How much will change for property management as a result of COVID-19 will depend on the extent to which each managing agent has already digitised their offering.
At Ringley, we have long had portals for clients, owners, tenants and contractors. We already use open book accounting with instant updates to spending against budget and every invoice is online, together with arrears reports, legal debt-chase action, risk assessments, insurance, quotes in progress, cleaning specifications and more. We also have e-post opt-in, e-signing for key documents and apps to power inspections. And our lettings business Life by Ringley has been using video viewings for a while now. So we have moved pretty seamlessly to remote working and our customers should have noticed very little change in the way our services are delivered
That said, apart from the way we work day-to-day, post-COVID-19, there may be changes to the wider workplace that couldn’t have been foreseen a couple of months ago. So what will be the next normal? The pandemic will surely accelerate the decrease in space requirements per person. It is also causing the analysts among us to review and find more ways to exclude paper and print from our processes.
Ringley Group MD Maryanne Bowring believes that, for the foreseeable future, it is doubtful whether any company can expect all their people to work in the office five days a week: “To me, it seems simpler to have a whole department out at the same time, rather than not knowing who to expect in the office each day. More casual arrangements are not the most efficient way of working,” she says.
“However,” she adds: “I do know that while we are all working in isolation, many of our people are reflecting on the value that attending the workplace, sharing lunch and being part of a face-to-face physical team brings”.
What has changed for you during lockdown? Leave us a comment and start the conversation.
Essential safety work to replace unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings will continue during the COVID-19 emergency, following a commitment from Mayors around the country to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP yesterday.
The Mayors of Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, London, Liverpool City Region, and the West Midlands have all pledged to ensure vital safety work can continue on high-rise blocks with dangerous cladding, where necessary social distancing rules are being followed.
A number of sites across the country have been leading the way, adapting
their procedures in ways that include:
having decontamination areas on-site, enabling workers to hose down overalls before safe disposal
providing additional toilet and washing facilities, reducing the number of workers gathering together
splitting up work teams with a view to minimising the risk of infection.
In March, the Ministry of Housing appointed construction consultants Faithful & Gould to advise anyone planning and doing ACM cladding remediation work. The company will also help identify and increase awareness of safe practice under current COVID-19 restrictions.
The National Fire Chiefs Council has also published revised guidance for blocks with a waking watch in place, in the context of COVID-19. The NFCC is conscious that with people staying home for an extended period of time, there are likely to be more fires in blocks around the country. The guidance can be downloaded from the NFCC website here.
points from the guidance are that:
every effort should be made to maintain the waking watch at any premises in accordance with the guidance.
any premises with a waking watch should review their fire risk assessment and be in regular communication with the waking watch and residents.
Where one is not yet in place, a Common Fire Alarm should be installed.
The NFCC believes that anyone providing a waking watch should be considered a key worker, as they are providing vital public services and critical safety functions in order to keep homes safe.
Block managers and residents have voiced their concerns in recent weeks
about whether or not the safety checks in their buildings that are required by
law should still go ahead during the COVID-19 outbreak, given the need for social
The HSE has responded this week to questions about lifts, confirming that blocks must continue to meet the requirements of the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) and twice-yearly safety checks should still be carried out if at all possible.
The safety body does recognise how difficult it may be in some circumstances to carry out the required checks and tests, so it has set out some guidelines to help ensure that equipment remains safe to use, which you can read in full here. It’s important to note that the guidelines refer to “places of work” rather than specifically addressing the needs of residential buildings, but the rules are the same.
So, despite the problems being caused by COVID-19, it’s business as usual where lifts are concerned. But the HSE does say it will take “a pragmatic and proportionate approach” where blocks don’t comply with the statutory requirements if the breach is a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak.
This means that anyone who is considered a ‘dutyholder’ for the purposes of LOLER (and this could include building owners, block managers or RMC/ RTM Company directors) if challenged by HSE, must be able to demonstrate that they have made all reasonable attempts to have safety checks carried out, made a thorough assessment of the increased risk and taken appropriate action to manage it.
Finally, lifts that can’t be tested by the required date should only be used for “essential work” and where they can still be operated safely. Unfortunately, the HSE is not clear what that essential work might include. The Institute of Residential Property Management (IRPM) has asked for clarification on that point and we will pass that information on via this blog once they report back.
