9. Short Debate: Fire safety in high-rise flats: A clear timetable for remediation for residents

– in the Senedd at 6:46 pm on 22 March 2023.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:46, 22 March 2023


That is the short debate, and this afternoon's short debate is on fire safety in high-rise flats, a clear timetable for remediation for residents. I call on Rhys ab Owen to present the debate. Rhys ab Owen.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. My colleagues Janet Finch-Saunders, Mike Hedges and Jane Dodds have asked for a minute each in this debate. Oh, I think Mike has gone, so maybe Mike doesn't want a minute now.

We are discussing building safety in this place because of the Grenfell tragedy. Unfortunately, it took 72 people, and the homelessness and the trauma of many others, to expose the building safety scandal in the UK. In 2017, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, declared that,

'We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.'

Yet, here we are in 2023, with people only a stone's throw away from this Senedd still in fear for their safety and feeling trapped in their own homes. Yesterday, as part of the co-operation agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, we heard a welcome suite of announcements about measures to move things forward. However, what residents still want to know is: when will their homes be safe? When will they be able to move on with their lives? They feel in limbo. And the statement yesterday, despite taking significant steps forward, did not address that concern. What we as elected representatives hear time and time again is, 'When will this nightmare end?' I would like the Senedd to hear the words of those affected.

'I became involved with the Welsh Cladiators because my mortgage finishes at the end of the year. I am 69, and because a lack of an EWS1, it is unlikely I will get a buyer or remortgage. I make no apologies for it being an investment for retirement, however, I have very few options. I must seriously consider walking away from it and having the apartment repossessed. If this happens, money that would've been used for the security of my wife, if anything happened to me, will no longer be there. It's a source of worry and failure.'

Those are the words of Rob Nicholls, a Swansea Cladiator.

I was pleased to hear yesterday of your work, Gweinidog, with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but when will we see that guidance come into place? Also, we know that guidelines do not need to be followed; they are suggestions. In addition, we also know that, until remediation work happens, there will still be issues with the devaluation of the property, there'll be issues in attracting buyers and issues in securing mortgages. The crisis has had a huge impact on the mental health of residents. Again, the lack of timetable is a key factor. They have no idea if this nightmare will carry on for years to come.


The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 6:50, 22 March 2023

Becky Ashwin from Cardiff says: 'I've been living this crisis for over three and a half years, and it has shattered my mental health. I've spent entire days crying due to the bills I have received. I've had to have counselling, as all the structures I believed were there to protect me have turned out to be missing. In fact, doing the right things of earning and saving have actually put me under a disadvantage. It has entirely undermined all that I believe is right and wrong in life. I live with my life on pause, and on the verge of a panic attack. A number of times in the last few months, I've stood outside in the freezing weather for hours, clutching a bag of my most important belongings, watching as my building is on fire. I feel absolute panic and helplessness, wondering if this is the time when my home actually burns down. If not this time, will the next time be before the Government is able to do something to assist me? It is all-consuming, as the place where I should be able to retreat in safety is the main source of my worry, and there is no escaping it.'

A leaseholder in Victoria Wharf, across the bay from here, has sent me this: 'I am not only concerned by the lack of progress with regard to cladding remediation, I'm also extremely concerned by the fact that the managing agent, FirstPort, has no corporate policy in place to ensure the regular checking of compartmentalised single fire escape routes. Over and above this, FirstPort took around two years after acknowledgment to repaint faded emergency access markings within the development.'

These people are paying a huge amount of money, and they want to know what steps are the Welsh Government taking to tackle poor management agents. It is easy to forget that these apartments have people living in them, people whose lives are on hold, people who are trying to get on as best as they can.

Hannah, from Celestia, just around the corner from here, says this: 'In 2016, I made a substantial investment in my future by purchasing an apartment at the age of 26 and beginning my career as a teacher. However, since 2017, my dream investment has turned into a financial nightmare that has left my family financially stuck. I'm now 33, married to another teacher, and a proud mother to a beautiful 22-month-old daughter, Ada. Unfortunately, due to complications arising from cladding, we're being forced to raise our family in a one-bed apartment that is woefully inadequate. We are now expecting a second child in August, and, while this is an exciting time for us, we are constantly plagued by the black cloud of uncertainty about how long we can survive in a one-bed flat as a family that is soon to be four. Our apartment is deemed unsafe, and we are unable to sell or lease it to tenants, leaving us with limited options. We have already moved our bed into the kitchen area to accommodate our growing family, and we feel trapped, with no means of escape.'

