For many people in Wales, what happened at Grenfell Tower brought back painful memories of Aberfan half a century ago.
Both tragedies involved safety failures leading to the deaths of many children and adults. Both involved working class communities who were completely ignored when they tried to warn that their lives were being put at risk by cost-cutting measures.
Both revealed, with devastating clarity, the scale of the power difference between individuals and the corporate interests that shape their lives.
And like Aberfan, the implications of Grenfell are likely to reach far into the future.
Within Wales, the reaction has been swift: the Welsh Government set up an expert group to examine all the lessons to emerge from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and what they mean for Wales. Housing associations have sought to reassure their tenants and the public that none of their high-rises have the same type of cladding as was used in Grenfell.
Despite this, however, we believe few landlords have so far sent samples of cladding for testing via the free service set up by the UK Government. This has led Carl Sergeant AM, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, to order social landlords to use the service if they suspect this type of cladding might have been used.
This is a highly welcome move in light of new information suggesting that two areas in Wales may have high-rises using that type of cladding.
Social tenants in Wales deserve solid test results, not verbal reassurances.
But what about the thousands of people in Wales who live in private high-rises, either as tenants or homeowners? What reassurances can they be given?
Back in 2011, Ann Jones AM came in for severe criticism for proposing legislation to make sprinklers mandatory in all new builds. Four years after the law was finally passed, those who opposed it increasingly seem on the wrong side of history.
But it’s not currently clear whether sprinklers would have averted the disaster at Grenfell. And there are many high-rises in Wales built before the law came into force.
The UK Government has now offered the free testing service to private high-rise building managers and owners.
In Wales, we are better placed to reach out to private landlords and agents via Rent Smart Wales – the new mandatory licensing regime.
Welsh Government’s assertive response to Grenfell could be continued and strengthened by ordering the private rented sector to get cladding tested.
Looking further ahead, when the Welsh Government’s long-delayed Fitness for Human Habitation Regulations are finally published for consultation later this year, a focus on fire safety – and, crucially, enforcement of tenants’ rights – will be incredibly important.
We also need to ensure that tenants’ views are taken seriously – a challenge that will undoubtedly be harder in the wake of recent funding cuts to grassroots tenant groups.
In the meantime, the people of Wales have carried out many acts of solidarity with Grenfell residents, raising funds, offering spare beds and emergency supplies.
Sometimes it’s hard to see history repeating itself.
Moving is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. Anyone who has had to move home will understand this, but put yourself in Emma’s shoes…
Imagine having to move with your child four times in three years, through no fault of your own. Worse yet, imagine that when you are searching for private rented properties they are either too expensive, too far away from your family and friends, or in a poor condition.
Imagine the relief you feel when you find a property in decent condition, affordable and in an area you and your family are familiar with. Now, just imagine for a minute how you would feel when the letting agent tells you, ’Sorry, it’s not suitable for children’.
This is a three bedroom house in a residential area.
Anyone who has recently had to look for private rented properties will be aware of the all-too-common ‘No DSS, No Pets, No Smokers’ restrictions. But with local private rented markets becoming increasingly competitive, some are now adding ‘No Children’ to the ever-growing list of undesirable tenant characteristics.
Emma’s story is not an isolated case. Evidence from our casework has highlighted that this is an increasingly common issue facing our private renter clients.
A quick property search online throws up plenty of examples including a four bedroom house , two bedroom ground floor flat and three bedroom house for rent in residential areas of Cardiff. Two of these are advertised as a ‘family home’, yet all include an extensive list of restrictions, including children.
So not quite a family home then?
Each of these properties would provide a lovely home for a family with gardens, local amenities and local schools. Why are they then off limits for children? Are there legitimate reasons, or are there judgements and assumptions being made about families that are putting children at increased risk of homelessness?
Considering around 112,000 children are living in private rented accommodation in Wales, this is a worrying trend. These restrictions make it increasingly difficult for families to access what is already an overheated market.
Our caseworkers are reporting that it is almost impossible for our clients to secure private rented accommodation, especially in Cardiff. This is adding to the length of time households spend homeless or in insecure and temporary housing.
The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 highlighted the need for the private rented sector to step up and play a key role in accommodating households in Wales. But the high demand for homes is clearly resulting in increasingly choosy landlords. This works against the Welsh Government’s wider aim to prevent homelessness.
Luckily, in the end Emma managed to find a new home. But after weeks of fruitless searching she had only 10 days to carry out the move, making what is already a highly stressful experience considerably harder.
The obvious solution to this problem – although far from a quick fix – is to invest heavily in social housing to take the heat out of the private rented market and force landlords to be a little less picky. This is a message that Welsh Government is acting on already. But tenants shouldn’t have to wait for years or even decades for market forces to shift in their favour.
What can we do about this now, in Wales? Rent Smart Wales has introduced mandatory landlord licensing, together with a Code of Practice that all landlords must follow. This would be an ideal vehicle for addressing discrimination against families – and given Welsh Government’s support for the rights of the child, including the right to housing, perhaps this is an issue where Wales should be taking the lead.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Welsh Government’s drive to improve private rented housing could give Emma’s child, and other children, a better chance of finding a good home?