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After Grenfell: The response in Wales

Carl Sargeant, cabinet secretary for communities and children, outlines the steps being taken following Grenfell.

The tragic events as a result of the fire at Grenfell Tower in London last month have far reaching implications for Government, local authorities, registered social landlords and private landlords across the UK.

As cabinet secretary with responsibility for housing in Wales, as well as responsibility for fire and rescue services, I have tried to ensure our response to the tragedy and the issues emerging from it has been swift yet measured.

As a first step my officials contacted Welsh local authorities and registered social landlords to quickly assess the blocks of seven or more storeys in their ownership, whether these had been over-clad and, if so, what type of cladding had been used.

Following the initial investigations I was advised that whilst none of Wales’s social housing high-rise blocks use the type of cladding found in Grenfell Tower (ie Reynobond PE), Aluminum Composite Material (ACM) was identified in seven blocks. Samples from these have been tested and have failed.

Clearly this situation demands close cooperation by a range of agencies and services. Resident safety and peace of mind is the very highest priority for all organisations involved with this issue and I am pleased to say that all are working together effectively.

Along with others, the Welsh Government is absolutely committed to taking a measured and proportionate response that recognises the importance of tenants’ safety and peace of mind. They have understandable concerns that I am keen to deal with as quickly as possible.

In order to understand the experience and views of those living in the affected properties I visited tenants in some of those affected blocks in Swansea. Those discussions were positive and insightful and will be helpful in shaping our activity as we move forward. I was also able to explain the steps being taken to ensure that high-rise tower blocks are safe.

It is essential that Government action should be based on the best possible professional advice. Our excellent Fire and Rescue Services remain closely involved in supporting landlords and in ensuring that all proper and reasonable steps are taken to safeguard tenants. Their professional and measured approach to risk management and fire safety is crucial.

I have also announced that I would bring together a group to provide advice on the lessons learned from Grenfell and how we implement that advice. The Welsh Fire Safety Advisory Group is being chaired by my chief fire and rescue adviser, Des Tidbury, and includes the following members:

  • Steve Thomas – chief executive, Welsh Local Government Association
  • Ruth Marks – chief executive, Wales Council for Voluntary Action
  • Huw Jakeway – chief fire officer, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service
  • David Wilton – chief executive, Tenant Participation Advisory Service Cymru
  • Stuart Ropke – chief executive, Community Housing Cymru.

The group has had its first meeting and will be meeting regularly.

While the initial focus here and across the rest of the UK was on existing social housing the emphasis has widened to private housing and other buildings within the public sector. We are coordinating the responses from the education and health sectors. In relation to schools and colleges, guidance has been issued to local authorities and further education (FE) establishments confirming that only buildings within schools and FE colleges that included overnight accommodation or is above 18 metres in height need to be considered for testing for ACM.

We are also working closely with local authorities to identify private housing of seven storeys or more that may also have ACM cladding and will ensure that owners of those buildings can access the same advice and guidance, and testing where appropriate, as our social housing landlords.

At the time of writing, the UK Government’s independent expert panel on safety has advised further testing as the next step to be conducted in helping landlords to ensure the safety of their buildings. These tests will help establish how different types of ACM panels in combination with different types of insulation behave in a fire. The tests similar to the one carried out on behalf of the manufacturer of the cladding in use in Swansea.

This is welcome advice and will be helpful in considering whether panels that fail the initial test can be used safely as part of a wider building external wall system, and therefore could remain on a building under certain approved circumstances. I expect a further update on this from the UK Government imminently.

It is a fast-moving and complex picture but I am doing everything in my power to ensure we can improve safety measures and give reassurance to tenants with the full support and engagement of our partners including RSLs, local authorities and Fire and Rescue Services.

This article was written as WHQ went to press on July 6. A further update from the minister on the response to Grenfell Tower can be downloaded here

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