Grenfell Tower and Wales: what happens next?

by Jennie Bibbings, Campaigns Manager

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.

London Assembly – Hidden homelessness report

Grenfell Tower and Wales: what happens next?