Sam* is 10 months old. He spends most of his days wrapped up in mittens and a woolly hat. He’s at home every day.
His older sister, Natasha, is three years old. She’s in a dressing gown. So is their mum, Jane.
For them, this is life in Malus Court—the Pendleton tower block stripped of its cladding.
The energy bills the family-of-three have to pay are astronomical — and what makes it worse is the fact that their thermostat is only set to 11C.
Inside the block where children stay in hats all day
It’s a freezing cold house. Jane cannot afford to put the lights on, so each room is lit dimly by an overcast winter’s afternoon and the occasional lamp.
“I sit at night, scared, wondering where I am going to get the money from,” Jane says from her kitchen as Sam and Natasha play. “I cannot break into the kids’ money. That’s for nappies…”
Jane and her two children moved into Malus Court in October 2021. She had been waiting for a council flat for six years, and previously was sharing with her mother in another apartment in the same Pendleton complex.
“We were all in a one bed property before,” she explains, adding that the situation was chaotic.
When children do fly the nest, most parents don’t expect a visit from their loved ones every day — but Jane sees her mum once every 24 hours.
That’s not just out of a desire to catch-up — it’s also out of a necessity to eat.
“I have to go to my mum’s to have my tea. I cannot afford it,” she continues. “The other week, I came back [after Christmas] on December 27 and I turned my boiler off holiday mode.
“There was no hot water [so] they gave me halogen heaters but I cannot even use them.”
Jane works part time, and is also on universal credit. While her income de ella is low, it’s the sky-high energy bills that have left her in this situation, as the tariff regularly exceeds £120 per month — despite doing her best de ella to make her home as energy efficient as possible.
“I have got tin foil behind the radiators to try and keep the heat in. [The kids are] do not open the curtains to keep the heat in.
“They have to sleep with hot water bottles. They are always full of cold.
“Then they are full of damp.”
Jane’s story might be desperate, but she is not the only mum in the same boat.
Maria moved to the UK from abroad in the last few years with her son, who is now five-years-old.
Between English lessons every Monday, and the need to look after her boy outside of school hours, Maria cannot find work.
Even if she did, the cost of childcare would be so high that the overall benefit would be negligible.
“The job center said I should stay at home without child care because it costs so much, I can’t afford it,” she tells the Manchester Evening News.
“I have a smart meter and I am always checking it. I have a five-year-old son. I have to do things at home.
“It’s simple ordinary things. My son has to sleep in my bed. I cannot leave him there.
“This is not a life.”
Last year, she spent £1,400 on energy, with the minimum being a £180 monthly payment. At times, Maria was spending close to £300 every four weeks.
Another man shows evidence that his energy bills have exceeded £4,000 since March 2017.
The heating system and the cladding
What puts Malus Court residents out of pocket with their energy bills so often is the troublesome NIBE heating system.
as the MEN reported last weekthe heating system is reliant on the building being insulated — but the removal of cladding in 2018, following the Grenfell fire disaster, has left Malus Court effectively naked to the elements.
The NIBE system uses vents to the exterior of the building to draw fresh air in, which is then warmed up and circulated.
It’s a system that was initially developed in Scandinavia, and has been used by other local authorities in England.
In this instance, however, the removal of the cladding from the Salford City Council-owned flats means that there is less residual heat retained than the system is designed for.
To make matters worse, an expert report seen by the MEN shows that once the temperature of the air being drawn into the property falls below 16C, the system switches into ‘electric-only mode’.
Residents say that, in effect, it’s like having an immersion heater running ’24 hours a day’ — leading to sky-high bills for some of Salford’s poorest residents.
The lack of cladding also means that some residents are seeing water collecting on top of protruding windows, causing damp in the associated windowsills.
Further documents from housing firm Pendleton Together, seen by the MEN, show that the new cladding is set to be replaced by Spring 2024 — more than five years after it came off.