This is a pregnant woman facing this level of anxiety. That's unhealthy for her and unhealthy for her unborn child. The lady in question is a daughter of an Aberfan survivor, and she is acutely aware of the long-lasting effect that that catastrophe had on her father. She believed her father died an early death because of issues relating to post-traumatic stress disorder. The late historian, Dr John Davies, told me after a lecture once that the dry dock where this Senedd is built was filled by slag heap from the Aberfan disaster. And that is incredible, isn't it, that the foundations of Welsh democracy have been built on the disaster of Aberfan, something that still reiterates, still impacts us, today. And as we debate in this Chamber time and time again, on the slag heap of Aberfan, we cannot allow delay to potentially create another tragedy. 

Another Victoria Wharf resident had this warning: 'There have been 350 fires in Welsh flats this year, so it's only a matter of time before a major fire occurs. Victoria Wharf, my apartment block, has had three fires this year, and between seven to nine pumps attend. So, you would conclude this problem should be fixed quickly, but I don't expect my flat to be made safe in the next three years.'

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 6:55, 22 March 2023


May I conclude, Deputy Presiding Officer, by quoting my friends, Non and Gwenallt Rees? I've known these two, Non and Gwenallt, for my whole life. These are two people who've contributed a great deal to a number of communities across Wales—they've lived in a number of places across Wales; they've served their communities and the nation. These are two people who deserve to enjoy their retirement, but this is what they have to say: 'Why are we, as residents in flats, responsible for facing huge costs for problems created by others?' I very much hope that Gwenallt and Non will forgive me for revealing that both of them are in their 80s now. This isn't the way that they should be spending these years. And that's why, Minister, we need to offer some kind of timetable to these people. Even if we can't adhere to the timetable to the letter, we need to give them some kind of idea of timescales so they have some hope and have some idea of when this nightmare is going to come to an end. Thank you very much.  

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 6:57, 22 March 2023

Diolch, Rhys, for bringing forward this debate on a truly awful situation, and for speaking so passionately and eloquently on just a few people of the thousands that this is affecting. Now, the Minister, as you mentioned, provided a helpful update yesterday, but our Welsh residents deserve a clearer timeline. We know that £375 million has been allocated to fund remediation work between 2022-23 and 2024-25. But, Minister, it would be really appreciated today if clarity could be provided that the aim of your Welsh Government is to have all buildings in Wales remediated by no later than 31 March 2025. 

We have been informed that works have been completed on 26 social sector buildings, and are under way on a further 41. In fact, it was announced that £40 million has been made available to undertake fire safety works on an additional 38 buildings in the social sector. And you know my views; this has to be treated. You do make the excuse that it's much more complex to deal with remediation to private sector leaseholders. Well, I'm sorry, their lives are equally as important as anyone, and you should be actually looking to have a very all-inclusive policy when you're looking. 

Now, in terms of your orphan buildings: are these private leaseholders or are they public sector, or is it a mix? 

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:58, 22 March 2023

Janet, you should—you only have a minute. 

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative

Yes, yes. You have a rolling programme of surveys. He has 15 minutes, doesn't he? He's on 10. [Interruption.] Yes, I know. Okay. Some leaseholders have been given the impression by their developers that they may not accept the outcome of the surveys. I've got one lady who I've mentioned before—£75,000 18 months ago, and has not received a penny back. These people deserve better, Minister. Working cross-party—well, I say cross-party; it's fair to say that I'm disappointed with Plaid Cymru—not so much Rhun, because he's here—but they've refused to sign the statement of opinion, and I do feel that Rhys is the champion of his group on this issue. 

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat


Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you to Rhys for raising this issue this evening. 

