It’s official. Building maintenance must continue

Blocks need to be kept clean, now more than ever.

For property managers who are wondering whether or not routine maintenance should still go ahead in their blocks, the government has provided some clarity today. Secretary of State at the MHCLG Robert Jenrick, speaking to the BBC today, has confirmed the importance of ensuring that the maintenance of buildings for safety and sanitation continues – and that important works such as cladding remediation should still be carried out.

Amid the row over whether or not construction work should still continue on sites around the country, he emphasised the importance of ensuring all work is done in accordance with Public Health England guidance, which means abiding by the two-metre distancing rule at all times.

Following the announcement, the Institute of Residential Property Managers (IRPM) circulated a Newsflash to all its members this morning, saying the message from Mr Jenrick “would strongly suggest that other safety-critical work such as lift maintenance should continue”. The professional body also takes the fact that the Secretary of State specifically mentioned sanitation, to mean that appropriate cleaning regimes can continue in blocks too. The IRPM says it is now waiting for an approved list from MHCLG of which contractors may attend site and for what purpose. We will share this information with you when we know more.

Here’s what the Minister had to say. “There are settings in for example the construction industry where it is extremely important that we try to help people to continue to go to work. For example, ensuring that buildings are maintained properly for fire safety, for sanitation reasons. For example, ensuring that important programmes like the removal of dangerous ACM cladding on high-rise buildings continues, so there is essential work going on in the housing and construction industry that we want to encourage as long as it is safe to do so.”

In the meantime, trade bodies are advising maintenance contractors not only to abide by the distancing rules, but to ensure very high levels of hygiene while they are carrying out work. If an engineer is due to visit your building, they should be checking if anyone in the building has been diagnosed with Coronavirus or is self-isolating to ensure their safety as well as that of the people in your block. As we blogged on Monday, its vital to provide handwashing facilities for engineers and technicians; to keep plant rooms and other areas where they may be working clean and accessible; and to ensure residents are kept clear of any work areas.

This is all good practice anyway and may even encourage better standards of communication and hygiene in our blocks when this is over. We would like to assure all our clients and residents that routine servicing schedules are continuing in your blocks, as is our 24/7 emergency response.

AGMs and service charges: your questions answered

Virtual AGMS are coming to a screen near you!

Our business continuity planning is paying off. We have now switched to virtual AGMs – the first of which was held for residents at Union Park. This is easy to do and we would like to suggest that if you consider doing the same, you may get more people to attend your AGM – which we can facilitate for you using Zoom.

So how does it work? Well, we can simply invite all residents to the virtual AGM and they can then either download the app, or double click on the weblink we send out. This takes the invitee to a ‘virtual room’ (with or without video) where other participants will be waiting along with the moderator (Ringley). Participants join the meeting in ‘muted mode’ and invitees can participate at any time by ‘raising their virtual hand’ enabling us to unmute them while they speak.  It’s that easy.

For small meetings all Ringley people can set up conference calls. So let your property manager know if this is something you  would like us to arrange for your block

Deferring service charge payments

We’ve had a number of enquiries about deferring service charge payments. This is to be expected with so many residents worried about their income as the country goes into lockdown. Regrettably, deferment is not possible because we only collect the exact amount specified in the budget and this is desperately needed.  Insurance, electricity, cleaning and all other bills still need to be paid.

Service charges are not like a commercial business.  If owners do not pay for the upkeep of their block – who will? And worse, not paying would put not only the security of your home but the health and safety of you and all your neighbours at risk. As the government has announced that you can claim a 3-month mortgage repayment holiday we recommend you claim this quickly – before the rush – and use some of this money to pay your service charge.

Community halls

For sites with community halls that pay business rates, unless you tell us otherwise we will be instructing Alistair McGill of Ringley Survey & Valuation Limited to make a business rates claim for you.  Alistair’s contact details are Alistair.mcgill@ringley.co.uk  Likewise if you need help with business rates rebates on your business premises Alistair can assist.

Should you have any questions or concerns about the impact of coronavirus on your block, please do contact us direct. We will share your questions (anonymously) and answers in the next client update and via this blog.

Coronavirus: working safely with contractors and on-site staff

Anyone visiting your building to carry out maintenance must be able to wash their hands. Landlords can help.

Our clients and RMC directors may be wondering what they should do about people visiting their sites while we are all coping with the impact of COVID-19. So here‘s our latest update on working with on-site staff and contractors.

