Grenfell and beyond

The housing sector is now firmly in the Government's sights for reform says Nigel Howell, CEO of FirstPort:

The Communities Secretary, Rt Hon James Brokenshire’s announcement in January that he is to set up a new Housing Complaints Resolution Service was welcomed by FirstPort, the UK’s largest property manager.

“It’s vital to give customers more confidence if we’re going to answer the many questions being asked about the leasehold system and other parts of the housing market,” says Nigel Howell, Chief Executive at FirstPort Limited.

“This new resolution service could play an important role, if implemented effectively, and alongside further reforms.

“Many of the legal protections customers need are already in place, but there’s little awareness of them and they’re only accessible through complex and expensive tribunal processes.

“Clearer rights of redress are important, but we also need to drive up standards in areas beyond handling complaints. We support measures to protect leaseholders including the regulation of managing agents, a unified code of practice, greater clarity around service changes and fees, and mandatory professional qualifications for agents – all measures now under consideration by government.”

Dissatisfied homeowners and tenants will have simple and quick access to help when things go wrong according to the Communities Secretary. The new Housing Complaints Resolution Service will potentially help millions by providing a straight-forward way of getting help when faced with unresolved disputes about problems with their home – such as broken boilers and cracks in walls.

Unlike other sectors, such as Financial Services, the housing market has several different complaints bodies, with homeowners and tenants having to navigate their way through a complicated and bureaucratic system just to work out where to register a grievance.

Establishing a single housing complaints service for all residents – no matter whether they rent or own their home – should prevent people from battling with their landlord or builder to resolve issues on their own and make it easier to claim compensation where it’s owed.

Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, said: “Creating a housing market that works for everyone isn’t just about building homes – it’s about ensuring people can get the help they need when something goes wrong. But all too often the process can be confusing and overly bureaucratic, leaving many homeowners and tenants feeling like there is nowhere to go in the event of problems with their home.

“In the private rented sector, there is currently no obligation for landlords to register with a complaints system – leaving thousands of renters without any course for redress.”

To combat this, the Communities Secretary announced that private landlords will be legally required to become members of a redress scheme – with a fine of up to £5,000 if they fail to do so. And to protect the interests of home-owners who buy new build homes, government has also reiterated its commitment to establishing a New Homes Ombudsman which will champion home buyers, protect their interests and hold developers to account.

Legislation will be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity to require all new developers to belong to the Ombudsman – giving homebuyers the confidence that when they get the keys to a new home they are getting the quality of build they expect.

The Housing Complaints Resolution Service will be developed with a new Redress Reform Working Group made up of representatives from across the sector, working with industry and consumers.

What other reforms are expected?

Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy will lead to a much more robust regulatory framework. Some buildings have been built too quickly and cheaply according to the report, and relevant building safety information has not always been shared with all residents and owners.

The Review also found that it was not always clear who should take responsibility around fire safety responsibilities throughout the design, build and occupation stages of a building.

Following the Review, which is currently being examined in detail by 12 working groups, we can expect industry guidance and legislative change that will address these issues, ensuring responsibilities for fire safety are shared across the supply chain with clear handovers throughout the building lifecycle.

Building owners, called duty holders in the Review, will hold ultimate responsibility for fire safety in occupied buildings. They can delegate but not avoid these responsibilities, appointing others to discharge their obligations without walking away from them. For example, property managers such as FirstPort can act on their behalf as building safety manager.

Dame Judith is clear that this information – from initial design, to construction and all subsequent changes throughout occupation – should be held in a single repository. This is what is termed the ‘golden thread’, but it could equally be called ‘know your building better’. Owners should know what materials are on buildings, who the manufacturers are, whether the materials are combustible or not, why the building was designed the way it was and what kind of layers of protection are in place.

Following Grenfell most residents understand the importance of keeping their homes safe, but the relationship between owners and residents will need to be formalised. The Review recommends duty holders inform residents of their rights and responsibilities and help to educate them.

These guidelines and legislative changes will improve standards of fire safety in the industry. FirstPort has achieved British Safety Council five-star grading for the last two years. And it also welcomes an increasing role for residents. However, proposed regulatory change elsewhere could shift the balance towards a commonhold system in which residents have more control of the building. In terms of fire safety, that’s a real challenge as it can place serious responsibilities on officers of resident management companies. In the desire to empower residents these significant obligations around fire safety may be unduly onerous and something for which they are not prepared.

Finally there is the expense: wherever safety standards go up, the cost to put things right rises too. Who will bear the costs of complying with new regulations on retrospective buildings, which may have been built long ago by previous owners?

The government has yet to give definitive advice on that question. Dame Judith Hackitt has said she expects that by the middle of this year there will be new industry-wide guidance – but she has also said many times that the industry should not wait for that.

Nigel Howell concludes: “The government has a big role to play, but industry itself can take extra steps to comply with existing rules, empower residents and give input to government and decision-makers about what should be done going forward. The time for

change on fire safety is now.”

FirstPort is the UK’s largest residential property manager, overseeing 185,000 homes in England, Wales and Scotland across over 3,900 developments. It is the market leading operator, with four decades of experience and 3,000 employees working with developers, investors, freeholders and over 200 Resident Management Companies.

Reviewed: July 2019