This week, both ARMA and the Government have issued formal
coronavirus guidance. Ringley will be circulating this information to our
clients and to directors of management companies. Below is a summary of the
most important points.
Payment of service charges and ground rent
While private and social renters will be protected from eviction for three months under upcoming legislation, and homeowners have the offer of mortgage repayment holidays, we are already being faced with leaseholders unwilling to consider service charges an essential payment. Ringley cannot agree to service charge payment holidays. This is because to keep your building running, we would need client or directors loans to cover shortfalls.
However, we want to share with you that ARMA is in discussions with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) about any current or future plans to introduce support for leaseholders so that service charges can still be paid to keep essential services going. Credit control and management of cash flow are vital in these challenging times. It is just possible that the suspension of all forfeiture cases could mean that lenders become more reluctant to pay arrears and protect their security, as it’s not at risk for three months, so this could have an impact on your accounts and cash flow.
Major works, maintenance, and inspections
Essential works, for example, repairs to leaking roofs, will continue for the time being. Plant Inspections – most suppliers are continuing plant inspection, testing and maintenance. We are monitoring this. Statutory fire testing – is still permitted and is arguably even more important at a time when most people are at home. Lifts – The government and HSE have both taken a more hard-line standpoint on the requirement for LOLER inspections, as a number of insurance companies have already stated that they will NOT be carrying out inspections (at least until lift engineers are designated as key workers). Unfortunately, the Government’s latest guidance is that if we are unable to get an inspection, the lift should be isolated from further use. Our Support Teams are now analysing this and will report any problems.
Supply chain issues
We are beginning to have some trouble in sourcing parts for repairs on-site as, for example, Jewsons and Travis Perkins have taken the view that Government advice requires them to close their outlets. Again Government is being approached for clarification on this.
EWS1 forms, building safety and remediation works
As we reported in this blog yesterday, making buildings safe, including progressing the remediation of high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding – and particularly those with unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding – remains a priority for the Government. The view is that this work is critical to public safety additional project management support has been put in place together with construction expertise to help oversee remediation. Read more here.
Key workers and essential services The full list of key workers can be found on the Government’s website here and continues to evolve. ARMA/BPF/IRPM/UKAA are working with the BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) to update the list of key personnel to take account of roles needed in high density residential dwellings. James Brokenshire, Minister of State for Security at the Home Office, has extended key worker status to all security and fire safety personnel who are actively working to improve public safety. Waking watches must be maintained as usual, but Competent Persons and Fire Safety Officers must observe social distancing guidance. Should we be notified of sickness or people isolating in any of our buildings that affects a waking watch we will liaise with the local Fire & Rescue Service accordingly.
ARMA are awaiting an answer to their question regarding Key Workers for the Block Management industry. This was raised with the Secretary of State and Housing minister on 26 March.
Common areas and onsite facilities
Given the Government’s enforcement that we practice social distancing, ordering the closure of cafes, restaurants, clubs, bars, pubs, health clubs, and gyms, and other social venues to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19, we have had to severely restrict or close all your communal facilities and amenities with immediate effect. This includes gyms, residents lounges etc.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases in your building
Please do report to us if you are aware of a positive confirmed case of COVID-19 in your block. If a case is reported, we will be following the guidance from Public Health England on the cleaning required, the appropriate disposal of waste and cleaning materials, the disinfection of equipment and hard surfaces, and the personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn. You can read this here.
Please note that a deep clean of the communal areas may be required in accordance with guidance from PHE. This may result in an unbudgeted expenditure item to achieve this – but is not a choice – please consider it a requirement.
While the property industry focuses its attention on business continuity in the face of COVID-19, work is still going on to improve fire safety in buildings in England and Wales.
In March, the Fire Safety Bill began its passage through Parliament, amending the Fire Safety Order 2005: it was introduced to the House of Commons and given its First Reading on Thursday 19 March. The proposed legislation makes it clear that the responsible person or duty-holder for multi-occupied, residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for the structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows and the entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts.
aim is to empower fire and rescue services to take enforcement action and hold
building owners to account if they don’t comply with the new rules.