The current advice from the HSE is that: “All drivers attending site must have access to welfare facilities in the premises they visit as part of their work.  Preventing access is against the law and, equally, it is not the sensible thing to do.  Failure to allow access to welfare facilities may increase the risk of the COVID-19 infection spreading.”

It is not clear whether contractors are classed in the same category as drivers – however, we are beginning to receive requests for confirmation from maintenance engineers that there are hand washing facilities on site.  Where there are not, landlords should think about either nominating a home where contractors can wash up – and putting a notice up in the hallway to say so, or purchasing and installing something like this 

Site Staff will remain on site until the Government declares lockdown – at which point a further review will be carried out.  Employers have a duty under health and safety legislation to take steps to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all their employees, so far as reasonably practicable, including those who are particularly at risk for any reason. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of people they work with.  So we have sent out specific advice to site staff. 

Should your site staff get sick, then by virtue of The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 13 March 2020 ( for a period of 8 months) anyone who self-isolates to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus and is unable to work will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay.  A medical certificate is no longer required and SSP now starts from day one, rather than day four.

Should the Government prevent staff from working on-site, this would be treated as a period of lay-off during which your employee would be entitled to a statutory guaranteed payment of £25 a day (pro-rata for part-time workers).  Unless the Government changes the law, your employees can claim a redundancy payment if the lay-off or short-time working runs for either 4+ weeks in a row, or 6+ weeks in a 13 week period.  This does not get paid if staff return to normal working hours within 4 months.  Click here for more on this.

Depending on other measures likely to be introduced, it may be kinder to ascertain the person’s rent or mortgage payments and pay them rent and a food allowance as a gesture for their service to the site.  If you need help or advice on this, emergency HR planning and payment enquiries are being dealt with by Leana leana@ringley.co.uk

In the meantime, all routine servicing schedules are continuing, as is our 24/7 emergency response.

Coronavirus: advice to our clients and residents

If anyone in your block is suspected of having the virus, contact your property manager as soon as possible.

Coronavirus is a national issue beyond our remit – however, we feel it is important to address the concerns of those living in the homes we manage, especially as people may be self-isolating. So here are the steps that will be taken if there is a suspected case within your building.

First and foremost we advise all residents to follow the official advice from Public Health England and the NHS. If a member of your household is in self-isolation as a result of the government guidance then please notify your property manager as soon as possible.

If you live in a block of flats, it may be the case that we are required to inform other residents in order that they are aware of the issue.  The Government could require us to do so, or the client/directors of the management company could require us to do so. If you are in self-isolation, it is important that contractors or other non-family members are not invited into your home for the entire period. 

If there is a confirmed case of Coronavirus in your building, your property manager will take guidance from Public Health England as to the required action to be taken. This may include a deep clean of the communal areas of the building.  As an unbudgeted expenditure, reserve funds may need to be spent to achieve this.   By letting your property manager know, he or she can share this with the client/committee on-site to ensure that, should a resident be isolating at home, the community in the block come together to ensure they have the food and toiletries they need – and do not need to go out and breach their isolation.

As things stand, there is no requirement for any residents to vacate a building in the event of a resident of another flat contracting the virus, but again we will be guided by Public Health England at all times.

If you are NOT an owner-occupier, you SHOULD provide this information to your tenant.

For clients and RMC directors here are some other matters that you may wish to consider in your planning:

  • Doors are clearly the largest transmission risk point. Foot-operated door openers do exist and could reduce the chances of infections being spread by door handles  
  • For doors with the green push-to-exit release buttons –consider asking people to operate them with their elbows.
  • To reduce cross-infection, warning signs could be put next to handles and knobs that are likely to be touched by lots of people.  Then people could decide how to deal with the risk themselves (pull down sleeves over hands, use elbows, etc).
  • Perhaps a biohazard sticker with ‘Danger of Cross-Infection’ or similar text might be appropriate.

We are now researching companies competent to carry out deep cleaning and anti-bacterial fogging. A deep clean means not only the cleaning of all walls, door frames, etc using pressurised sprayers but also use of a fogging machine with an anti-bacterial product. The solution in a fogging machine is a bacterial, fungicidal and virucidal disinfectant. As the disinfectant fog disperses, the active ingredient comes into contact with all surfaces in the room and thereby treats both surfaces and the air.

