Every night, Sophie Bichener sleeps with a fire extinguisher beside her bed.
She always wakes in a cold sweat from the same vivid nightmare that her two-bedroom flat is ablaze – and the daylight hours are no less terrifying.
Sophie is one of 73 leaseholders and their families trapped in the fire-risk Vista Tower in Stevenage, Herts.
This month she learned that the Government is likely to pay only £10million towards a £14.7million bill to make the 14-storey block safe.
The huge shortfall is likely to fall on the shoulders of leaseholders, landing Sophie with a crippling £60,000 IOU that she claims would leave her bankrupt.
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The 29-year-old marketing manager is among hundreds of thousands of people still trapped by Britain’s shameful building safety scandal.
Sophie, who has formulated her own emergency exit plan, said: “If I’m not left awake because I’m scared a fire will break out, it’s because I’m terrified of being bankrupt. I spend hours worrying about how I can find the money – and what happens if I can’t.
“Would I lose my job? How would I afford to travel to work? How will the rest of my life look if I have a black mark of bankruptcy against my name? It’s just a never-ending nightmare.”
As the Sunday Mirror has revealed, post-Grenfell cladding inspections have spiralled into a wider safety scandal with checks revealing a catalogue of fire risks.
Four years after the tragedy that killed 72, more than 200,000 high-rise homes are still wrapped in flammable materials and up to 1.3 million flats are unmortgageable after failing safety checks.
The Government this month revealed a new Building Safety Bill including help for leaseholders to sue developers.
But many people may still be liable for ruinous repair bills – and thanks to a stalemate over who should pay, much of the repair work has yet to start.
Under leasehold law, leaseholders are reportedly liable for the shortfall.
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A £5billion fund to replace cladding has been put aside by the Tories – but experts fear the true cost of fixing homes could be three times that.
Sophie, who has suffered anxiety attacks in the flat she bought for £200,000 in 2017, said: “I feel totally let down by everyone. I had no say in how this building was put together or what is behind the walls yet now I’m the only responsible party.”
Vista Tower – converted from an office block in 2016 – has combustible cladding and flammable insulation that needs to be replaced.
Freeholder Grey GR has applied for funding and is likely to get £10million to replace the cladding. But the £4.7million needed to cover non-cladding defects, such as missing fire breaks, are unlikely to be covered.
Residents claim they have already had to pay £600 each per month for 24-hour building patrols.
Sophie says: “The cost of the project is close to the total value of the building, so many of us wonder if it would be better to knock it down and start again.”
The Government plans to levy homebuilders to raise an extra £2billion over a decade – but that is not enough. Many leaseholders now support a “polluter pays” principle that would force those who caused the crisis to cover the costs. They include developers, materials suppliers and architects.
The idea has received support from 14 back-bench MPs and four peers and has been tabled twice in parliament, but not yet debated.
Tory MP Liam Fox tweeted: “We all want the same thing. Protection for leaseholders from bills they shouldn’t have been given, protection for the taxpayers for a burden they shouldn’t carry and the principle of ‘polluter pays’.” Mum-of-two Audrey Ou, 33, lives at Vista Tower with husband Sam and children Andrea, four, and Raphael, 10 months.
She said: “We need to find the culprits. They are ruining our lives.
“We should be enjoying life, planning our next holiday or trip with the children. Instead we are studying how to declare ourselves bankrupt. We are the most innocent people to be punished in all of this.”
A Government spokesman said more than £5billion was available to protect those in high-risk buildings from unaffordable costs and owners should “claw back money from contractors and developers”.
He added: “We’ve doubled the time frame leaseholders have to seek compensation – and we’re bringing in a new levy and tax on the industry.”
Grey GR could not be contacted. Inspired Property Management, which manages Vista Tower on its behalf, did not respond to requests for comment.