The Bill takes forward recommendations that came out of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase one report. It stated that building owners and managers of high-rise and multi-occupied residential buildings should be responsible for:
regular inspections of lifts and the reporting of results to the local fire and rescue services;
ensuring evacuation plans are reviewed and regularly updated and personal evacuation plans are in place for residents whose ability to evacuate may be compromised;
ensuring fire safety instructions are provided to residents in a form that they can reasonably be expected to understand; and
ensuring individual flat entrance doors, where the external walls of the building have unsafe cladding, comply with current standards.
The Bill will also give the Government the ability to amend the list of qualifying premises that fall within the scope of the Fire Safety Order by way of secondary legislation. The idea is to enable the Government to respond quickly to new developments in the design and construction of buildings.
Click here to track the Bill’s progress through Parliament.
The government has now confirmed that rather than enforcing a complete ban on evictions during the Coronavirus outbreak – as everyone in the industry thought – instead, the notice period for evictions is to change. The Coronavirus Act 2020– given Royal Assent on 25 March – simply extends the notice required.
Paperwork released overnight as the Act came into force, appears to confirm this, saying: “The prescribed forms that apply to secure tenancies have been changed to reflect the changes to possession procedures in the Coronavirus Act 2020. The amended forms now make it clear that court proceedings cannot begin earlier than three months from the date the notice is served.” Go to the Government website to see the updated Assured Tenancy forms and the Secured Tenancy forms.
In addition, a Section 21 (no fault) end of tenancy notice can still be served by landlords but cannot be progressed further and the Section 8 (breach) notice period has been extended from two weeks to two months.
All courts and tribunals are closed until at least 29 May 2020, with that date to be extended if necessary. However, some hearings are having telephone meetings to avoid any personal contact.
For anyone buying or selling their house, the current advice is that buyers and renters should, as far as possible, delay moving while emergency measures are in place. People who have already exchanged contracts should try to write a delay into their contract. However, the Conveyancing Association is seeking ‘urgent guidance’ from the government as to whether moving house is deemed ‘essential’ under the new regulations now in force. Removal services have been deemed non-essential, so if people really have to move they are likely to be doing it themselves – and should use social distancing at all times.
Finally, one positive is that hotel apartment lets are
coming back onto the market to be let as tenancies.
As the spread of Covid-19 continues, we are keen to reassure all our customers that the wellbeing of our clients and employees is at the forefront of everything we do. We will, of course, continue to adhere strictly to Government advice, while switching to our business continuity protocols. We are all dealing with difficult times and we hope you are managing to stay safe.
Today we are setting out details of our business continuity plan so you can see that Ringley continues to operate as usual and that steps are being taken to protect the wellbeing of everyone involved with our organisation. Our IT suite includes cloud data/web portals, cloud phones, chat groups and conferencing with encrypted data-sharing platforms. Reporting protocols for off-site working are also now in place.
First, the stuff you should already know. With Coronavirus now spreading fast, in addition to an increased focus on personal hygiene, washing your hands for 20 seconds, we recommend that you also go beyond just a simple vacuum and wipe down at home focusing on metal and non-porous surfaces: doors, cutlery and crockery being passed by others are particular risks.
And some stuff you might not have heard. Some countries are suggesting when you come home you should remove your outer clothes for washing and go shower – especially if you have a person in a high-risk category in your house.
The biggest issue for apartment blocks is door handles. They have the largest transmission risk as everybody touches them. Contract cleaning is often done at best weekly, so it might be time to think about community-led initiatives to wipe down door handles regularly with anti-bacterial wipes or spray and clean other parts of the building that are touched regularly, like building exit buttons.
It is very important that we know about confirmed cases quickly so please report this to your Relationship Manager. If there is a serious outbreak in your block we have sourced cleaners who can carry out fogging or misting with disinfectant as part of a deep clean. It is not cheap and costs about £7 per sqft, but could constitute a reserve fund spend if really necessary. So please do report to us if you or your family actually have coronavirus – so that we can at least discuss the risks with your landlord and make a decision.
An Advice Note has been sent out to all staff employed on-site – as well as an explanation to clients regarding payment arrangements for site staff.
And we haven’t forgotten about protection for visiting contractors. We have sent all clients an advice note and suggestions about providing washing facilities for contractors visiting blocks including gardeners. For those whose sites require a gardening sign-off sheet, we have accepted notification from some contractors that they have advised their staff not to enter buildings where their routine duties do not require it.