The central point of contact for all clients/directors in relation to Coronavirus measures is Paul West. He can be contacted via  paul.west@ringley.co.uk   or 07490 023207. Please do not overload your Relationship Manager with these matters as this will erode the capacity that they need to carry out their day job (potentially under strained circumstances).   Paul is available for additional site inspections and on-site discussions as an addition to the management service.


How leasehold reforms will benefit flat owners

The Law Commission’s proposed reforms could save leaseholders money and help keep them out of the FTT

Last Thursday the Law Commission published its report into leasehold reforms. The Commission puts forward three schemes for determining the premium to be paid by flat owners wanting to extend their lease.  Each of them will make enfranchisement cheaper, saving leaseholders money. Each scheme uses a different method to determine the price of enfranchisement and allow further reforms to make the process simpler and to reduce uncertainty.
 
The report also examines the way in which the value of the landlord’s interest is calculated, to identify reforms that could lower premiums without breaching the UK’s human rights legislation that protects landlords’ property interests.

Alongside the three schemes, the Law Commission has put forward a range of other options for reform. These include:

  • Prescribing the rates used in calculating the price, to remove a key source of disputes, and make the process simpler, more certain and predictable.
  • Helping leaseholders with onerous ground rents, by capping the level of ground rent used to calculate the premium.
  • Developing an online calculator for determining the premium, making it easier to find out the cost of enfranchisement, and make the process more transparent.
  • Enabling leaseholders who are collectively enfranchising a block of flats to avoid paying “development value” to the landlord unless and until they actually undertake further development.

What is being proposed are ‘cash and carry’ lease extensions, which would lead to fewer referrals to the over-worked first-tier tribunal. While the legislative change is not retrospective, it would have the retroactive effect of devaluing existing landlords’ interests that arise from the lease.  All freehold reversionary properties are valued by chartered surveyors on the basis of the lease length and terms and, as the RICS definition of ‘market value’ includes hope value, in effect the valuation today includes the probability of some lease extension income. If this is to be curtailed in law, then the effect is a reduction in the value of the landlord’s asset.

So while this proposed change does not alter the lease contract itself, it has two impacts: devaluation of the reversionary freehold interest and reduction in the premium payable to the landlord for each specific lease extension. 

Ultimately, any proposals that make leasehold extensions cheaper can devalue the asset. This will be very unpopular with landlords  And while these reforms would save leaseholders money, the erosion of the benefits of being a freeholder would likely see an increase in non-professionally managed blocks, absentee freeholders and other court processes. 

However, there may be additional upsides for leaseholders by removing the ability of unscrupulous freeholders or their agents to put pressure on leaseholders by refusing to negotiate until the 11th hour in order to extract more money than would be reasonably expected.

To read the full Law Commission report go to: https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/leasehold-enfranchisement/


More red tape for besieged agents

New money laundering legislation comes into force today. Regardless of Brexit, property agents must abide by the Fifth EU Money Laundering Directive, ensuring they risk-assess their business processes and carry out thorough ID checks on customers.

Agents will need to carefully consider how they might find themselves exposed to money laundering and to the risk of financing terrorism and ensure they have measures in place to manage and eliminate any risks.

Letting Agent Today explains that agents must carry out customer due diligence on landlords and tenants where renting is “for a period of a month or more, and at a rent which during at least part of that period is, or is equivalent to, a monthly rent of 10,000 euros or more”.

 If a third party is acting on behalf of another person in a particular transaction, that person is described in the legislation as the ‘beneficial owner’, ie the person on whose behalf a transaction is carried out. Beneficial owners must in future be identified and any potential risks they pose be assessed. It will also be important to assess the risk of money laundering that could result from:

  • Sending money to customers to or through high-risk third countries which don’t have effective systems in place to prevent money laundering or terrorist financing;
  • Company services or transactions;
  • The financing methods used to support the business; and
  • Other transaction-based activities such as non-face-to-face services.

All customers and beneficial owners are now subject to identity checks via an official identification document such as a passport or driving licence. Photo ID, as well as verification of the current address, will be needed for both new customers and existing clients if their circumstances change.  Due diligence also applies should agents have any doubts about the authenticity of an existing customer’s ID information or suspect that money laundering or financing terrorism may be taking place.

Under the new rules, risk assessments must be recorded, kept on file and regularly reviewed. Any changes to a business, it’s financing or the environment in which it operates will trigger an updated assessment, which must be made available to HMRC on request.

