Why cladding campaigners turned to Punch and Judy politics
“Barbara, Barbara, we’ve got vermin in the building!” says the boy puppet.
“Oh Tommy, that’s not vermin,” replies his female companion. “That’s the housing minister, Robert Jenrick.”
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Up pops a glove-puppet rat who proceeds to get his terminology wrong while making an announcement on fire safety policy. In another clip, the same rat plays Jenrick while a devil puppet represents Stephen Greenhalgh, minister for building safety. Then the two dance to The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”.
If this all sounds a little farcical so far, it is intentionally so. These are videos posted to Twitter by campaigners fighting what has come to be known as the cladding scandal – rules put in place following the Grenfell Tower fire that have trapped thousands of leaseholders in homes they are unable to sell and for which they are liable to pay huge fire safety costs.
“It’s so farcical it is literally tantamount to a puppet show,” says Barbara, who alongside Tommy is behind the @CladdinGate Twitter account, of the Government’s handling the of the problem so far.
Campaigners have been working hard to get their concerns heard, but with the pandemic and Brexit occupying the headlines last year, they have found it difficult to break through the noise. That’s where the puppets come in.
In their videos, Tommy and Barbara are two cheerful puppets who explain housing policy with all the patience and enthusiasm of children’s television characters. It’s got the air of a jolly Rosie & Jim episode, but with more sarcasm.
Cladding scandal: The homeowners left unable to sell in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire
In real life, they are a couple stuck in a leasehold flat that they cannot sell, facing escalating costs for fire safety measures. Told last year that their building is not safe, they now face the prospect of having to pay for the works to fix these issues, costs they say would be financially devastating. The list of what’s wrong with the building is long: combustible cladding, non-compliant insulation, missing cavity barriers, wooden balconies.
Tommy and Barbara are not their real names – in fact they are the names that were on the labels of the puppets when they bought them – but I will use those to protect their identity. Part of the reason for anonymity is that if they become bankrupt from the costs, they would be at risk of losing their jobs.
“It’s been absolutely dreadful, the past three months have been unbelievably stressful, riddled with constant anxiety, and that feeling is shared across everyone who’s involved in this scandal” says Barbara. “Our lives are put on hold, we don’t know when we’re going to be able to sell this place.”
Tommy and Barbara have been making videos to raise awareness of the cladding scandal (Photo: @CladdinGate)
The financial uncertainty is significant. On top of being told they may have to pay for 24-hour surveillance, known as a “waking watch”, to monitor for fires, the couple are coming up for mortgage renewal. With lenders unwilling to provide financing for properties affected by the crisis, they are likely to default to the more expensive Standard Variable Rate. This is also the reason they cannot sell, as any potential buyer would not find a bank willing to fund the purchase.
The amateur puppeteers speak of fearing for their lives in the event that their building, deemed “highly combustible” were to catch alight. They are also unable to consider things like starting a family, due to the prospect of having their savings wiped out or going into bankruptcy.
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Fortunately, they have been able to take comfort in the online community of those affected, which they say is very supportive. “We think we’ve got a way to go to raise awareness outside the cladding community,” says Tommy. But for now they hope the videos are entertaining other leaseholders and helping to lift their spirits at a really tough time.
Inspired by their approach, another leaseholder joined Twitter towards the end of last year under the name @CladdingKermit. Like Tommy and Barbara, he was sold a flat on the understanding that it was safe, before later being told this had changed and he could be liable for costs. Because the building is under 18 metres in height, it does not qualify for the Government’s £1.6bn fund for fixing high-rise blocks.
Using the famous Muppet as a mouthpiece, he has been making his own satirical videos, often recapping recent developments from parliament in an accessible way.
“A lot of the messages I put out there are aimed at giving people who aren’t affected more insight,” he tells me over Zoom. Again, to protect his identity, I will refer to the account holder as Kermit.
Kermit and friends (courtesy of @CladdingKermit)
Part of the reason for his Sesame Street approach is broadening comprehension of the issue, something which is generally lacking outside of the cladding community – even, he says, among lawmakers. “We’re not getting any real idea that the Government is understanding,” he says. “There’s so many layers to this and getting them to understand each and every layer seems to be really difficult. It’s embarrassing that a parody frog understands all of this and yet the Government won’t even acknowledge it.”
This means leaseholders are not only having to deal with their own situations, but are constantly having to push for recognition. There’s even a term for the work that goes into this: “cladmin”.
Kermit wants to see this weight taken off the shoulders of ordinary homeowners and responsibility put where he feels it belongs.“This is the Government’s, the developers’, and the true building owners’ problem to fix. Leaseholders have currently got their lives on hold, and they’re being ruined.”