Ritu Saha, co-founder of UK Cladding Action Group. Photograph: Ritu Saha / UK Cladding Action Group

Only 14 grants from the government’s £30 million Waking Watch Relief Fund have been paid out in London – totalling less than £1.7 million.

The fund was introduced in December 2020 to cover the cost of replacing waking watches with fire alarm systems in buildings that have fire safety defects.

Waking watches were introduced in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire and involve 24-hour patrols of buildings to warn residents in the event of a fire and coordinate evacuations.

It was revealed last month that 82 buildings in Hackney have fire safety flaws that mean residents must evacuate if a fire breaks out – the second highest number in London, after Tower Hamlets.

Londoners pay more on average for waking watches than people elsewhere in the country, with a mean cost of £20,443 per building per month compared to £15,279 outside the capital.

Following the launch of the Waking Watch Relief Fund last year, City Hall was allocated £16.1 million and was placed in charge of administering claims in London.

But despite 111 applications for the fund having been made – 72 of which have so far been approved – only 14 payments had been made as at 1 November.

The figures were revealed by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan following a question from Labour Assembly Member Anne Clarke recently.

Clarke said it is a “scandal” that so many people are unable to access money from the fund to replace costly waking watches, but that “some progress is being made”.

She said: “Now many more applications have been approved, I have received assurances from the GLA that it is working with building owners to get the necessary contracts signed to ensure more grants are given out.”

A total of £8.7 million has been allocated to 72 successful applicants in London since the fund opened, but the first payment was only authorised at the end of August. Despite a slow start, seven grants were paid out during October.

The fund reopened on 15 September with an additional £5 million available for successful applicants. Applications must be submitted by 10 December to be considered.

But even once fire alarm systems are installed, some buildings will still require a waking watch in place to report false alerts, as some temporary alarms are highly sensitive.

Ritu Saha, co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, said that she has “literally been a prisoner in my own home” since the start of the year as she has had to be on hand for 24 hours a day, three days a week to report false alarms.

Just months after the Grenfell Tower fire, Saha’s building became one of the first to have a waking watch put in place after ACM cladding – the same type found on Grenfell Tower – was discovered.

She said: “We were one of the first buildings that found out. We had the waking watch put in place immediately. There were two people who just turned up at the foyer area and we found out about three months later that those two people were costing my building £24,000 per month.

“There are only 57 flats in my building and for all of 2018 we had the waking watch. In three months, the finances of our building were completely destroyed, just to pay these two people. We had those finances built up over 20 years, and it all went in a flash just to pay for the waking watch.”

Saha said that residents had to take up waking watches themselves “so we didn’t go bankrupt”.

She said: “I work full time. I would go to work, leave the house before 8am, rush back home by 6.30pm, and from 7pm until midnight on weekdays, I was patrolling my building.

“I couldn’t go home for dinner, I was just patrolling my building. I had retired neighbours who did waking watches themselves from midnight until 7am three days a week instead of enjoying their retirement. So you can imagine the sort of toll that had on our mental health.”

In 2019, the residents of Saha’s building paid £120,000 to have a temporary fire alarm installed but had to continue waking watch patrols in case of a false alarm.

Though the cladding has since been removed from her building, Saha said that waking watches are still required until the alarm can be replaced with a new, permanent one, which could cost up to £80,000. The building is not eligible for a grant from the Waking Watch Relief Fund as it already had an alarm installed.

Saha said: “Because we had done the right thing and put the alarm in, we were excluded from the fund.”

Support us

The coronavirus outbreak meant that the Hackney Citizen was unable to print a monthly newspaper for three months.

We're grateful that we have since been able to resume printing. This would not have been possible without the generosity of our readers, whose donations kept the paper from disappearing completely at a distressing time for residents.

A huge thank you to everyone who gave their time and money to support us through the lockdown, and to those who continue to do so as we slowly recover from the dramatic fall in advertising revenues, on top of the existing challenges threatening the future of local journalism.

A one-off donation or a regular contribution from anyone who can afford it will help our small team keep the newspaper in print and the website running in the coming months and years.

Find out how you can donate.

Thank you for your support, and stay safe.

The Hackney Citizen team