Cardiff’s victims of the cladding and fire safety scandal remain in limbo four years on
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire exposed widespread fire safety issues in buildings across the UK, politicians still cannot agree on how to help.
Cardiff councillors have called for a wide range of solutions to the problem, with many people in the Welsh capital living in unsafe buildings at risk of fire.
Options included suing developers responsible for defects, creating a new team of building inspectors, and urging the Welsh Government to change its upcoming building safety bill.
Several buildings in Cardiff and across Wales have unsafe flammable cladding, while some have other fire safety defects such as poor compartmentation and fire breaks to stop fires from spreading within buildings. Many need a waking watch, in case a fire does break out.
Council leader Huw Thomas said: “Through no fault of their own, residents now find the homes they purchased in good faith to be unsafe and unsound, facing the prospects of having to carry the burden of the financial cost of making good their properties, and being unable to sell or move.
“I am aware that many of these [construction] companies are still building properties in Cardiff today. We may not have the powers to stop them doing so, but we certainly welcome the forthcoming powers that Welsh legislation will provide to councils to better hold them to account. These companies created this mess, and they should sort it out.”
He was speaking during a full council meeting on Thursday, June 24, when councillors agreed a motion to urge ministers to bring forward the building safety bill as soon as possible, and also to establish joint inspection teams, invest in qualified surveyors to certify building safety, and speed up the testing of new cladding. Several amendments also called for other solutions.
Labour Cllr Saeed Ebrahim said: “The council and the Welsh Government moved quickly to ensure council-owned buildings were safe, alongside making sure registered social landlords could do the same. But we are not there yet with privately owned high-rise flats.
“These ongoing issues are holding people’s lives in limbo, as well as the impact it has on people’s mental health. It’s having a significant financial impact on owner-occupiers falling into negative equity and unable to sell their properties.
“Our residents also face the possibility of having to fund the changes to their properties themselves, despite having purchased their properties in good faith. We need to act fast to allow residents to move on with their lives.”
In Cardiff, council-owned tower blocks were checked shortly after the Grenfell fire for similar flammable cladding. Lydstep Flats in Llandaff North, Loudon House and Nelson House in Butetown, and Channel View in Grangetown had unsafe cladding, which was then removed.
But many privately owned blocks of flats are still left, four years after Grenfell, with flammable cladding and other wide-ranging fire safety issues. One solution suggested was using council funds to sue developers responsible for constructing these unsafe buildings.
Propel Cllr Neil McEvoy said: “We would like a sum of £250,000 set aside to seed fund possible legal action. We would also like to see the as-built drawings published, as I would like the residents to see what they should have been buying.
“One question is: have these residents been victims of fraud? If we publish the as-built drawings then everybody can find out. This is about transparency and action.”
Only four councillors voted to support the motion to sue developers, with Labour voting against and Tory and Liberal Democrats abstaining. Some councillors warned legal wrangling could delay action by years as the issue is dragged through the courts.
Another issue is that some funding announced by Westminster to go towards making buildings safe was spent in Wales on responding to coronavirus instead. The Barnett formula means a proportion of money spent in England is given to the Welsh Government to spend as it likes.
With this in mind, Tory councillors called for a dedicated fund in Wales to pay for fixing fire safety issues, and raised questions about how the building regulations team at the council signed off some of the unsafe buildings in Cardiff when they were first built.
Conservative Cllr Adrian Robson said: “The council has tremendous influence over the role of developers in our city and we must do all that we can to ensure that this never happens again in our new developments.
“These huge housing estates, these huge new residential blocks that we’re building throughout the city, they must be safe. We must ensure that the people who move into them can live safely.”
The Tory amendment was backed by Propel councillors and received 21 votes in favour, but 45 Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors voted against the call to set up a building safety fund, partly due to the English fund only covering cladding issues. A new Welsh fund will likely cover a wider range of fire safety issues, including compartmentation and fire alarms.
Liberal Democrats pointed to flaws in Westminster’s support package. In January, the UK government announced £3.5 billion to remove cladding from unsafe high-rise flats. But this was only on buildings at least 18 metres in height, and left some costs of remedial work passed on from building owners to residents. It’s also unclear how much of the fund will go to Wales.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Rodney Berman said: “Clearly this is one of the biggest scandals of our time and it’s heartbreaking that many leaseholders and tenants are left trapped in properties that they can’t move on from. It’s utterly dire.
“The UK government should have stepped in. It may require billions to put all this right, but billions can be found when it’s needed in certain circumstances. Then the government could have worked subsequently to recoup those costs from those who are responsible.
“These people need more than just council motions, they need some real action. I hope when the Welsh Government brings forward its own legislation, it isn’t going to make the same mistakes [Westminster] made on this.”
The Liberal Democrat amendment noted these concerns about the fire safety bill, and was accepted into the main motion, which councillors passed unanimously.
The Welsh Government has promised to develop a fire safety fund “shortly”, but it is still unclear when this will be introduced or what the details of the new building safety bill will look like.