On 14 June of this year a small group of Welsh Cladiators assembled inside the Welsh Senedd reception area to remember the 72 victims and families of the horrific 2017 Grenfell tragedy. They were joined by a small group of supportive Senedd Members including Welsh Liberal Democrats leader Jane Dodds, Welsh Conservative housing lead Janet Finch Saunders, and independent MS Rhys ab Owen. Sadly and rather depressingly, no Welsh Labour MS attended the event. For many attending, this was yet another example of Welsh Government failure to support and advocate for innocent citizens fighting a huge social injustice.
While the devastating horrors of Grenfell can in no way be compared to the difficulties facing thousands of Welsh fire cladding victims, they do in many ways face the same systemic failure in both corporate and public policy governance. This shocking failure continues to this day. No one has so far been held to account for a disaster that was predicted by many. An inexplicable and long-running gulf in policy between the Welsh and UK governments means it could happen again.
The Celestia Management Company
Housing is a devolved Welsh Government responsibility. Following Grenfell, it was not long before Welsh fire and rescue services started inspecting developments across Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport, and issuing legally enforceable Fire Enforcement Notices (FENs) against developments and their responsible persons.
In March 2019, Laing O’Rourke reported to the directors of the Celestia Management Company that the 457-apartment development they built for Redrow in 2006-2007 in the heart of Cardiff Bay might be missing external wall fire breaks. This Laing O’Rourke email triggered years of conflict and costly legal proceedings between some developers and innocent leaseholders in Wales.
The immediate response of the Welsh Government to the emerging crisis was one of distance and hesitation. It repeatedly advised the Celestia Management Company that disputes over the build quality and fire resistance of the development were a private and civil matter. As such, it could only play an intermediary or facilitator role.
Even as the scale of the fallout of Grenfell became a huge political scandal in England, the Welsh Government continued its pedestrian approach to the crisis. Housing Minister Julie James made repeated Senedd statements that “sadly” the Welsh Government lacked any legal powers to force developers to remediate their unsafe Welsh homes. This angered many victims, as the Welsh Government had in recent years purchased Cardiff Airport, privatised Welsh railways, instituted ground-breaking laws concerning citizen organ donations, cancelled the M4 relief road, and locked down the entire country due to Covid-19.
The idea that our devolved government could not compel a small group of hugely profitable developers – who benefitted and continue to benefit massively from a house building boom in South Wales – seemed incomprehensible. Was it simply evidence of a lack of political will? Subsequent situations clearly suggested so. It also became apparent that victims in Wales were caught up in an unsightly political ‘devolution, powers, and funding’ spat between Cardiff and Westminster.
An avenging angel
As the Welsh crisis stumbled along, in England it was supercharged when many thousands of high-rise buildings and their leaseholders were beset with a huge range of fire-related safety issues and exorbitant increases to service charge costs. Payments for 24/7 waking watches, new fire alarms, and increased insurance premiums led to the sacking of UK Housing Minister and so-called “developers’s friend” Robert Jenrick. With many victims unable to sell their properties and a UK victims’s campaign in full cry, Michael Gove was appointed Housing Minister in October 2021.
One Welsh Cladiator described Gove’s arrival to the crisis as akin to an avenging angel. Within a matter of months, he transformed the UK government’s approach and narrative. By threatening to put the “cartel” developers out of business and restricting future planning permissions, Gove brought developers to the table. After years of their deflection and denials of responsibility, Gove called their bluff.
Soon major developers were signing Gove’s pledge and subsequent legal contract to remediate their fire defective developments. He also created an enforcement agency along with legal powers (BSA 116-125) that would enable local authorities and fire service agencies to issue Remediation and Contribution Orders against developers and building owners who failed to remediate defective buildings.
Welsh Cladiators have repeatedly stated that the situation in England is by no means perfect and the rate of remediation far too slow. However, English victims do have legal remedies, and there is evidence they are starting to be utilised. The response of Julie James and the Welsh Government to this major shift in momentum was to criticise Gove for going it alone.
Then, to the absolute astonishment of Welsh victims, on 16 November 2022 the Welsh Labour Government conspired to defeat a Senedd cross-party proposal to introduce Michael Gove’s Building Safety Act provisions into Welsh law. It made a mockery of previous Senedd statements by Julie James about lacking legal powers to act. At the first opportunity to legislate in Wales, James blinked and backed off.
Unlike Gove, the Welsh Government has opted for a collaborative approach with an industry that many victims describe as toxic. Gove has used analogies from the Wild West to describe some of the practices that have gone on in the last decade or so. Our experiences in Wales are that it is an industry that has ‘ducked and dived’ its responsibilities for years. It often defends itself by utilising an arcane and feudal leaseholder legal system; one which many victims in both Wales and England describe as “fleecehold”.
Welsh Cladiators and Goliath
Most recently, Julie James announced as part of her collaborative approach that developers in Wales would have access to a £20mn interest-free loan to help with cash flows and “incentivise” them to remediate their fire defective homes. Victims have been left in bewilderment and astonishment at such generosity.
This is an industry that has made £31bn in profits in the last decade and generated a 30% return on capital. Many financial commentators have suggested that a 20% return would be more than acceptable. It’s also important to note that both the Welsh and UK governments’ Help to Buy policies have helped inflate both house prices and developer profits.
Throughout the crisis both Julie James and the First Minister have talked about the “Welsh context” and argued that what is right for England may not be right for Wales. Neither have ever explained what they mean by this. And when Gove created his developer “pledge”, James subsequently branded her very similar document a “pact”. For all the talk of “Welsh context and distinctiveness”, James copied Gove’s contract almost word for word.
The Welsh Government has seen fit to go about directly funding fire defective social housing while leaving private leaseholders to go it alone against rich and powerful developers. This two-track approach is indicative of what Welsh Cladiators perceive to be an indifferent and passive-aggressive approach towards private leaseholders in Wales.
In Cardiff Bay and Swansea Maritime Centre – where most high-rise buildings exist – there has been little Welsh Labour political representation for victims for the last six years. The failure of any Labour MS to attend the recent Grenfell Remembrance came as no surprise to many long-suffering victims and activists. As developers continue to drag their feet on remediation plans, our fight for justice continues. We face a long and uncertain future where safety in our homes is concerned.