“We are sat in the cold until then,” Charles* says. “One of the old dears said to me she sleeps a lot because it is the only way of keeping warm…
“The mental health… it’s going to have an effect on us. We have had it for the last four years.”
Why has it come to this?
Salford City Council was proactive in taking down unsafe cladding after the Grenfell disaster — with the Malus Court removal being completed in 2018.
However, since then it has been hit by delays.
Last week, during a full council meeting, a fiery exchange between Conservative Robin Garrido and Labour’s John Warmisham shed more light on the reasons why residents are facing years without insulation.
“I’m as frustrated as anybody as a Pendleton ward councilor but across the country there are hundreds of tower blocks, offices, hospitals having to be recladded,” Coun Warmisham said.
“You’re having a difficulty in getting a workforce and that’s not helped the situation. You need specialized people to do this.
“We had to go to Australia to look for our cladding.”
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That was in response to Coun Garrido’s call on Paul Dennett, the city’s Labor mayor, to take ‘immediate action to solve these problems’.
In further interviews with this newspaper, Coun Garrido said ‘we cannot have elderly people and children go cold because they cannot afford it’, and Coun Warmisham said conversations were in place between himself, the mayor, and Pendleton Together over a larger winter energy allowance for residents.
When approached by the Evening News in response to the calls, deputy mayor Coun John Merry recognized residents were ‘suffering this winter – there are no two ways about it.
His statement continued: “The reason the cladding had to be taken off the blocks was for resident safety. After Grenfell, it has been revealed there has been a national failure of building regulations and we are now legally obliged to remove and replace all cladding made.” from these materials.
“From the perspective of the Council we are working as hard and fast as we can with the resources we have available. Salford was one of the first Councils in the country to announce the removal and replacement of its cladded blocks – but government blocked our attempts to finance the speedy removal and replacement locally, and then also told us that Pendleton Together’s [PTOL] blocks were not eligible for government grant money.
“After a lengthy process of acquiring private finance on private finance markets, PTOL have removed the dangerous cladding. But structural issues have slowed down work – alongside international supply-chain shortages and national labor shortages.
“Despite no financial support from government, the PTOL has offered £30 a month in payments to residents to assist with their heating bills and conversations are ongoing as to whether that amount might be increased – particularly considering the increased price of fuel we are experiencing nationally. .
“PTOL have also offered to negotiate increased payments with any residents who can share their utility and heating bills – and I encourage any affected resident to approach them on that offer.
“That said, the only real solution to the situation facing residents today is the completion of the works which will be done as soon as is humanly possible. Both Council and PTOL are working closely together on this, with the full support of the City Mayor.”
Pendleton Together added it was ‘sorry to hear any examples of residents facing difficulties’.
A spokesperson said: “Pendleton Together know that some of our residents face difficulties heating their home every winter. Where this is due to energy prices or financial hardship we provide specialist staff who can advise on the support available and work with them to offer reassurance. This is a service we have always provided and will continue to provide after the program of fire safety works is complete.
“Where electricity consumption has risen due to the program of fire safety works, we are compensating residents for that difference so that none of them are left out of pocket. We have reviewed and tested our calculations and they have risen in line with energy prices. These payments are available to every tenant and leaseholder within all of our nine blocks and should adequately compensate the majority.
Where a resident has contacted us because their property is affected above a typical level, we have worked with them to provide additional payments tailored to their specific circumstances.
Any resident who feels they are out of pocket should contact us at once and our dedicated energy team will work with them to provide support. We are currently finalizing our plans for compensating residents who remain affected next winter and will write to them in due course. We can confirm that we will continue to work to our commitment that no resident is left out of pocket due to the rise in electricity consumption during the cladding replacement works.
“Where residents have reported water or damp, our contractors have worked to provide additional weatherproofing where required. We are addressing all of the concerns we are aware of and will continue to respond to any that are reported. If a resident is concerned for their health due to their home, they should contact us immediately for advice.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.