Third of high rise buildings across Wales estimated to have fire safety problems

South Quay in Swansea Marina is claimed to be one of the buildings with combustible cladding. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

This summer will mark four years since the Grenfell tower fire. The tragedy, which took place on the June 14, 2017 saw 72 people lose their lives. The public inquiry that followed the incident has revealed that one of the main reasons the fire spread, was due to the type of cladding that was used on the exterior of the building. 

72 died as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire (David Mirzoeff/PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Surveys on high rise buildings across the UK following the fire have shown that combustible cladding and fire safety defects are also causing issues in other high rise buildings. The Welsh Government estimates that a third of high rise buildings across the country may need remediation work with defects ranging from minor to significant.

Currently, there are approximately 148 high rise residential buildings across Wales, with 38 in the social sector, and 110 privately owned. 

Zoe Griffiths claims her building has combustible cladding. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Zoe Griffiths lives in South Quay, Swansea Marina. She bought her flat more than 10 years ago, but only recently received a letter from the managing agent informing her that the cladding on the outside of the building is non-compliant and there are problems with the wall system. 

Residents of South Quay will see their service charge increase more than £450,000 this year between them to pay for cladding works and insurance costs. However, the cost to rectify all issues across the site in the years to come is likely to be in the region of £3-£5 million.

The cost to rectify all issues across the site in the years to come is estimated to be in the region of £3-£5 million. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

"Some people in the next 6, to 12 months, are going to lose their homes because they can’t afford to pay for the cost of a system that has let them down” says Ms Griffiths.

“If we don’t make the initial payments, the process of changing the cladding can’t begin, and if the process of changing the cladding can’t begin, then we don’t step closer towards getting the insurance sorted, so we can’t get a mortgage, we can’t re-mortgage. We’re in a very serious and a very difficult situation.”

“My initial feeling was that I was angry that something that I’ve bought, now isn’t safe to live in.”

Carillion built South Quay, but the company collapsed in January 2018. The leaseholders do not think they should be the ones to pay, but the lines of accountability are in dispute.

“The most powerful thing now is to create a task force to try and create solutions to these problems.”

The Welsh Government banned the use of combustible cladding on all new residential buildings in January 2020. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

In January, the Welsh Government released a White Paper outlining a new Building Safety Regime for Wales with ambitious plans to improve safety. The proposal outlines a new system of identifying, assessing and mitigating the risks of fire, plans to enhance residents’ rights, and also presents a number of new duty holder roles to identify who is responsible for safety in a building. The proposals are intended to encompass a wide range of buildings - from high rise residences to buildings converted into multiple flats .

Zoe doesn’t believe these policies go far enough for people in her position.

She said: “Sending a white paper out is great as a starting point but what about today? What about now?”

“The policies the government has presented are for the future. They’ve made sure this won’t happen again. But what about today?”

Cerith Griffiths from the Fire Brigades Union was in London the day of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Credit: Y Byd ar Bedwar

Cerith Griffiths from the Fire Brigades Union witnessed first hand the devastation caused by the Grenfell Tower disaster. He was in London on a course the day of the fire. He is frustrated at what he calls the lack of action by the Welsh and UK Governments over fire safety issues in Wales.

“We’re in a situation now where we have people living in buildings, in houses, that aren’t safe. The response has been, far, far too slow. We’re almost four years after this. Something should have happened the next day.” 

. Credit: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

“If I lived in one of these buildings, or one of these houses, I think I would be worried. I don’t want to scare people, but if something like Grenfell happened in Wales, we don’t have the response, we don’t have the fire engines. We saw more than 70 fire engines respond to Grenfell. We don’t have 70 fire engines here in South Wales.” 

Despite the Welsh Government banning the use of combustible cladding on all new residential buildings last January, there is still combustible cladding on existing high rise buildings in Wales. 

“The government must do what is necessary to get rid of this cladding. There might be a debate that someone else is responsible for it, whoever built it, whoever fitted it, but to start with, it has to be removed from the buildings.” 

“It is frustrating for the people living in these buildings, the government has the power to do something about this. We need to deal with it now.”

"We have to find a way to make the industry that caused the problem pay for the problem" says Housing Minister, Julie James Credit: ITV Wales News

Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government said those who created these problems should pay for their mistakes.

“These are developers that have made millions and millions of pounds out of this, if the Government of Wales was to pay out for that we would have to take that money out of much needed public services in the middle of this pandemic. My heart goes out to the leaseholders, it absolutely does, but we have to find a way to make the industry that caused the problem pay for the problem and not the poor people who find themselves living in the buildings, through no fault of their own.” 

Despite housing being devolved in Wales, the UK Government are responsible for changing the law regarding product liability and consumer protection, and therefore who ultimately pays to fix the fire safety issues. The Housing Minister said:

“What leaseholders need is a permanent solution that allows them to live happily in their homes and to sell them on if they need to. If I had the levers I would use them but unfortunately we do not, and so we absolutely have to work together to get the UK Government to step up to its responsibilities in this space as well.”

The Welsh Government have said they are “confident that the Fire Rescue Service in Wales has fully learned all of the lessons from Grenfell Tower”. According to a new report by the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor, the work carried out has “has substantially reduced the likelihood of such catastrophic outcomes at an incident occurring.” 

The Welsh Government told our current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar: 

“We have already committed an initial £42.5 million to support remediation work for high rise buildings. Our funding offer will go much further than just cladding and take into account other safety related defects and fire safety measures. We will provide further details on this funding offer and how to access it as soon as we can.”

Yesterday, a further £3 million was announced in the Welsh Government’s budget for building remediation. 

A spokesperson from The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said:

“Housing and building safety are devolved matters. We continue to work closely with the devolved administrations on building safety, including the removal of dangerous cladding from high-rise buildings. Our 5-point, multi-billion-pound investment plan will protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders in England from the unaffordable costs of replacing unsafe cladding on their homes. Wales will receive additional funding through the Barnett formula and further details will be set out in due course.”

You can watch the full programme on Wednesday at 8:25pm on S4C.