6. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal — High-rise building safety

– in the Senedd at 3:47 pm on 17 May 2023.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:47, 17 May 2023

(Translated)

Item 6 is the debate on a Member's legislative proposal, high-rise building safety, and I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move the motion. 

(Translated)

Motion NDM8230 Janet Finch-Saunders, Jane Dodds, Rhys ab Owen

Supported by Gareth Davies, Joel James, Natasha Asghar

To propose that the Senedd: 

1. Notes a proposal for a Bill to ensure that high-rise building developers are responsible for safety issues. 

2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to: 

a) create a duty on developers to refund leaseholders for reasonable costs accrued due to building safety issues; and 

b) prohibit any developer who refuses to remediate the fire safety defects on buildings they developed from being awarded planning permission for any new developments in Wales. 

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 3:47, 17 May 2023

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Now then, I will have to declare an interest in this—an interest I didn't know that I had, even yesterday as I sat here. So, I arrived home yesterday, at the apartments that I am in—I know that other Members are in also—and I had a letter from the property management company, which said that there's a joint survey of the external cladding that's been undertaken, and the initial report has come back, which suggests that remediation work will be required, and, due to the intolerable level of risk at the building, a waking watch must be installed whilst the installation of a heightened fire alarm system can be implemented. Waking watch is a fire safety system, where suitably trained staff continually patrol the floors and the exterior perimeter of a building to maintain the safety of its occupants from fire. The aim of a waking watch is to ensure there is sufficient warning in the event of a fire to support the evacuation strategy. I understand that yesterday there were two gentlemen wandering around in high-vis jackets with a horn, a foghorn-type thing, so if they noticed anything untoward they were on site. Now, I've only found this out today, so there'll be others who have yet, perhaps, to find this out. But what we do know is that there are thousands trapped in these leasehold apartments as we speak.

Now, the purpose of this proposal is to see this Welsh Parliament use its legislative power to back these trapped leaseholders. I'd also like to thank Rhys ab Owen and Jane Dodds, because this is something we feel cross-party and we feel about very strongly, and I know that they've been very supportive to date. 

So, it has taken us, Dirprwy Lywydd, five years from the Grenfell tragedy to now reach the point where developers are signing the pact. It is good that this is taking place. Now, I've seen a letter sent last week by your deputy director for housing safety, regulation and standards. And it reads: 'The terms of the legal agreement that underpins the pact does not require developers to cover costs for interim measures, such as waking watches. However, it does require developers to address fire safety issues as soon as reasonably practicable so that interim measures are no longer required.' Now, the pact is a brilliant Michael-Gove-inspired stick. Now, for the sake of clarity, Minister, please can you provide your rationale for not requiring developers to cover costs for interim measures?

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 3:50, 17 May 2023

The reason why waking watches are required is because, such as in the case of one development in south Wales, an independent fire engineer, in consultation with south Wales fire and rescue service, recommended that an interim waking watch was the correct course of action to keep residents safe. The costs, however, should not fall on these victims, these leaseholders. Now, because I’m always at work during the day, I’m probably—you know, the times, the number of days I’m down here, I'm probably not going to be impacted by the people and seeing the people who are protecting everybody in those apartments; basically, I leave that behind. But there are those leaseholders, or landlords of properties, bought in all innocence, who have to now be aware of this.

The costs—. Oh, I have said that. You’ve already agreed to reimburse survey costs, where surveys took place prior to the launch of the Welsh building safety fund in September 2021. However, that is even on condition that the following criteria are met: the survey work must have taken place prior to September 2021; a procurement process must—and just on that, not everyone has actually been able to have that survey work undertaken by 2021—a procurement process must have been followed; the work must have been carried out by a suitably qualified person—who would argue with that—the survey report must be of an equivalent standard to those being carried out by the Welsh Government’s appointed surveyors. And therein lies a very grey area, because some people are finding out that they are in one of these very dangerous buildings. And we know, whilst we talk about Cladiators and cladding, as you have rightly pointed out, Minister, over many months here, there’s a lot more to it than that. There are properties where—. I know you’ve mentioned things like fire curtains; it’s not just a cladding scandal. The survey report is—. Oh, yes, I've said that. It makes no sense to me, though, that you are applying such strict criteria retrospectively. Every single person living in one of these buildings needs your help and support. So, you should be using the levers at your disposal to make access to support for every single householder and make it as easy as possible.

