Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Victims of the cladding scandal in Wales have been left in the dark about how much support they will receive amid uncertainty over funding.
Three and half years after the Grenfell Tower fire, when 72 people died, many people across Wales continue to live in buildings at risk of burning down.
After decades of under-regulation of building safety, the fire risks include combustible cladding and insulation, and a lack of fire breaks and compartmentalisation, leaving thousands of affected leaseholders unable to sell or move away.
The Westminster government announced on Wednesday, 10 January, an extra £3.5 billion to remove cladding from unsafe high-rise flats. But the Welsh Government doesn’t know how much funding it will receive as a consequence of that new money.
Rebecca Ashwin lives in Victoria Wharf, Cardiff Bay, a luxury block of flats built with several serious defects. She bought an eighth-floor flat there with her partner in March 2019.
The fire safety risks at Victoria Wharf include flammable polystyrene insulation, which is exposed in some places near where residents often smoke and flick cigarette butts; and a lack of fire barriers, supposed to stop fires spreading from one flat to another.
Ms Ashwin said: “They were described as ‘aspirational’ flats. But they’ve turned into a nightmare. We’re trapped here 24–7 with lockdown. It’s taking a huge mental toll.”
Costs she has to pay for the fire risks are skyrocketing: increased insurance, mortgage premiums, admin fees to the block’s management companies. She was surprised to see one bill with an extra £3,000 added, with no warning. She fears becoming bankrupt.
She said: “I couldn’t stop shaking for a good couple of days. I have to fight for my home every day, and it’s exhausting. Work has kindly given me counselling. But it has absolutely rocked my core beliefs. The people there to protect you, do they actually exist?
“The government needs to act and get a grip on the situation. They have failed to get a grip or even understand it. I want the government to hold developers responsible. They’re getting away scot-free. The only way to stop this happening again is to hit them in the pockets.
“If you bought a car and a wheel fell off, you wouldn’t be expected to pay for it.”
Victoria Wharf, like many other affected buildings, now has waking watches. Ms Ashwin said leaseholders living there have been charged “extortionate costs” for men to walk around the block with an airhorn, day and night, in case a fire breaks out.
She claimed she found one man, supposed to be working as a waking watch, “asleep in our stairwell in a sleeping bag”.
Another affected building in Cardiff is Schooner Wharf, just behind County Hall. This new block of flats was only signed off in December 2018, after the Grenfell Tower fire.
Residents there discovered at the end of last year cladding on their homes is combustible. While their cladding is different from that found on Grenfell Tower and blamed for the rapid spread of the fire, residents claim it is still combustible so they cannot sell their flats.
One resident, who asked not to be named said: “We have HPL type cladding which isn’t considered as unsafe as the ACM on Grenfell but it’s still combustible.
“We also have sprinklers, fire lifts, two stairways, and all the alarms but we are still left unable to sell or remortgage as we cannot get an EWS1. The issues here are not on the scale of Victoria Wharf but enough to halt the sales.”
EWS1 forms are another crucial factor of the cladding scandal. The new industry-wide certificate was recently introduced to check the safety of cladding buildings. While they are hard to obtain, people selling properties often find they need one to sell, leaving many stuck.
One south-Wales firm was found to have issued several EWS1 forms across the UK with a forged signature, an investigation last autumn found.
Also last autumn, new emails showed that consequential funding received by the Welsh Government to help victims of the cladding scandal actually went towards the coronavirus crisis instead.
Consequential funding means when Westminster spends money in England, a proportion based on population is also given to devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. But devolved governments can decide to spend that money elsewhere.
After Westminster announced a new £3.5 billion to help remove cladding from unsafe buildings in England, Welsh campaigners are calling for Welsh Government to commit to spend any new consequential funding on helping victims of the cladding scandal.
Cerys Owen, founder of Wales Leaseholder Action Group Cymru, said: “We appreciate that the cladding and building safety scandal is a UK wide problem. However, leaseholders in Wales are suffering and need Welsh Government to take action and support us in these difficult times.
“At the very least, the consequential funding received needs to be set up as a fund and distributed to affected leaseholders.
“While leaseholders are waiting for the Welsh Government to take long overdue action, they are facing bills they cannot pay, are at risk of being made bankrupt and homeless and are running out of time.”
A survey carried out by the campaigners of affected leaseholders showed that 98 per cent disagreed with the statement that “the Welsh Government’s response to cladding and fire safety following on from Grenfell has been timely and appropriate”; and 93 per cent disagreed with the statement that “It’s acceptable the Welsh Government spent the allocated funding on other issues and haven’t set up a Welsh building safety fund”.
After the announcement of an extra £3.5 billion, the Welsh Government doesn’t know how much extra funding Wales will receive. Julie James MS, the Welsh housing minister, has written to Robert Jenrick, Westminster’s housing secretary, for “urgent clarification”.
Last month, the Welsh Government published a building safety white paper, setting out exactly how it plans to help victims of the cladding scandal and make at-risk buildings safe. But any action will likely be delayed until after May’s Senedd election.
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “At this point it is not clear how much additional funding this will mean for Wales. The minister for housing and local government has written to the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, seeking urgent clarification on this point.
“Building safety is a priority for Welsh Government, that is why we have already committed £10 million this year and a further £32 million next year to support remediation of high-rise buildings.
“The joint inspection teams that we will be establishing will be key to helping identify which buildings need work and the nature of that work which often goes far beyond just cladding.
“We published our building safety white paper last month setting out our ambitious plans for wholescale reform of the building safety regime in Wales and we are working with the UK government to ensure that relevant aspects of their building safety will apply to Wales.”
But opposition politicians called for more urgent action to help affected residents and hold responsible developers to account.
Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said: “Owning your own home is a dream for most of us, but for cladding victims, it has ruined lives. People who bought in good faith have been left with properties that are worthless. Leaseholders are completely innocent parties, and they need help.
“The package that has been brought forward in England — worth several billions of pounds — is an extremely welcome step. We need to see action in Wales and I will continue to press the Welsh Government to bring forward a package to address the issue.”
Jane Dodds, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said: “Three and a half years after the devastating fire at Grenfell, it’s worrying that so many properties in Wales are still at risk because of unsafe cladding.
“Many people living in high-rise properties across Wales do not feel confident that their property is safe and are worried about potential fire risks. It’s high time the Welsh Government acted to make these homes safe”.
Neil McEvoy, leader of the Propel party, said: “I would hope the government would use all the money available to do what it can for residents. But ultimately, the developers have to pay.
“In Glasgow, Taylor Wimpey footed the bill. Why can the Scottish government make them pay, but in Wales we can’t? I’m glad the money has been allocated, but it’s not the taxpayer who should be solving this problem; it’s the developers.”
While the funding row goes on and politicians argue, the costs and anxieties faced by Welsh leaseholders are mounting.
Ms Ashwin said: “We seem to be falling through the cracks. The longer it goes on, the more we are paying. Our lives are on pause while we’re waiting for these decisions. It’s about the lives lost at Grenfell. It’s about people feeling safe in their home.
“I went to university, worked my whole life, paid my taxes, my partner and I worked five jobs to get our home together. And now that might be taken away from me. I might have to start again.
“I’ll never touch a new-build again. I want to live in a tiny house in the middle of a field.”