And finally, it is important to remember that we are all human and at risk, so our thoughts are very much with those who have been affected and continue to be affected by this virus around the world.
From today, Ringley’s London office has closed its doors in order to safeguard our staff and customers. All our people are set up to work from home – with a skeleton staff coming in to scan post and contractor invoices.
We already have an electronic post system, so staff are used to post being distributed to team members this way. For outgoing post, all customers are being sent ‘Opt-in to e-post’ daily to ensure they can receive everything they would normally get. And if you are worried about management company post, don’t be. Statute permits electronic post for company matters for all companies established after the Companies Act 1985 – not a lot of people know that!
All budgets are enabled for e-signing already as we have been phasing this in over the last nine months, and service charge accounts have been brought to the top of the e-signing list for final accounts. In the short term, under the Landlord and Tenant Act customers can email their consent and a Ringley Director can sign on their behalf.
Bank reconciliations and contractor payments will continue off-site and all our contractors have been reminded that Ringley supports e-procurement. So as long as they do too, there should be no hindrance to getting them paid as usual.
To support residents in their homes, guidelines have been given to on-site staff and contractors on precautions, waste handling and cleaning in accordance with government advice, which you can see here.
And finally, we have added an extra stage to our arrears process – which is a draft letter for leaseholders to send to their mortgage company to claim their three-month mortgage repayment holiday, as paying service charges is vital to keep buildings insured and things looked after.
As always we will be keeping you updated via this blog, so watch this space in the coming days and weeks as we all work to keep your blocks running smoothly.
New Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivers his first budget tomorrow. Here are the issues that Ringley Group MD Maryanne Bowring is hoping he will address.
breaks for those supporting housing provision
Re-zoning for all our ailing high streets and government investment in master planning to promote housing, Planning Development rights and subsidies or business rates linked to turnover (aka turnover rates) to encourage leisure, cafe and restaurant businesses back into town centres.
Capital gains tax breaks for those who choose to sell properties to tenants.
Acknowledgment that private landlords are contributing to housing supply. Allow interest deductions on borrowings to be fully relievable where homes are built or created by intensifying the use (sub-dividing a larger property), or extending a new property – thereby supporting landlords who have created new supply by bringing new dwellings into Council Tax
Refund, by way of a tax credit, the 3% Stamp Duty Land Tax surcharge payable by those who own multiple properties if and when the property purchased is converted, extended or remodelled and assessed by Council Tax authorities to comprise new dwellings
Enable schools to offer four-year apprenticeship schemes from age 14 as an alternative to GCSEs. This would help keep up with the need to employ one new construction professional every 77 seconds to meet the UK’s housing and infrastructure needs.
Give councils the ability to issue ‘sell or develop orders’ on empty homes.
Make rent-to-buy dwellings a planning sub-set of affordable housing, with restrictions on sale of such schemes so that homes may only be sold to persons who have rented in the development for two or more years and so that the entire building may only be sold to a rent-to-buy investor.
Banks to increase the availability of development finance for modern methods of construction (such as modular and turnkey housing) for new homes – where the loan security effectively sits in the factory or the balance sheet of the modular supplier not the developer – otherwise the only modular developers will be those who can build their own factories, the government, Housing Associations and those who are funded by bonds or capital houses.
Tax breaks for developers building or converting buildings via change of use, and where there is a long-term environmental benefit, ie the standing asset is actively emitting oxygen and features, for example, green walls plus zero vat for service charge payers thereafter on green wall maintenance.
Restore equality for property versus other assets.
For domestic buyers only, make stamp duty a vendor cost not an acquisition premium.
Reimagine planning as a service: set a range of realistic time-based planning targets based on scheme size and mix, more funding for planning departments who meet reasonable time targets, and sanctions on those who don’t.
Align Capital Gains Tax on residential property, which for individuals is subject to 18% and 28% tax rates, when other asset classes are subject to just 10% and 20% rates
Increase stamp duty for overseas buyers.
In addition to these points, which are directly related to our sector, we would also like to see the Chancellor take broad action on climate change. As Greta says… if there is something wrong with your house then you fix it, so we need to go further to address climate change.
