Surveyors have found several fire safety risks at an apartment complex in Cardiff Bay, with flammable polystyrene in the walls and a lack of adequate fire barriers.
Residents living at Victoria Wharf are facing bills of thousands of pounds to pay for increased insurance premiums and works to make their homes safe from the risk of fire, while Senedd members are calling on the Welsh Government and the original builders of the apartments to help the Victoria Wharf residents.
The apartment complex, made up of 459 flats spread over seven buildings, was built by Taylor Woodrow Construction and was finished in 2008.
In August last year, external surveyors found some of the cladding was made of flammable polystyrene. They also found a lack of internal barriers to stop fires from spreading throughout the building, known as ‘compartmentalisation’.
Some of this flammable polystyrene is exposed on the ground floor of the building, in a smoking area. The surveyors said this was “extremely concerning”, due to the “extremely high” risk of a lit cigarette butt catching the polystyrene alight.
Pictures taken recently of this exposed polystyrene show two cigarette butts just millimetres away.
Residents have been left paying thousands of pounds extra on their yearly service charge, as the buildings are now “challenging” to insure. Other mounting costs include paying for waking watches and new fire-detecting heat sensors. The total cost of removing the cladding could come to £28 million, one resident claimed.
David Murphy, a Royal Navy veteran, lives at Victoria Wharf and said the financial pressure has led him to seek support from military charities. He said: “I served my country for nearly nine years in the Royal Navy, during the Cold War.
“I feel like I’ve got a gun against my head without redress, apart from ‘pay up’. I’m potentially facing redundancy in November … if that happens I will not have any money to pay anything.
“I am looking at military charities for support as a veteran, to see what assistance I can get from them.”
Peter Larwood, a retired fraud investigator, chairs the Victoria Wharf Residents’ Association. After a career spent investigating fraud for Santander, the NHS and the MOD, he is now leading the campaign “for justice and safety”.
Mr Larwood said many residents are struggling financially after being hit by the extra costs, and are unable to sell the flats due to the fire safety issues. He said: “People invested their life savings into these homes and have had this risk hanging over their heads. People are telling me ‘I’ve got no more money, I don’t know what to do’.
“Taylor Wimpey should pay the whole costs. They built it with defects.”
Taylor Wimpey said they have “no ownership or legal interest” in Victoria Wharf, despite then owning the construction company that built the flats. Instead, the fees are paid by residents, through a service charge to property management company FirstPort.
To help pay to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings, the UK government put aside funding after the Grenfell Tower fire. But the extra funding received in Wales because of this was spent instead on fighting the coronavirus, according to an email from the Welsh Government to a Victoria Wharf resident.
The email said: “The UK Government has announced funding for the removal of unsafe cladding from residential buildings taller than 18 metres; this funding is in relation to both non-compliant aluminium composite material cladding, and a more general fund for other types of cladding.
“While the Welsh Government will receive some consequential funding, it is for Welsh ministers to decide how this money will be spent in Wales. During the pandemic, additional funding is being targeted at our Covid-19 response and so there is currently no funding available in Wales for the remediation of cladding or any other building defects.”
The elections in May are also causing a delay to any current action by the Welsh Government, according to Lynda Thorne, Cardiff council cabinet member for housing, in an email to a Victoria Wharf resident.
Cllr Thorne said: “[Housing minister Julie James] is committed to putting legislation in place to address the issues. The problem is that members of Welsh Government are up for election in May next year, and so although she is committed, everything depends on the results of those elections.
“If Labour win the majority of seats, then they can introduce [legislation] to protect leaseholders. My officers and I are committed to supporting leaseholders however we can, but until the legislation is changed there is little we can do.
“I am sorry this is probably not giving you much comfort for an immediate solution.”
Senedd members are now calling on the Welsh Government and Taylor Wimpey to take responsibility for the problem.
Neil McEvoy MS, leader of the Welsh National Party, filmed a video about the cladding at Victoria Wharf and the impact on residents. He said: “The video has shocked a lot of people. You’ve got people who can’t sleep at night, because if there is a fire in the block, they could be burned alive.
“We can’t underestimate the mental challenges people are having to live with in those properties. Some people have spent their life savings to buy their dream home, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
“The Welsh Government has the responsibility to make sure the developers put it right. We’re going to make sure the government realises the responsibility it has to people all over Wales. There’s up to 160 blocks in the same situation. We’re going to make sure that someone takes responsibility.”
Andrew RT Davies MS, former leader of the Welsh Tories, has also met with residents at Victoria Wharf and is meeting with Welsh Government officials this week to discuss the issue.
He said the money put aside by Westminster, for remediating unsafe buildings after the Grenfell Tower fire, should have been used in Wales to help people in situations such as those at Victoria Wharf.
Mr Davies said: “There is a moral obligation, because this is about people’s lives. People bought these properties in good faith, thinking they were built to a certain standard and quality. They should have the right to be protected by the law.
“It’s the biggest purchase people make in their lives. Your heart goes out when you hear the stress and duress they’re under, with demands for extra payments to put things right that were no fault of their own. The whole situation is deeply troubling.
“We need a combined approach to sort it out. The developers and management company need to play their roles to make these properties safe to live in. People feel like prisoners in their own homes, and they feel trapped. It has to be resolved.”
Across Wales there could be up to 148 high-rise buildings affected with similar cladding issues, according to Cerys Owen, a Victoria Wharf resident who has set up the Wales Leaseholder Action Group.
Ms Owen said she founded the group to bring together people across Wales who have found their homes were built with unsafe cladding, and create a louder voice as a larger group.
Ms Owen said: “As Victoria Wharf, we’re able to make a bit of noise, and some Senedd members have come and supported us. But it hasn’t been enough to get action from the likes of Julie James.
“The fire safety and cladding issues aren’t really seen as a big issue in Wales. Because of that, we’re not getting the support we need to help us out of the awful situation we’re finding ourselves in.
“There are 148 high rise buildings in Wales that could potentially be impacted by these fire safety issues, and there are also smaller buildings potentially impacted not included in this list.”
Cardiff council confirmed it signed off the complex as complying with building regulations. A spokesperson said: “The local authority was chosen by the developer to sign off the building and all procedures were followed at that time, in line with the Building Regulations (as amended) applicable at the time of design and construction.”
A FirstPort spokesperson said the company took a “difficult but necessary decision” to charge the residents the extra costs “to keep them and their building safe”, including surveys, increased insurance premiums, and urgent safety measures.
The spokesperson said: “We understand how unwelcome these additional costs are for residents and we have been doing everything possible to support them in seeking any alternative sources of funding to resolve the fire safety issues.”
A Taylor Wimpey spokesperson said: “Although we have no ownership or legal interest in Victoria Wharf, we are in ongoing discussions with FirstPort, the Management Company of Victoria Wharf, in relation to its review of the fire safety of the buildings at this development.”
The spokesperson added that the buildings at Victoria Wharf were designed to meet the 2000 Building Regulations, and received unconditional sign off from Building Control at the time of construction.
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We fully recognise the concern this is causing residents. Whilst we have no means to compel building owners to undertake remedial work at their own expense, we continue to work with our partners, including Cardiff Council and South Wales Fire and Rescue Services to introduce practical measures to mitigate risks where possible.
“It is for Welsh Ministers to decide how consequential funding will be spent in Wales. During the pandemic, additional funding is being targeted at our Covid-19 response. As a result, there is no funding currently available for the remediation of cladding or any other building defects.”