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28/09/2018

Why we must all work together post-Grenfell

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Tower blocks

Dame Judith Hackitt's review into building safety post-Grenfell is welcome, but will her proposals be workable? Dr Nigel Glen suggests that collaboration is the key

After the Grenfell tragedy there are two main streams of work the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA) is engaged in with government. The first stream, concerns what to do about those current buildings with Grenfell-type cladding and the second looks to the future and how to deliver the sort of building reforms that the Dame Judith Hackitt review put forward.

It is very encouraging to see government and industry working so closely together to find ways forward for the benefit of consumers. Almost immediately after Grenfell, ARMA realised there would be an extra dimension to the leasehold sector that wouldn't be seen in the social or build-to-rent sectors.

In the latter two cases funding for cladding remediation would come either from a central pot of money or from a company's balance sheet. However, in leasehold, the financial burden would most likely fall on the leaseholders themselves – a view supported by the (few) cases that have been ruled upon to date.

"It seemed obvious that ‘something’ had to be done to get buildings safe first and foremost and worry about who pays at a later date"

ARMA highlighted to the government that, due to the large sums involved, there would be inevitable delays in remediation, while the various parties involved pursued their legal options. These delays could stretch out for years, over which time thousands of people would be living in potentially unsafe buildings, unable to sell or move, whilst facing calls for large sums of money – a very stressful position to be in.

It seemed obvious that ‘something’ had to be done to get buildings safe first and foremost and worry about who pays at a later date, and that this ‘something’ could realistically only be done by government. ARMA publicly asked for government loans to be made available and for remediation to be taken into a national programme rather than on block-by-block basis.

ARMA founded a Fire Safety in High-Rise Buildings Group, comprising those managing agents looking after affected buildings, allowing best practice to be swapped between firms and providing data to the government on the scale of the problem and an estimate of the cost. Earlier this year the Secretary of State called together an industry group and we have all been working hard to find a way forward.

The second stream involves a number of working groups that are looking at how to deliver Dame Judith's vision. As always, the devil is in the detail. To give just one example, Dame Judith recommends that High Risk Residential Buildings (HRRB) should have a Building Safety Manager (BSM), with the latter being an individual whose contact details are available to everyone in the development and who is responsible for ensuring that the building as a whole is safe.

"Once you start to dig deeper questions inevitably arise. Is the role purely fire related or is it much broader?"

All agree that this seems a very sensible recommendation. However, once you start to dig deeper questions inevitably arise. Is the role purely fire related or is it much broader and including health and safety as well? How likely are you to find a single individual who spans both disciplines at a requisite level of expertise? Such people are likely to be rare and highly qualified. So, what happens if there aren't enough to go around? Will a new HRRB be allowed to be occupied without a BSM? Will this affect the buildings insurance? What about existing HRRBs?

Furthermore, when one considers the requirement that everyone in a development should have access to the BSM, it means that you will likely need one per development to ensure effective communication. Being rare, competitively sought after and highly qualified will almost certainly mean expensive, and so will leaseholders be happy to receive a potentially large increase in their service charges to pay for the BSM? (One would hope so, but the question still needs to be considered).

On a practical note, if the BSM is responsible for the safety of the building as a whole, how will they gain access to flats to make sure any internal work that a resident has done hasn’t compromised the safety of the building? What powers will the BSM need in order to do so? If the BSM is responsible for safety does that mean they are criminally liable should anything go wrong? Would a suitable candidate be prepared to take on a position with such potential liability?

This may all sound negative, but it shouldn't be seen that way. In order to make something work you have to try to foresee any difficulties that can arise and work out ways to accommodate them in advance. These are the intensive discussions that are being held so that safer homes can be delivered.

Dr Nigel Glen is chief executive of ARMA (The Association of Residential Managing Agents)

Photo | iStock

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