Families made homeless when wildfires ripped through their village on the UK’s hottest day ever say they’ve been hit by tax charges of more than £10,000 to rebuild their properties.
Nineteen homes were destroyed when the blaze tore through Wennington on the outskirts of east London last July as temperatures in Britain reached 40.3°C.
Victims of the inferno still stuck in temporary accommodation after their homes were gutted say they’ve been told by Havering Council to pay thousands of pounds through a levy to rebuild their homes.
The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) can be charged by local authorities on new developments, but residents say they shouldn’t have to pay as they are rebuilding properties burnt down in exceptional circumstances.
They now have an anxious wait to find out if their insurance will cover them, with some forced into temporary accommodation facing having to pay the rent when their insurance runs out early next year.
Homeowners say an exemption has been granted to waive the levy for those who say they will live in the property for longer than three years, but some elderly residents aren’t sure if they will live that long while some don’t know if they will want to stay in the property that long.
There is anger, too, that rebuilding work has not yet begun 16 months after the disaster, with some told they’re unlikely to be able to move into their rebuilt homes before the end of next year.
Carole Hager, 79, lost her home of 58 years and all her belongings in last year’s fire, with the wrecked semi-detached house among those later demolished as they were too unsafe.
The grandmother-of-five and her partner, Ken Stone, 81, were forced to escape as flames leapt through the village, but she says she’s now been told to pay a levy of more than £10,000, with just over £3,000 of that due to the mayor of London’s City Hall.
“I don’t know if I’m going to survive three years. Havering said what it would have to come out of your estate if you died within those three years,” she told i.
“I think it’s an imposition. It’s totally unfair. We didn’t ask for our houses to be burned down. To put that levy on it, I think it’s just outrageous.
“It’s been a traumatic thing for everybody, and at my age, I’m thinking, am I going to see my home rebuilt?
“The levy says it is for a new build but it’s not. It’s a rebuild because we lost it in a fire. I can’t see how they can impose it.”
Ms Hager is also annoyed at how long it is taking for rebuilding work to start on her home and says she has been told shovels may not go into the ground until the middle of January.
Planning permission was submitted in March before approval in May, with building regulations submitted in July not signed off until this week, she said.
“It’s so stressful. I get angry as well. It’s not doing either of us any good because we’re in limbo until that house is rebuilt. Everything has been a worry from the planning permission right through,” she said.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve got £60,000 cover for rent, but that is going to run out if they don’t hurry up. One of my friend’s rent is going to run out with the insurance company in February.”
CIL, a tax on new developments which allows local authorities to help fund infrastructure, is payable on properties of at least 100 sq m and is charged at £25/sq m across Havering. In 2012, CIL was also applied by the mayor’s office in Greater London to help fund Crossrail.
Government regulations say a charging authority may grant relief from liability to pay CIL in exceptional circumstances, but Havering Council has pointed to regulations that say where a building is demolished for safety reasons before planning permission is granted for a replacement property, such as in Wennington, the new build is CIL liable.
Ade Aofolaju, 51, and his partner, Paula James, 59, lost their house in the blaze, fleeing the flames before watching in disbelief on television as the wildfire engulfed their home. They say they have now been told to pay a CIL of more than £6,000.
“It’s just really upsetting. We feel as if the council could be doing a lot better than this considering how events transpired on that day,” Mr Aofolaju said.
“Some people just don’t have the money. It just seems to have come out of the blue. On top of what people have had to go through, the trauma, the upset of losing their homes.
“Some people have lived there for 40 years or longer. It’s a bit too much for some people to handle. It’s just so much disruption. It’s been really terrible.”
There are doubts over whether insurance companies will cover residents for the levy, with several homes that were destroyed either uninsured or not having adequate cover.
“We don’t feel that levy should apply in this circumstance because it was an extraordinary event,” he said.
“It’s not like we are just building the house because we have the money. A new house is being built because our old one burned down.”
Mr Aofolaju says he was told initially by the council that they would be back in their home within 18 months, but was told over the summer it was unlikely they could return before Christmas 2024.
“That would be two and a half years after the fire and we still wouldn’t be back. It’s madness. How do they justify that?” he said.
“Everything has been held up because the council was taking so long with the building controls. It’s been almost 18 months since the fire and work has not started.”
A lawyer specialising in planning work said discretionary relief in exceptional circumstances can be applied by local authorities and that homeowners with full insurance hit with the levy should be covered, but believes residents “should push back quite hard on this”.
“I would have thought with a little bit of ingenuity the council could find a way around it,” he said.
“There are certain reliefs and concessions that could be switched on. And therefore the council ought really, I’d have thought, to give a bit more thought about how it might help out in what sounds like a very difficult situation.
“The council needs to be asked to look more closely at why the reliefs recognised in the regulations aren’t applicable in this case, because it’s a solely exceptional set of circumstances.”
A Havering Council spokesperson said: “Ordinarily, the Government’s Community Infrastructure Levy would apply but owner occupiers in Wennington who were affected by last summer’s devastating fire can apply for an exemption.
“We have already spoken to many of the concerned residents and we can help them to fill out an exemption form. The CIL will only apply to a very small number of landlords who will not be living in the properties and are therefore subject to the levy.
“The council has stood by the residents every step of the way and will continue to support them as they rebuild their homes and their lives.
“There are some occasions where regulations require further checks, such as flood assessments and soil contamination, or where all the required information has not been submitted, which has resulted in delays. However, we are continuing to carry out tight checks to ensure that the applications are processed and turned around as quickly as possible.”
The council added that while most insurers are covering the policyholders’ rent until rebuilding is completed, and it has encouraged them to review the situation.
“If this is unsuccessful, we will seek other ways to support affected residents by February 2024,” the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “Sadiq is doing everything he can to support the people who lost their homes due to the terrible fire in Wennington in July 2022.
“City Hall will be contacting the local authority to ensure that none of the victims of the fire will be out of pocket for rebuilding their homes.”