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A Storm on the Horizon for Building Safety and Property Management

In the two months since the Building Safety Bill was presented to Parliament by former housing secretary Robert Jenrick, experts have warned of a building safety and property management storm brewing on the horizon.

In this article, we look at the recent events that gave rise to this bill, the changes to fire safety legislation, and what they might mean for stakeholders going forward.

Anyone with even a passing relationship to building safety or property management looks set for a challenging few months ahead.

The Building Safety Bill, which recently had its second reading in the House of Commons, is sure to force changes in building safety and regulation, an issue under close observation in recent years due to high profile tragedies like the Grenfell Tower disaster, and an endemic fear of corruption in the public sector.

Though the bill has been welcomed by many as a significant first step in the right direction, some in the industry have been critical of its shortcomings.

The Law Society has recently raised its concerns, chiefly among which was the fact that the bill will only apply to new leases, leaving existing leaseholders in a precarious position with escalating ground rents and the rising fear of unchecked building and fire safety issues.

As of September 9th, the Building Safety Bill is in its committee stage, where it is reviewed in depth before amendments are proposed, reported and debated in the Commons. Amendments to the bill, which as yet has no firm date to be enacted, is certain to change guidance at a rapid pace between now and then.

Stakeholders must ensure that they are well versed in the nuances and developing changes, or they might risk falling foul of updates to the legislation over the coming months as they struggle to meet the demands.

The housing demand

The pandemic has dramatically altered working habits. So much so, that businesses are seeing the benefits of remote working without incurring the costs of brick and mortar offices and all the associated overheads.

Because of this, developers are capitalising on an opportunity to address the demand for housing by converting disused and stricken commercial spaces caught in stasis, a move welcomed by the Government.

With the recent cabinet reshuffle, the pressure is mounting on the Government to reach its target of 300,000 new homes per year, a promise on the precipice of failure if the current timeframes, supply pipelines and the shortage of skilled workers are anything to go by.

Perhaps the conversion of commercial spaces will help change that outlook and ease the pressure, while at the same time reviving and refreshing communities, failing high streets and dormant business districts across the country.

But despite the opportunity presented by the relaxation of the rules, which the Government has granted for the express purpose of converting existing developments, property owners and building managers are to be mindful.

If stakeholders are not diligent in the pursuit of a low-cost conversion, the rush to rejuvenate may inadvertently allow important safety guidelines to fall by the wayside, leaving risks such as those identified by the Fire Door Inspection Scheme.

Fire safety under the microscope

The FDIS recently published findings announcing that over three-quarters (76%) of fire doors failed tests in 2019, with 30% of fire doors outright condemned for several reasons, such as gaps around the frame, non-compliant materials, and sub-standard installations.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire claimed 72 lives in June 2017, fire safety has been under intense scrutiny. At the time, investigations found numerous instances of failing fire protection equipment, fire doors included; many were found to be wedged open with broken self-closing mechanisms, rendering them useless.

However, as the glare of the spotlight intensifies, so too does the effort of experts and consultancy groups keen to identify potential issues and risks associated with fire safety in advance.

One property consultancy has said that it has identified the next big issue, a potential “landmine” in building safety.

A building safety landmine

Mary-Anne Bowring, group managing director at Ringley Group, says that legislative shortcomings have been addressed in the Fire Safety Act 2021, with new rules and guidance introduced regarding fire door inspection among other important safety concerns. The Act has amended the existing fire safety rules to include “fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancies”, alongside “the external walls of the building, including cladding”.

The latter, of course, was of particular concern post-Grenfell, but it was felt by many that the former was overlooked until the amendment. Bowring fears that the amendments will trigger higher costs for leaseholders already struggling, and has signalled it as the next “landmine” to cautiously navigate in the ongoing building safety saga.

Speaking to Letting Agent Today, Bowring said: “Leaseholders burdened with the costs of remediation are stranded once again in the minefield of building and fire safety legislation, awaiting the detonation of the next issue left unsolved.

“While it’s important that correct fire doors are installed in all buildings, never mind high rises, without a more comprehensive commitment to financial assistance as we see in Wales leaseholders will be forced to bear the costs demanded of more stringent inspections.”

What can be done?

To identify potential fire safety hazards aside from steps like evaluating and protecting those at risk, planning for regular reviews and preparing pre-planned procedures, there will certainly be a heightened emphasis on the recording and informing of any and all details regarding building and fire safety.

Unless property managers and those handling building and fire safety are quick to adopt a sound process for inspections and building management, as well as an up-to-the-minute understanding of the rapidly changing guidance and legislation, we might well see those costs inflate for all stakeholders.

In addition to this, and arguably of greater importance, is the growing risk of fire and safety issues. These simply cannot be sidestepped or overlooked.

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