Another example of a Welsh Government barrier is that you have made no commitment to retrospectively pay for all works carried out. The Welsh building safety fund was launched in September 2021, over four years after Grenfell. It is perfectly reasonable to have expected concerned residents to have taken decisive action to make their homes safer in the time it took your Welsh Government to act. As it stands, access to support is felt to be incredibly difficult for these leaseholders. So now, we believe, they believe, and I think any reasonably minded person would believe, there is need now to use our law-making abilities to provide this justice for these individuals.

Now, I have had time to read a deed of bilateral contract between Welsh Ministers and any developer. It is noted in section 20—breaches and termination—that the Welsh Ministers may pursue any of the remedies available to the Welsh Ministers at law for such material breach, including those remedies referred to within clause 27.5. Clause 27.5 refers to damages, injunction and specific performance. The legislation before us today would put in law that any developer who refuses to remediate the fire safety defects on buildings that they had developed would be barred from being awarded planning permission for any new developments in Wales.

Now, whilst I would like this Welsh Parliament to consider options as to how the prohibition could be achieved, one option is replicating banning orders. In England, such orders are used by the first-tier tribunal to ban a landlord from letting housing in England, engaging in English letting agency work and engaging in English property management work. Another option would be introducing a TAN, a technical advice note, which makes a developer's past failure to remediate fire safety defects a valid ground for objection to any application they present. Or we can simply look to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP's example, yet again, and replicate the responsible actors scheme. The regulations will enable eligible developers who do not join and comply with the scheme conditions—

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:55, 17 May 2023

Janet, I'm sorry to interrupt you, but you've used all of the time you were allocated for opening and closing, so I suggest that perhaps you want to finish there and close.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 3:56, 17 May 2023

Oh, sorry, I thought I had eight minutes to open and—.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

No, eight minutes in total.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative

Oh, right, okay. Well, I now implore all Members to support my proposal today that we now put this into law. That will protect these leaseholders who are innocent victims. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

I will give you a minute to sum up at the end, okay.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat

(Translated)

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you to Janet for the opportunity to participate in this debate.

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat

We have been here many times before, and I'm sure the Minister must be a tad frustrated that we are returning to it again, but it is the case that it is an issue that has not gone away, and/or it is that people are not having the communications that recognise the work that's being done. I'm pleased that this is a cross-party motion, and I'm just going to focus on three particular issues—three particular questions, if you like.

We know that some developers have signed a Government pledge to undertake and pay for remediation, but I'm concerned that the pact is not legally binding and I'd just like some clarity on that, please. The fallout from the pact in England, and steps taken, does show that anything without a legal basis will not drive change. 

Secondly, if I could also understand if there is a willingness, obligation, commitment—call it what you will—following up on Janet's point, to pay for the unreasonable and ongoing costs associated with the very real building safety failures of the developers' making—.

Thirdly, and finally, something I just touched on in my opening remarks was: what communications plan to leaseholders, with clear timescales as well, is in place at the moment? Many of us know that, if you have information, if you're communicated with, then you will perhaps feel in a better position, your stress levels may feel a little bit lower and your mental health may be a little bit more stable. We know that many of these leaseholders are very stressed and they are suffering in terms of their mental health; that's from families and young people up to, particularly, older people—people who have retired and have put all of their life savings, in essence, into their property.

Janet has highlighted, and is now affected by, the concept of the waking watch, which people have paid thousands towards. This is a massive hole in their savings or in their income. So, I'm just going to finish there, but I'd just add this: I speak from sentiments of the many people who have contacted me, and I know many others in the Siambr as well, over many, many months, if not the past year, that what we have in place now is too little, too weak and too slow to act. I would like to hear from the Minister about how we address all those three elements. Thank you—diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you to Janet Finch-Saunders for bringing forward this important legislative proposal, and to Jane Dodds for her contribution.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru

Minister, you have committed on several occasions that developers and the building industry must take responsibility to remediate fire safety defects. I was pleased to hear in March that you were making the developers' pacts legally binding. Could you please update us on how many developers have now signed a legally binding contract with the Welsh Government?

