six years since the fire and the outlook is still uncertain.

 “We’ve still got another however-many years of this stuff, which is diabolical and unfair,” he says.

“You can’t choose where you’re born. This happened on my estate, so I have to fight for my estate”.

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