(Title Image: Dave Croker under Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-2.0)
With the issue of fire safety in high rise buildings making headlines recently – and set to do so again with the imminent publication of the first report of the Grenfell Disaster inquiry – the Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), outlined the Welsh Government’s next steps.
No room for complacency
The Minister told AMs Wales has one of the most generous systems of home fire safety checks in the UK and preventative work by fire services has improved fire safety in domestic properties significantly.
Since her last statement on safety in high-rise buildings, several reforms are being finalised and the Minister announced that a white paper on changes to fire safety laws is set to be published in 2020.
Some reforms include making the fire service a statutory consultee for certain planning applications, amending building regulations to ban the use of certain cladding materials and introducing a stricter building inspection regime.
“This programme of reforms will put greater emphasis on buildings over 18m, or seven storeys, in height. Fire safety in blocks of flats depends critically on….the ability of the structure to contain a fire in the area in which it originates. If that fails, as it did at Grenfell, then the consequences can be dire….My commitment to improving fire safety does not only apply to those living in high-rise residential buildings, though. My intention is for legislation to be flexible enough to include other buildings in the future, should the evidence lead us to consider it necessary.”
– Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James
She stressed that taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for defects in private high-rise residential buildings and there was a moral responsibility for owners and developers to fix any issues or risk damage to their professional reputations (Redrow’s Celestia development in Cardiff Bay being a high-profile example).
Need to move quickly
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), believed the matter had to proceed more quickly than the Minister outlined; at a minimum, the necessary law changes need to be in place before the next Senedd election in 2021. He also believed that if the regulatory regime was proven to be at fault, then there was a case for government involvement in fixing issues in private high-rise flats.
“Part of the problem is that we lost public sector capacity to build houses ourselves, and that is something we have to regain because what they (developers) have now is a monopoly over us, and they don’t care. We have all met with them from time to time. We have these pointless meetings where it’s almost like meeting with banks to talk about bank closures. You’re meeting with some of these housing companies to talk about the housing problems they have, and you sit down and, yes, you get a lot of supportive nodding of the head, but nothing changes.”
– Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd)
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) made many points. Firstly, that builders should be a regulated profession as, currently, anyone can set up as a builder. Secondly, the reputation of developers should be a material consideration in planning applications. Finally, she repeated calls she recently made for a windfall tax on developers to fund work to fix fire safety issues.
Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), called back to his committee’s fire safety inquiry which called for detailed surveys of all high-rise residential buildings. The Welsh Government accepted that recommendation in principle, but it seemingly hasn’t been mentioned since.
The Minister didn’t rule anything in or out in terms of retrofitting or survey work, but the right people and capacity within local authorities needed to be in place first.