The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - 100 days on from the Grenfell tragedy.
The Grenfell tragedy rightly shook all of us in housing. As we watched the news that morning, we all wondered how could something like this happen in 2017? One thing is clear, it must never happen again.
Today is 100 days on from the tragedy, so here are my thoughts on where housing is now positioned in Wales.
So let’s start with the Good.
Firstly, it takes a tragedy like this to radically change how fire safety is considered and prioritised in housing, hotels, public buildings etc. I really hope and believe this will be the positive that comes out of this awful event.
Both in Wales and Westminster, action has been taken. Some of it you may be familiar with:
The Westminster Government put an ‘expert group’ together and they have been swift in working with BRE (Building Research Establishment) in testing the different types of ACM cladding. 7 types were tested and we now have a clear idea of what passed/failed.
In Wales, a wide range of tall buildings with ACM cladding was suddenly in the limelight. Panels were sent for testing, fire procedures reviewed and fresh fire assessments have been made. The Fire Service has been fully engaged in advising and assessing buildings.
Carl Sargeant, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children in Welsh Government (Minister in charge of housing to you and me!) swiftly put an advisory group together representing Welsh Government, Fire Service, Local Government, social landlords, voluntary sector and private landlords. TPAS Cymru was asked to represent tenants and I was pleased to join.
This group has met weekly without fail with a raft of correspondence in between. The group is currently putting initial recommendations to the Minister for his consideration. I naturally can’t share with you yet what those recommendations are. What I can say is that this group (led by Des Tidbury, Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor to the Welsh Government) has been very positive and productive. There has been a real commitment from all to ensure fire safety is improved in Wales. It has not been a talking shop and no ‘blame shifting’. It’s been honest and focused on getting the facts about where we are in Wales and how we move forward.
Another positive is that some landlords have been very responsive. I would like to mention Newport City Homes. Their commitment, actions, and communications to their tower block tenants has been very good. Within this first 100 days, they have agreed to fit sprinklers, tendered for and appointed a contractor, and work has already started. I view NCH as an example of best practice. Swansea Council has also been swift to act. I was in Swansea Council HQ on the day after Grenfell and they had a team of staff (armed with communications) dedicated to knocking doors and talking to tenants.
Another example I heard about is a public building in Wales that had some historic fire safety issues (not related to cladding) that had no budget to get it fixed. After Grenfell, the bean-counters quickly found the money. It shouldn’t take a tragedy like that for people to act, but I hope that we now take this seriously.
Finally, what I’m pleased to see in Wales is that many aspects of fire safety are now under review.
Questions are being asked, such as:
Do building regulations need to change?
Is ‘Stay Put’ policy still the correct response?
Do we have sufficient Fire Assessors and what qualifications and ongoing development do they have?
How do we reduce the number of fires starting in the first place?
Sadly, not all developments since the tragedy have been positive. 3 things concern me:
1) Other buildings and other types of cladding. Rightly so, the focus has been on ACM cladding buildings with sleeping risk over 18m. However, I cycle past timber clad buildings each morning and I believe we need to be asking questions about them. Equally, Cardiff seems to be in a frenzy to build as many private student high-rise blocks as possible. They are being built fast in a competitive market. That’s how corners get cut. As a former Student Union President, I know how casual some students can be. I want to know that the fire safety measures reflect that.
2) Private sector. It’s a complex mix, with layers of freeholder, leaseholders, tenants, management companies, self-managed buildings etc. Do we have a complete picture of the private sector? They may not be as open and transparent or act quickly as it comes down to two main points 1) who is liable for any costs? 2) making sure what they put in place is going to be compliant in the future. This could take years (see my final section)
i.e. A building near where I live was clad in ACM less than 2 years ago at great expense. If it’s failed the latest cladding test, it may need to be replaced. Who pays for that? and how do they ensure it's right next time?
3) The urgency to make safe. The supply chain is wider than physical cladding. You need contractors, and people to advise, and to make arrangements with tenants. The whole of Wales and the UK can’t all be done at once. The scale of work needed in England is massive and it could take years. There is real pressure to act. We could see the wrong replacements being installed at severely inflated costs when people are under pressure ‘to do something’ fast.
I heard of an example (may not be true - allegedly in England) that sums up the ‘Ugly’ section of this blog.
The example goes like this:
A 140 unit private leaseholder building. i.e. 140 flats. Cost to scaffold, take the old ACM and insulation down, replace with new cladding, professional fees etc plus other essential fire safety work – the whole bill allegedly comes to £10 -15m.
So, the flat owners are potentially looking at £70k - £100k per unit each - but even the highest value flat is only worth £140k. Some might be ‘buy to let’ landlords, but many could be pensioners, first time buyers, and certainly many on the lowest income.
It simply can’t be done. There are few circumstances where leaseholders could collectively raise that money. However, if they don’t –will their property remain unsafe and unsellable?
It complied with building regulations. But now there is a big problem. It could be years before this is sorted out via legal action. The legal profession will be busy as parties sue management companies, professional advisors or against local authority. During this time, these potential large liabilities could make some flats unsellable until its resolved.
So, should the tax payer pay the bill, if building regulations got it wrong? The bill is just unquantifiable! Why should the taxpayer bail out all – for example Buy to Let landlords who effectively act as guest house owners making a pretty penny letting their place nightly on Airbnb? Why should tax payers bail them out? However, should a low-income family lose their home if they can’t pay their lease obligations when saved up and bought it in good faith. These are tough questions that need to be considered.
So, 100 days on. We have seen a significant shift in how we view Fire Safety. We still have a long way to go but we’re heading in the right direction. We have an official public inquiry, and changes will come out of Westminster and Cardiff Bay and even at community level.
We shouldn’t have needed a tragedy like that to force change but historically this has always been the case. Events when I was young such as Hillsborough, Zeebrugge Ferry, Heysel Stadium resulted in major long-term changes to their respective sectors. All could have been avoided but change came about because of avoidable tragedy.
David Wilton, Director.
Appendix - In case of interest, TPAS Cymru has created a simple guide for tenants if your landlord is considering installing sprinklers.