Of course the property sector should not provide an easy route for money laundering. But at a time when the industry is steeling itself for yet more reforms, this new legislation is yet another hoop for agents to jump through. And this is being piled on top of the 125-plus other rules and regulations that agents are faced with on a daily basis. That said, it is hard to argue against legislation that should go some way at least to safeguarding the sector from criminal activity.

Heat networks: have your say

Do you manage a building with a communal heat network, or own a flat or a building that uses one? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Did you know there are at least 14,000 heat networks in the UK – we didn’t! These include both district heat networks which supply multiple sites and the communal heating systems that supply a number of units within a single building, with which many property managers will be familiar.

The UK is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and heat decarbonisation is one of the biggest challenges.  The Government thinks heat networks are crucial to meeting this target because they are uniquely placed to unlock otherwise inaccessible sources of larger-scale renewable and recovered heat sources such as waste and heat from rivers and mines. In the right circumstances, heat networks can reduce bills, support local regeneration and are a cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions from heating. 

The Government is now consulting on proposed amendments to the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations 2014 to make them more effective for suppliers and users. The current regulations set out rules around installation of heat meters and billing for customers. The meters enable suppliers to produce fair and transparent bills based on actual consumption  – and like domestic Smart Meters, they can drive energy efficiency savings and cost reductions.

In some cases, the requirement to install heat meters and heat cost allocators is subject to a ‘cost-effectiveness’ test set out in the regulations.  The consultation explains how cost-effectiveness is measured. It includes proposals to update the way it is assessed and describes how the cost-effectiveness tool for heat suppliers will be amended. The changes will affect those suppliers with buildings where a cost-effectiveness assessment is required but where, to-date, the tool has not been available.

The government also proposes to extend the provisions set out in the regulations covering meter accuracy, maintenance, and billing based on consumption to all existing metering devices. These requirements would extend the regulations to some heat suppliers who, at present, don’t have to comply.

The thinking here is that metering accuracy and maintenance, as well as billing based on consumption where cost-effective, are vital to delivery and help maximise the benefits of metering. They should therefore apply to all installed metering devices. 

Finally, the consultation contains several proposals clarifying areas where the current regulations are unclear and it includes a provision to support the enforcement of meter accuracy and maintenance.

The changes are expected to increase the number of customers with heat meters installed and the government is keen to hear from industry and from customer representatives.  If you have a view on heat networks and/or metering, you still have time to respond. The closing date has been extended from 12 December to 9 January 2020 because of the general election, so if you haven’t had the chance, take a closer look at the changes here.

HPL cladding: more questions than answers

Ringley CEO Mary-Anne Bowring will be talking about fire safety in Manchester this week

Footage from this weekend’s devastating fire at a student block in Bolton must have given the property industry a collective sense of deja vu. Thankfully, everyone was safely evacuated, but once again we watched flames rapidly spreading up the outside of a block, while its cladding melted in the heat. This time though, the cladding was HPL – not the ACM used on Grenfell Tower – and another can of worms was well and truly opened.

In the wake of the 2017 tragedy, experts warned that “the next Grenfell” would involve HPL cladding. Building owners were told to remove all cladding systems, including HPL, that didn’t conform to building safety standards. However, the government’s ban on combustible cladding only applies to blocks over 18m. That lets an awful lot of buildings – including the one that went up in flames in Bolton – off the hook.

Inside Housing today quotes Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who says “This terrible fire highlights the complete failure of the UK’s fire safety system”. We have to agree with him. Even the reforms proposed by the Hackitt Review only apply to buildings of ten storeys and above, referred to as HRRBs or high-risk residential buildings. It has to be hoped that once in place and seen to be working, these changes will be applied to all buildings, not just high rises.

So what happens now? We expect to see calls for HPL cladding to be tested and removed if it is found not to have been treated with fire retardants,  which gives it a fire safety rating of Class 0 or Euroclass B. However, it is estimated that cheaper versions graded a much lower ‘Class D’ may account for more than 80% of the market.

The continuing nightmare of residents in ACM-clad blocks are well documented. All the same issues around the rights and responsibilities of leaseholders are now likely to be extended to a new group of people. And as if that wasn’t enough, lenders have tightened up their rules since the government issued Advice note 14  last December. This leaves an increasing number of leaseholders stuck with flats that are unsellable because not only are mortgage applicants being assessed but so too are the buildings they want to live in. The Times estimates that up to 50,000 flats around the country are affected. What a mess.

So two important points for the immediate future.