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat

I just really wanted in the very short time that I've got just to ask the Minister about two specific issues around developers. We know that developers have been dragged literally kicking and screaming to the table, and, really, as I said, I think it was yesterday, we have no sympathy for them, and I think, I’m hoping, that there will be demands made of them. And there are two specifics that I wonder if you could comment on. Firstly, could you tell us exactly what are the sanctions that you will be placing on them? What assurance is there for people in this predicament that developers will not wriggle out of their agreement, that there is no chance that they will draw back and take their time? As Rhys has said, what people want here is a timetable.

And my second and final point is: how will the negotiations with the developers include—and I’m taking a risk here, but I would like to hear your views on this—a stipulation that they cover the significant outlay that leaseholders have made to date in the quest for them to be safe? We know that many of them have spent hundreds if not thousands of pounds on, for example, waking night staff, in order to make sure, literally, that there isn’t a fire in their building. So, I would like to hear whether that has been part of the negotiations as well. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 7:01, 22 March 2023


I call on the Minister for Climate Change to reply to the debate.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you, Rhys, for the opportunity to discuss again the important issue of building safety in Wales. Just yesterday I made a statement on a series of actions we are taking as part of the Welsh building safety programme, together with our co-operation partners, Plaid Cymru. There were six strands to that update, including our work in making developers responsible for putting right the issues with buildings they’ve constructed, to taking forward work to remediate orphan buildings ourselves, as a Government, when no developer can be made responsible.

Just directly in response to Janet, an orphan building quite clearly isn’t in the social sector; it’s a private sector building, built by the private sector, where the private sector has either walked away from its responsibilities or gone bankrupt. So, just to be really clear.

In my statement, I spoke of the developers we’ve signed up to the legally binding documents that underpin the Welsh Government’s pact. Redrow, Lovell, Vistry, Countryside Partnerships, Persimmon and McCarthy Stone have already signed the legally binding agreement. Taylor Wimpey, Crest Nicholson, Bellway and Barrett Homes have confirmed their intention to sign. The intention to sign is not just a vague intention; it is a process by which they get the approval of their board to put their signature on the documents. So, to all intents and purposes, that is a signature.

The developers have committed to undertake life-critical fire safety works on both medium and high-rise buildings. These are buildings of 15m and over in height that have been developed over the last 30 years. I’ve maintained a collaborative approach in Wales, but I will take every opportunity, including legislation and considering prohibitions on development, to ensure developers step up to their responsibilities in the matter of fire safety.

There’s a series of sanctions in the contract documents, Jane. I haven’t got a list of them here, but there are all the usual contractual obligations. If a developer does not develop to the programme agreed, or to the standard agreed, the Welsh Government will then be in a contractual relationship with them, and be able to take legal action against them. So, it’s much the best kind of protection for the leaseholders involved.

The timetable: what is the timetable for remediation? We expect developers to start work as quickly as possible. In a number of cases, works have already started. Persimmon and Bellway are already on site in a number of locations, and others, such as McCarthy Stone, have already completed works in Wales. I can’t give a definitive timetable for every building in Wales. It’s just not possible to do. In the debate yesterday I did point out that we will look to make sure that we have a good supply chain going, a programme of work where we secure skilled contractors who are able to do the work properly, and of course we will do it as fast as possible. But it just is not physically possible to give a definitive timescale.

The work’s already starting to roll out. There are more and more buildings going into remediation as we go. We’ve already made a loan fund available to developers who might have a cash flow problem up front, because of the number of buildings they’re remediating, because I don’t want any excuse for not being able to start. But at the same time, we do need to make sure that the buildings are properly remediated and that the people who work on them are skilled, and that the supply chain is there, so that the right materials are used on the right buildings. So, it is just not possible to put an end date on that. And that’s why we made the loan fund available to developers—not because we are being particularly generous towards them, but because I don’t want a cash flow excuse. So, it can’t be the case that developers can’t continue with a building solely because they haven’t got the cash flow up front to do it. So, we’ll make sure that the programme of works is there to go ahead.