We call for:
A new specialist ‘climate survival’ government department that draws upon the skills of the Trading Standards and the Environment Department.
A national business index that measures the carbon footprint of every business, perhaps a banding system like EPCs, per industry classification tax breaks on e-business and other initiatives that reduce the carbon footprint/raise the business rating.
Abolish farmland set-aside subsidies and boost home grown food.
Address the supply chain to take plastic out of the shops, set a date for plastic bottles to be eliminated in the UK and tax plastic toys while giving tax breaks on sustainable toys.
Create a measure to calculate excessive packaging and fine companies that exceed the criteria.
Change the BREAM points-based new building system to have non-negotiable red lines on either wind or solar power provision and 100% e-charging car points.
Financial incentives to retro-fit and upgrade our housing stock via tax relief, for both homeowners and landlords who invest in energy efficiency improvements to our aging housing stock – subject to such improvements bringing the property up to a grade B or improving the property by 3 bands as evidenced by an updated EPC.
A national messaging campaign to clearly demonstrate how the government is (a) rewarding climate-responsible homeowners and landlords, and (b) is sending clear messages to industries that are not adapting and adopting pro-climate ways of operating that they will face phased-in higher taxation. Let the UK set an international example; a bi-product result will be a boost to domestic industry.
Finally, we fully support the First Homes scheme with its 30% lower deposit and mortgage requirements for local first-time-buyers, favouring veterans and key workers including nurses, police officers, and firefighters. We also agree with legislation to enforce the rule that such properties can only be sold to first time buyers, with restrictions at land registry to prevent re-sale to persons who do not similarly qualify. Such a scheme may only apply to new build properties at the outset but to enable re-sales necessarily will encompass second-hand stock.
We await the outcome of the Budget with interest. Despite the economic problems that we expect to face in the months to come as a result of the Coronavirus, we believe the new Chancellor has an opportunity to act with imagination and creativity, as well as with fiscal rigour, to tackle the issues we outline above.
We all now understand that the Coronavirus outbreak is going to get worse before it gets better: unfortunately, the ripple effects of the economic and social impact of the virus will be felt by all of us. So businesses and individuals need to be prepared.
As property managers, we are well aware that our clients and residents rely on us to keep their blocks running smoothly. If many of our staff are forced to self-isolate, our service to you will suffer. So we are busy putting contingencies in place to ensure that, as far as possible, we are able to carry on with business as usual.
In an increasingly connected world, many of us are able to work remotely, and Ringley staff are no exception. We have put in place a range of solutions to ensure that if our people have to stay at home, they can carry on working if well enough to do so. Relationship managers’ mobiles have been connected to the office network so that home phones operate as office phones, with all the same connectivity. And staff will have full access to all IT systems for accounts, billing and invoicing as usual.
However, there is only so much that any of us can do to keep calm and carry on. If we do find ourselves facing a full-blown epidemic, residents may have to be patient over issues such as repairs, which may not be carried out as quickly as usual. We are working to ensure that emergencies will still be covered and our 24-hour emergency phone line will continue to work as usual for the time being.
Of course, there are also things leaseholders can do to help themselves and their neighbours. First, make sure you’ve read the latest Public Health England advice and ensure notices are posted around your block reminding residents to wash their hands frequently, particularly when they come in from work, go to the bin store or the car park and so on.
As a nation, we Brits are proud of our ability to keep calm in a crisis and the Blitz spirit is often invoked. So now is the time to make sure you and your neighbours have each other’s mobile numbers, are aware of any residents in your block that may be particularly vulnerable and keep in touch with each other via your residents portal or website if you have one – or, if not, via social media.
If residents are having to stay at home and their neighbours are aware of that, they can pull together and help each other with shopping, collecting prescriptions or even cooking meals that can be left outside each other’s doors. One of the real benefits of the internet is that we can all keep in touch with no need to have any physical contact with each other and that may become very important in the weeks to come. Extreme times call for extreme measures and, who knows, we may find that a health crisis actually helps bring us together and build community in ways we never expected.
If in the next few weeks you do have to stop working for any length of time, and as a result, may have problems paying your service charge or rent, please contact us sooner rather than later. We will do our best to provide the right advice. And finally, read Friday’s Blog for more on protecting residents on-site.