You've mentioned several times before also about the many practical issues with regard to remediation work, such as who to prioritise and to ensure sufficient resources and skills. What practical support is the Welsh Government providing to tackle these issues?

You've also said that you will consider legislation and prohibition against developers that do not take responsibility. Campaigners are very frustrated that developers involved in deficient buildings are still being awarded planning permission and local government contracts. The UK Government have indicated that they will ban developers from future developments under sections 126 to 129 of the Building Safety Act 2022. Can you please update us on any action you will take against developers and whether you're providing any guidance to local authorities?

You'll be aware, Minister, that some residents have already taken their own legal action against developers under the Defective Premises Act 1972. Without a timetable from Welsh Government, and I understand the reasons you've given prior to today about the reasons you cannot give a timetable, they are of the view that the courts will deliver well before the Welsh Government. What would you say to these residents and are you concerned about different standards applying to the Defective Premises Act to the Building Safety Act?

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 4:01, 17 May 2023

(Translated)

I will conclude by quoting Non and Gwenallt Rees, two pensioners who live in Victoria Wharf, a stone's throw from here. 

'Why are we as owners of flats responsible for facing the huge costs...created by others?'

That's why we support the Bill today and hope that the Senedd will support it too. Thank you.

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour

There is a problem with high-rise buildings in Wales. This has become apparent following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Residents, through no fault of their own, have been left with homes that are unsaleable and that require substantial expenditure on remedial work. I have two in Swansea East. The first is South Quay, which was built by Carillion. Carillion no longer exists, so this proposed legislation will not benefit residents in South Quay.

Carillion no longer exists, so the proposal to legislate to refund leaseholders for reasonable costs accrued due to building safety issues will do no good. There's no Carillion to make the payments, and the proposal that prohibits any developer who refuses to remediate the fire safety defects on buildings they develop from being awarded planning permission for any new developments in Wales—well, the company doesn't exist. How would it affect a company that does not exist?

My residents in South Quay are seriously concerned about the position that we're in at the moment. Carillion will not apply for planning permission, it won't apply for anything; it doesn't exist. I'm sure Carillion didn't only develop South Quay. This has left people seriously concerned that if they end up having to take legal action, how do you take it against something that has gone bankrupt?

For these buildings deemed orphan buildings by the Government, this proposed legislation is of no use, but the Minister has made offers, has made statements of support for these orphaned buildings, and I think that will do my constituents in South Quay a lot more good than this legislation.

Altamar is the other affected development, where Bellway Homes are involved as a developer. Altamar residents were advised that Bellway have signed the pact. This is definitely progress. It was also announced that payment for remedial work already done is being looked at in an internal process within Welsh Government, which, when complete, will be sent to Julie James for acceptance. I hope the Minister in her reply can provide an update on payment for the remedial work already done and a timeline for action by the developer.

What are small sums for Governments are very large sums for individuals. Some buildings, although not in Swansea, would have been built by single-purpose companies that, in the event of claims, can be easily liquidated and will not be applying for planning in the future.

If passed today, this will take over two years to go through the Senedd procedures. The Bill has to be written, the detailed legislation, followed by Stages 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the Senedd. Despite all these concerns I have, I'll be voting for it to show my support for my residents, but I think that those of you who have told them that this is a quick fix have misled them. This needs resolving now, well before this proposed legislation goes through the Senedd. People are hoping to see it resolved very quickly.

Of course, I will make a request to the Conservatives: will you refuse all political donations from the companies involved?

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 4:05, 17 May 2023

(Translated)

I'd like to thank Janet Finch-Saunders for bringing this debate forward today, and Janet has been consistent in promoting this issue over the last couple of years, at least. The proposal ties in particularly well with the work that the Local Government and Housing Committee has been doing over the past few months, under the very skilful leadership of John Griffiths over there. And the committee has taken very important evidence during its inquiry, and has genuinely opened my eyes to many new things.

This proposal by Janet reflects a great deal of the work that has been done, and she has succeeded in summarising that in an adroit way in the motion, so I thank her for the work in that regard.

