Building safety should not be left up to residents

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Building safety reform may leave leaseholders with more responsibility than they want

DAre you happy to shoulder the responsibility for building safety in your block? If not, you’re not alone. According to new research published this week and commissioned by freeholders the Savanta Group, around 75% of more than 1,000 leaseholders they surveyed are concerned about the new obligations they could be landed with as a result of the Government’s building safety reforms.

The research reveals that most leaseholders are satisfied with their current level of rights and responsibilities. But they are concerned that the new building safety obligations outlined in the draft building safety bill last week, would be a “disaster” if left to residents. And one in three even went so far as to say that if they are faced with additional responsibilities for building safety, they would be more likely to sell their property than before.

The proposed reforms, if translated into law, could radically increase the financial, legal and even criminal obligations associated with building management and include the creation of an “Accountable Person”, in charge of building safety. Residents could find themselves forced to take on this position, which involves considerable liability, should freeholders exit the market as a result of the proposed abolition of ground rent.  Is this simply not too much for residents who may be expert in their own right but not in property?  And even the very best property manager is not an engineer or facilities manager either!   So essentially all this means extra fees for leaseholders. And with the new government push towards commonhold, without the role of professional landlord, then what will prevail?

As well as the draft safety bill, last week saw the publication of the Law Commission’s report into leasehold reform, which promotes commonhold as the preferred alternative to leasehold and which would bring in a new model of shared ownership and responsibility in residential blocks.

Although 1,000 leaseholders out of the estimated 4.5 million flat owners in England is a small sample, what this latest research from Savanta tells us is that very few residents have any real interest in shouldering the burden of managing their block. They are rightly concerned that they would end up being responsible for “keeping on top of fire and safety management” which, as any property manager will tell you, is a job for a professional. In fact, our view, along with that of the Institute of Residential Property Management is that, under the new building safety regime, the role of ‘Accountable Person’ is not a role for a property manager, who in any case would struggle to get enough professional indemnity insurance to allow them to carry it out.  In truth, it is the fire safety profession that is growing – and even then property managers will have yet more to coordinate and manage.

In fact, although freeholders are largely out of favour in the current climate, they are far better placed to take on the responsibilities set out in draft bill. There are plenty of good, responsible freeholders in the property market who are well equipped – and funded – to take on problems such as building disrepair and conflict between residents. They are also able to take whole-building decisions that would be impossible for leaseholders to tackle.

All a leaseholder asks is to live in a well-maintained building that has been constructed in accordance with the building regulations, which is managed properly and retains its value. They should not be expected to shoulder the responsibility of keeping their building and their neighbours safe too. Now, it seems inevitable that they will have to shoulder the cost!
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