Almost two years on, the Grenfell Tower disaster continues to cast a shadow. Last November, the Communities Committee demanded a new fire safety law, though in January they were told one couldn’t be introduced during the Fifth Assembly.
Following a report into fire safety by Dame Judith Hackitt, the Welsh Government said they were considering how to implement her recommendations and AMs were provided with an update yesterday.
“A broad and helpful analysis”
An expert group report was published this week (pdf). Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), described it as “a broad and helpful analysis”. A full response from the government will be given in May, but there were a number of things the Minister could agree to now.
Firstly, the Welsh Government will consider any building 18 metres or above in height as “a high-risk high-rise building”; the Hackitt report recommendation was 30 metres.
Secondly, the Welsh Government will seek to promote the retrofitting of sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings – something already done for new-builds in Wales thanks to backbench legislation from Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd):
“One recommendation from the road map that I will accept here and now is that we promote the retrofitting of sprinklers. Hard evidence supports the sprinklers’ effectiveness in preventing fatalities….With our partners, we have previously identified the high-rise residential buildings in Wales that are 18m or more. We are now augmenting the database we shared with local authorities with robust information about the coverage in those buildings of sprinkler systems.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
Regulations are also set to be amended to ban combustible building materials being used in high-rise developments.
Current system “isn’t fit for purpose”
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said that in light of Grenfell it became clear the current system wasn’t fit for purpose. The Conservatives agreed entirely with the expert group’s recommendations.
Both himself and John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) repeated the recommendation of the Communities Committee calling for a new fire safety law – and the Minister accepted there may need to be legislative changes, though didn’t commit to a Bill.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) believed retrofitting shouldn’t be confined to high-rise buildings and could be extended to the private rental sector generally, adding that the UK was also one of the only nations in the world that doesn’t licence builders or building companies; did that need to change?
Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) later added that training and inspections required improvement – particularly electrical testing.
The Minister said retrofitting in the private rental sector could be looked at alongside decarbonisation of housing. Licensing the building industry was a valid point but will need to be looked at further. There’s a whole section in the expert group’s report dedicated to building inspections and the Minister said the entire system needed improvement, with builders, inspectors, approvers and the inspection itself all independent from each other.