And as the Local Government and Housing Committee explored cladding and fire safety, what became extremely clear is that the problems in many of these buildings go beyond the specific issues under consideration here, and in fact, they show fundamental weaknesses in the safety regime and building standards. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the sector has been like the wild west, with almost no oversight to ensure standards of construction and safety, and companies cutting corners significantly in order to increase their profits.

Here is a quote from one of the witnesses from Cardiff:

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 4:06, 17 May 2023

'if you look at the quality, it's a toxic industry. It's built by the lowest bidder...we had a soil stack problem in Celestia. The soil stacks are the pipes in the building that remove human waste, and one failed. And when we went behind—this is a very famous, iconic story now—they found a bend that was held up by an empty Starbucks cup. The reality is that a lot of these buildings were thrown up, and the level of quality and professionalism is just not there.'

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

And here is further evidence, this time from a person from Swansea, who said:

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

'There's a floor-to-ceiling grill 2m wide, a louvred grille, with an automated actuator in it...this building was first built and occupied in 2004 or 2005. Two weeks ago, we did an in-depth survey ourselves and we found that the delivery retaining straps were still in place on five out of those 43 devices, and they were installed and never removed.'

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 4:07, 17 May 2023

(Translated)

These are just a couple of examples, showing the poor standard of construction. Other evidence from people with various disabilities shows that they will be in significant danger in the event of a fire or emergency, with no real consideration being given to the needs of people with disabilities.

The proposal here today talks of banning any developer who refuses to rectify fire safety defects on buildings that have been developed by them from obtaining planning permission for any new developments in Wales. This echoes the calls that I and Plaid Cymru have made in this Chamber on several occasions now, and so, it should surprise no-one that we support this. I'm looking forward to hearing the Minister's response to this request in particular, and I hope that she thinks deeply about this option in her considerations.

Perhaps the Minister can also give us an update in her response on the discussions taking place with the developers. Have Taylor Wimpey, Crest Nicholson and Barrett Homes now signed the pact binding them to carry out fire prevention work on high-rise and mid-sized buildings in Wales? Also, have Redrow, McCarthy and Stone, Lovell, Vistry, and Persimmon, who have already signed the new pact, started this work? Perhaps we can get a progress report from the Minister in this regard. Thank you.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:08, 17 May 2023

(Translated)

I call on the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you for the opportunity to discuss once more the important issue of building safety in Wales, and so soon after the previous debate held on 22 March.

My position has not changed: developers should indeed take responsibility for fire issues in buildings they have developed. And here in Wales, we have not restricted this to high-rise buildings of 18m and over, as suggested by colleagues who have instigated this debate, but, instead, we've extended that responsibility to include medium-rise buildings of 11m and over in height. Work is under way to address fire safety in such buildings.

However, I completely agree there needs to be a comprehensive reform of building safety across the lifecycle of buildings; that is why as well as addressing fire safety issues in our existing building stock, we are taking forward a significant programme of reform to establish a fit-for-purpose building safety regime in Wales.

We have already set out our aspirations for culture change in the way buildings are designed and constructed in the White Paper, 'Safer Buildings in Wales', which was published in January 2021. It also confirmed our ambition to establish a robust and coherent regulatory system that will hold those responsible to account and ensure accurate up-to-date information is held on all in-scope multi-occupied residential buildings. This includes the identification of an accountable person who will be responsible for managing fire safety and wider building safety risks.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 4:10, 17 May 2023

I've made a commitment to work with developers to ensure fire safety defects are remediated at their cost. To this end, I wrote to over 50 of the UK's largest residential developers to ask them to confirm their position in Wales. All these developers have responded. The developers either confirmed they had developed no residential buildings of 11m or over in height in Wales, confirmed they had already remediated buildings, or have signed up to the Welsh Government's developers pact. I made a statement, Dirprwy Lywydd, to this effect in October in this very Chamber. At the time, I also made reference to two developers who were yet to engage. Both of these developers have now been in touch and confirmed they have not developed residential buildings of 11m or over in height in Wales.