  • If you manage a building with HPL cladding, talk to residents about the implications and commission a fire risk assessment if necessary. Make sure the block has an evacuation policy. If there isn’t one, make it a priority to put one in place.
  • If you own or rent a flat in a building with external cladding, contact your building manager or landlord to find out what measures they are putting in place to ensure resident safety.

So watch this space – this story is going to run and run. And one thing is crystal clear. The issues raised in the last two years around fire safety will not be resolved quickly or easily.

Mary-Anne Bowring, CEO of The Ringley Group, is speaking on this subject for the RICS in Manchester this Wednesday 20th November.


Good news for broadband providers – and you!

Removing the barriers to better broadband

Would you like better broadband speeds in your block? If so, here’s something for you. The government has announced new measures to make it easier to install faster internet connections in blocks of flats where landlords repeatedly ignore requests for access from broadband firms. Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan estimates that an extra 3,000 residential buildings a year will be connected as a result.

Under the law as it stands, to install gigabit-capable broadband in the UK’s estimated 480,000 blocks of flats or apartments, broadband providers need permission from landlords to enter the property and undertake the necessary works. One of the biggest obstacles preventing operators from installing new networks in residential blocks is the building owner’s failure  – in as many as 40% of cases – to respond to requests for access. And while broadband providers can already push for access via the courts, this takes time – and money.

So to solve the problem, the Government is now promising a cheaper and faster process for telecoms companies to get access rights. This will apply when a landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to requests for access to install a connection that a tenant within the building has asked for. And it will give operators a cheaper and more streamlined route via the existing Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) to connect the property. The aim is to lower the timescale for entering a property from six months to a matter of weeks and at a drastically reduced cost.

Good news all round we think.

Fire! Should you stay put or evacuate?

Is there an evacuation plan for your block? If you don’t know – find out.

Would you stay put if a fire broke out in your block? As the first phase report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is published, the “flawed” stay put policy used on the night of the devastating fire is now under intense scrutiny.

‘Stay put’ is the standard advice given to residents in blocks of flats who are not directly affected when a fire breaks out. They are told to stay in their homes with the windows and doors shut. The expectation is that the construction of the building and fire doors leading onto communal areas will protect people from the spread of fire long enough for the fire service to attend if necessary and put out the fire. At Grenfell Tower, this policy proved utterly inadequate. It is now judged to have led to unnecessary loss of life. As a result, the government is working on a “full and detailed examination” of the stay put/evacuation strategy for fire in high-rise blocks.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee yesterday that, while expert consensus is that stay put is “valid” for most tall blocks, the government is now reviewing the advice.

As a layperson it is hard to understand the thinking behind stay put: surely it makes more sense to get out of the building as quickly as possible? So here’s the explanation. The thinking behind it is twofold:

  • First, the fire service needs unfettered access to hallways and stairs to get up and down to evacuate the building in priority order. This would be hampered by everyone trying to evacuate at the same time – particularly in buildings with only one stairway.
  • Second, opening and closing doors increases air circulation which not only accelerates combustion and the spread of smoke but panicking residents rarely stop to close their door behind them. This leaves other parts of the building exposed to the fire.

A stay put policy is intended to protect residents (who can be safely rescued some other way) from smoke inhalation, as smoke kills long before the heat from a fire.  But the Grenfell Inquiry judge is now calling for evacuation plans to be developed for all high-rise buildings. Ringley Group managing director Maryanne Bowring agrees. She does not believe stay put is the right policy for all high-rise blocks.

Her view is this. “If there is no misting system or sprinklers in your building and you are above the height of a ladder (normally assumed to be six storeys) or if the fire is below your home in a tower, or if the facade of a building is burning, or if the building was not constructed in the last 10 or so years, I would say you must get out.

She adds: “You can have as many fire risk assessments as you like, you can have as much fire detection equipment as you like, but there should now be an acceptance that any fire policy is made up of component parts, one of which can fail, even if serviced or checked yesterday – so visual and common sense judgements must be made”.

We all feel for those in the fire and call centres that night who were under orders to keep telling residents to stay put, when they could watch the fire at Grenfell Tower on mobile phones or in person and see that the building was engulfed by flames.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who carried out a review of fire safety and building regulations for the government post-Grenfell, will now advise ministers on the format of a new building safety regulator. The aim is for a fundamental shift in the design, construction and management of tall buildings with the focus firmly on safety. This is badly needed for the long-term wellbeing of residents and we await the outcome with interest.