As I said, I’ve already addressed the fire safety issues in orphan buildings where the developer can’t be identified, has ceased trading, or it was developed more than 30 years ago. I announced that that was expanding from six to 28 buildings, so that is all of the orphan buildings we’re aware of in Wales. The responsible persons are being contacted right now to set out the next steps in respect of establishing the work plans for these buildings and undertaking necessary works with remediation on the first buildings of the orphan cohort starting this summer. So, pretty quickly now.

I'm sure the Member is aware—well, I know you are, Rhys—it's not just residents in private sector buildings who are affected by this issue, and I just think, Janet, you need to really think about some of the things you've said about this. Social sector apartment blocks where fire safety needs to be addressed are also important, and we really, really—

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Actually, you said yesterday—. You can check the Record, if you like. Maybe you didn't mean it, but what you said yesterday was really not very acceptable. Check it yourself.

Let us not forget that Grenfell itself was a social sector property. I think it's actually quite important to remember that. Yesterday, I updated the Senedd on progress that has been made in addressing fire safety issues in our social sector buildings. Twenty-six buildings of 11m and over in height have had fire safety works completed, and 41 buildings have works under way right now. I also confirmed that an additional £40 million is being allocated this year to undertake fire safety works in another 38 social sector buildings.

As I have previously stated, our Welsh building safety fund remains open for responsible persons to submit an expression of interest. It's a starting point for accessing Welsh Government support. So, again, if you come across any anyone who lives in a building that has not put the expression of interest in, please, please make sure that they do, because that is the basis on which we then can make retrospective payments, as well as getting them into the rolling programme of work.

The survey work continues. The independent surveys are funded directly by the Welsh Government. They offer a consistent reporting standard for responsible persons and highlight where responsibilities for fire safety issues lie.

I'll just address the issues around fires actually happening in buildings, as well. Quite clearly, we need to get the structure of the building right, we need to make sure that the fires are not occurring because of that. But if you have a building with wooden balconies, for example, that is an ongoing maintenance issue. That is not about the construction of the building in the first place. We do need to make sure that the responsible people step up to their maintenance responsibilities, as well. I'm very pleased at the fire service response to all of the fires that we've had and that any tragedy has been averted, but we are working with managing agents. I am meeting managing agents to impress on them that they must have maintenance programmes in place, as well as just blaming the original developer.

So, we've got 137 surveys completed so far, and 31 being progressed with our contractors, and I'm just continuing to get people to express an expression of interest if they haven't done so.

But we're doing more than just remediation. The people you highlighted, Rhys, should really be encouraged to apply to the leaseholder support scheme. We have a scheme specifically for people in the circumstance that you described. So, if you bought that as a retirement investment, you're not living there and you're relying on it for your continued ongoing financial resilience, then you should be applying to that, because we will buy you out. You really don't have to get to the option of just walking away; the Government will buy you out. The first properties are now actually being purchased as they go through the schemes, so please encourage them to apply for that scheme. There's an eligibility checker on the Welsh Government's website. If they find that too daunting, there are people available to help them go through it and understand how they can access that work. So, I'm really pleased that that's happening.

And finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I was really pleased to update on the work that's been undertaken on the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors's valuation guidance, which does now extend to both England and Wales. It does provide consistency in the valuation approach for properties in Wales. It isn't mandatory, but why would they not be using it, because you can get more than one valuation done, and the valuation provides a consistent basis on which to value the buildings? So, I'm really quite pleased that we've done that. And that's for all the buildings, whether they're developer-led work, the initial orphan cohort or whether we've been able to confirm buildings are either below 11m or deemed low risk. So, the valuation applies to all of them.

We continue to work with UK Finance to ensure that lenders recognise the situation in Wales. I've also met with individual lenders so we can discuss the circumstance, so they can provide mortgages for those living in buildings with these issues. It's one of the reasons we don't name individual buildings as a Government, because we don't want to set off hares running for no reason. But we are prepared to work with lenders to help that happening, and that should also be happening now.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm committed to addressing these building safety issues in Wales. We'll continue to take forward the building safety programme, and I will continue to update Members as our plans for delivery are rolled out. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 7:09, 22 March 2023


Thank you, Minister. That brings today's proceedings to a close.


The meeting ended at 19:09.