The pact itself is a public rather than legal commitment, but to reassure Janet and Jane and Mabon and others in this Chamber who have asked a question over the past months, the legally binding contract to underpin the pact has been prepared and shared with developers. Let me just be crystal clear. I have said this a number of times and I will say it again. All of the developers we expected to sign our legal contract have done so. I remember your comments following my oral statement, Janet, when developers had indicated their intent to sign, that an intent to sign was not worth the paper it's written on, so I hope this news will give you some comfort.

Given that not all developers have signed up in England, I do appreciate the need to lay regulations there, but this is just not the case in Wales. In Wales, with a binding legal agreement in place, we are able to pursue a contractual resolution to issues rather than take the legislative approach. My colleague Mike Hedges has just set out the problems with the timescale on a legislative approach, and Janet, you very helpfully read out the parts of the contract that set out why we have a contractual remedy. The scale of the problem in Wales is not the same as that in England, and therefore we have taken these proportionate steps to address building safety.

The developers who have signed, for Mabon's information's in particular—Dirprwy Lywydd, I have read this into the Record before and I'll read it in again—are Redrow, Bellway, Barratt Homes, Taylor Wimpey, Lovell Homes, Persimmon, Crest Nicholson, Vistry, Countryside and McCarthy and Stone, so some of the biggest residential developers operating in the UK. Between them, these developers have identified 121 buildings of 11m or over in height, of which 84 will be taken forward through this agreement, the remainder of which either do not require works, have already been remediated, or have works ongoing.

We will now use these contracts to ensure works are completed to an appropriate standard within as short a timescale as is possible, to end the absolutely undoubted suffering of leaseholders and allow them to move forward with their lives. I've also been pleased to hear of developers who have fully stepped up to their moral responsibility and reimbursed leaseholders for any costs they have incurred to rectify fire safety issues in their buildings prior to these agreements being signed.

I have also recently announced the first cohort of 28 orphan buildings to be taken forward—those without an identified developer, or where the developer has ceased trading. As well as supporting remediation works on these buildings, I have also agreed that costs incurred by leaseholders should be reimbursed, where they were for works to rectify fire safety issues relating to the construction of their building.

And just to be clear, Janet—you read out the criteria for that—I make no excuse for that. This is public money; of course it should be paid out when the surveys have been correctly conducted and are reliable to be relied on. The reason for the cut-off date is that after that date you could have an expression of interest and do it through our survey, so there's no need for you to do a separate survey at that date, and to this second you can still do that. So, if you're aware of a building who thinks they've missed the boat because they didn't commission their own survey, they don't need to. All they have to do is put an expression of interest in, and our survey will take over from that point.

It is absolutely not right that leaseholders should be out of pocket for fire safety issues not of their making, and I've always been clear that they should not bear these costs. As Mike Hedges also pointed out, for an orphan building where somebody has gone out of business, it would not be possible to pursue the route that you outlined, and therefore we have picked up the orphan buildings and we will remediate those buildings at public expense.

The choice I have made is to focus on actually getting the job done. I do not apologise for this approach. I take these responsibilities very seriously and I have made my commitment to work hard for leaseholders and residents affected by these fire issues very plain. That being said, I've always been clear in the past and remain clear today that I am prepared to go down a legislative route if developers do not act appropriately to rectify fire safety issues in their buildings, but at present this is just not necessary. I have a contractual route to ensure developers do what is needed to make these buildings as safe from fire as is possible. To take a legislative approach, which would pull valuable resources away from work to ensure all buildings in Wales have a route to remediation, whether they have an identified developer or not, would simply not be a good use of resources.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, I think I've comprehensively set out why I think this Bill is not necessary or needed. Most of what it does is either already being done or will be included in the fire safety building reform Bill, which has already been trailed to the Senedd. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:15, 17 May 2023

Janet, I did say I'd give you some time, so if you could sum up and respond to the debate.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I would just like to thank the Minister and indeed everybody, in particular Jane Dodds and Rhys ab Owen, and everybody else who have spoken on this. I brought this forward with Jane and Rhys. We've been dealing with the people affected by this, these innocent victims, and it is now believed that this legislative proposal is very valid indeed. And I would ask all Members to sign up to that and vote for it today. Thank you.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

(Translated)

The proposal is to note the proposal. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, there's objection. I will defer voting under this item until voting time.

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.