Building a safer future

No one will ever forget the awful scenes at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington on 14 June 2017 and all would agree that we should lessons from this disaster. The Government have very recently (Dec 2018) produced a document entitled Building a Safer Future which details some of the fire safety measures that are being considered for implementation and many of these measures are relevant to property investors.

There is going to be an overhaul of Approved Document B of the Building Regulations. This is the section which deals with fire safety and whilst comprehensive changes are coming in respect of High Rise Residential Buildings (HRRB), it is likely that measures for other property types will also be introduced.

Central also to this document is the suggestion that Fire Risk Assessments should be undertaken on an annual basis rather than just “regularly” as is currently the case. Indeed those undertaking the Assessments will, following government changes, need to be Approved Inspectors and have the “relevant skills, knowledge and experience” to assess the risks.  This is a welcome clarification as clearly it is preferable to have a survey undertaken by someone who knows what they are doing.

Another likely and welcome change is what the report refers to as “digital by default”. This is the idea that all risk assessments and documents pertaining to a property are held electronically and available for inspection by any of the residents to which they relate. This drive for further transparency is a welcome one and something which will not alarm compliant landlords.

I have often wondered why a central database is not available to host EPCs, Gas Safety Records, Legionella Reports and Fire Risk Assessments.  It would make the job of the landlord and Letting Agent so much easier! It may be that this concept is now going to start to gain traction.

There is also to be an addition to the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) relating to fire precaution. This is important as landlords will be aware that if any hazard is identified by the Local Authority, they can issue an enforcement notice and effectively remove your right to serve notice on the tenant until the issue is rectified.

There is some considerable consultation currently being undertaken by the government with regulatory bodies, resident groups, fire safety experts and the like prior to further legislative changes being introduced. I understand that many of these discussions are scheduled for Spring of this year.

As far as property investment is concerned I think the issue is twofold. Firstly, Landlords will need to ensure their existing properties have sufficient and operational fire safety measures. Legislative changes are doubtless coming in which will give better prosecuting powers to the authorities and this in conjunction with the proposed strengthening of “consumer redress for the housing market” which is detailed in the report, will mean that non compliant landlords will find it increasingly difficult to stay off the radar.

For those who think they are compliant I would urge you to review your existing property holdings. By way of an example whilst undertaking Building Surveys, I have seen two mid terrace properties in the last month where there was no fire wall in the loft space separating the dwellings. The absence of a separation wall will allow a fire to spread much more quickly, cause more damage and more importantly pose a greater risk to the building occupiers. Both properties had a mains smoke detector on each floor and so I suspect both were owned by a well intentioned landlord, who simply had not undertaken a thorough inspection of their premises nor employed a competent Risk Assessor to undertake an inspection.

The second issue will be the due diligence process that you undertake prior to acquiring a property. Additional consideration should be given in terms of how fire precaution can be undertaken paying particular note of those areas which separate different units or units from a communal area. Furthermore I imagine many of you will want to source specialist advice in the event that you are considering a HRRB or even a standard property with some different construction materials such as framing, uPVC cladding, spandrel panels and the like. If the revised Approved Document B cannot be complied with then the property is unlikely to be allowed to be let. You should therefore have an understanding of the likely costs to obtain such compliance.

It is right that fire precaution is at the front of our minds when dealing with tenanted property and so I am broadly in support of the proposed measures.  Grenfell Tower represented the largest loss of life ever witnessed in the UK in a residential setting and we therefore need to ensure that such a disaster can never happen again.