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.

How to create more space in your home

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Make the most of your space – it’s cheaper than moving!

Do you ever wish you could push the walls of your home back and give yourself more room to spread out. Sadly that’s not possible, but before you start working out whether you can afford a bigger place, online agent Residential People has some tips to help you make the most of the space you’ve got.

Here are some simple steps you can take to make your property more space-efficient.

Could you make your kitchen open plan? Blocking off the kitchen from other rooms can make your home feel a lot less roomy. Opting for an open plan living and dining experience creates a friendlier atmosphere and makes the space feel larger and more functional.  This is likely to be a no-no for renters (unless you have a very acommodating landlord!) and leaseholders will need to read their lease and take professional advice before talking to a builder. However, if your lease allows internal alterations and your kitchen isn’t separated by a supporting wall, it may be easier – and less costly – than you think to open up your home.

Does your home have a staircase? If so, the space underneath it is a potential goldmine. You could convert the space into a set of drawers or cupboards, make yourself a pantry, or even create a cosy little reading nook or home office, perfect for a seat and desk or a place to store your books. Again, check with your landlord and/or your lease and your property manager before making any structural alterations.

If you are able to redecorate your home, go for light colours. Dark, bold colours only serve to make a room feel more enclosed and less open and airy. Using light colours, such as pale pastels, white or grey, can open up a room and allow more light reflection, making it feel much bigger than it is. 

Try to optimise wall storage. Most of us have storage needs that tend to use up a large proportion of that valuable square footage. So instead of using your floor space, consider making use of more shelves and wall-mounted cupboards.  Think about utilising the space above doors and windows too.

Tiny homes are becoming more popular around the world as a solution to homelessness and to combat ever-increasing property prices. And even if the idea of living in a really small space doesn’t appeal to you, there are lots of space-saving ideas out there to help you make the most of the room you have. Use your small space well and you will be joining a growing movement of people trying to reduce the environmental impact – and the cost – of their home.

And if you need advice on what is and isn’t allowable under the terms of your lease or rental agreement, talk to us at Ringley. Our property specialists are here to help.

Balcony fires – don’t take the risk

Is your balcony a fire risk? Following the fire in June that raced through a block in Barking via wooden-clad balconies, the government now has an advice note to block owners and residents. Balconies must not compromise resident safety by providing a means of external fire spread, it says.  Balconies must be included in fire risk assessments. If they contain combustible material then they should be removed and replaced.

Don’t try this at home…

So building owners need to understand the materials used in the construction of balconies on their blocks. This way they will be able to assess whether adequate fire protection is in place to resist a fire spreading both across and through the external wall.  But owners aren’t necessarily either fire or construction experts. So if there is any doubt over the materials used or the risk presented, they should seek professional advice from a fire safety specialist.

Revisions to the Building Regulations introduced in December address the risks posed by balconies. The new regulations require balconies on residential buildings over 18m high to be made of non-combustible materials. But balconies on existing blocks like the one in Barking, may be made from combustible materials, so it is vital for building owners to do their homework properly.

Property managers can play their part by setting out a few simple rules stating what can and cannot be stored and used on balconies by residents. Here’s our advice:

  • Don’t use balconies as storage areas – particularly for anything that might be flammable.
  • If balconies are used as smoking areas, make sure that cigarettes are properly extinguished and disposed of. The same goes for candles.
  • And most important of all, never barbeque on your balcony. A significant number of fires in flats start this way. Not only is it clearly dangerous but your block insurer will take a very dim view of any claim for fire damage resulting from an out-of-control barbeque.

Make sure residents know what is and isn’t acceptable – and why. Use the block newsletter, website, the AGM or a social get-together to drive this message home. And don’t forget anyone sub-letting. It could save a life.

Landlords and tenants – you need each other!

Fixed-term tenancies for private renters should be scrapped. Landlords should also stop evicting tenants just because they want to sell their homes. These are just two of the reforms called for by leading thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in a recent report.

Landlord and tenant: PRS reform must consider the needs of both
Landlord and tenant: PRS reform must consider the needs of both

Under the law as it stands, without giving a reason, private landlords can issue a ‘Section 21’ eviction notice to tenants whose assured shorthold tenancy has ended. This puts millions of private renters in the UK in a precarious position, says the IPPR, as they never know when they may be forced out of their home. The thinktank is calling for increasing security for tenants through an ‘open tenancy’ and wants to prevent landlords from selling in the first three years of a tenancy agreement, giving renters greater peace of mind .

There is no doubt that for many renters, the PRS is insecure. Around one in 10 tenancies comes to an end because the landlord has terminated them through a no-fault eviction. Tenancies ended by landlords were the biggest cause of homelessness in England in 2017, accounting for almost a third of all local authority homelessness acceptances.

The IPPR believes tenants face unaffordable rents, poor conditions, a lack of tenure security and limited control over their rented home. In response, among other things, the thinktank wants to see changes to recent welfare reforms to help struggling tenants and a national landlord register to help drive up standards in the rental market.

Tenants undoubtedly stand to gain from these proposals. But are they fair to landlords? The majority of landlords in the UK own just one or two buy-to-let properties. Many are ‘accidental’ landlords who have inherited a property and may be renting it out simply until they can make a profit by selling it. Most take their responsibilities seriously and many are happy to offer their tenants a well-maintained home for as long as the arrangement suits both parties. The property they rent out is theirs – why shouldn’t they be able to take it back if they want to?

The IPPR agrees that landlords need to be treated fairly. It proposes that the Government should launch a review of all taxation relating to private landlords. Reforming the tax system  would promote socially responsible landlordism and a long-term, high quality and stable rented sector as well as challenging wealth inequality, says the thinktank.

There is no doubt that private renting causes hardship for many, especially those on benefits. However, the PRS has grown substantially in the last two decades. It is now home to 20% of households and many more people expect to rent for longer. If it is to continue to thrive and to provide high quality homes for more of us each year, any reforms that are put forward must take into consideration both the profitability and the rights of landlords as well as those of tenants.

Back build-to-rent, drive up quality

Build-to-rent is really gaining momentum around the UK. The number of build-to-rent homes being built across the country has increased by nearly 40% in the last 12 months, according to new figures released in January. Last month, a new build-to-rent developer, Core Living, hit the market with a target of 2500 new homes across the north of England by 2020. In Manchester, the 35-storey Angel Gardens – one of the biggest schemes outside London – is nearing completion and north of the border, planning has just been granted for some of Scotland’s first purpose-built for rent homes on Clydeside.

Over the last few months, the government has put the rental sector firmly in the spotlight. Ministers are determined to drive up standards for tenants and improve affordability and security of tenure. Locally, councils are being called on to clamp down on rogue landlords. They have been allocated funding to encourage them to do this.

This build-to-rent PLATFORM_ development in Bedford has its own yoga studio.
This build-to-rent PLATFORM_ development in Bedford has its own yoga studio.

But according to one developer, PLATFORM_, there’s a quicker and cheaper way to do this. Give more support to the build–to-rent sector, he says.  PLATFORM_ managing director Jean-Marc Vandevivare believes that another way of driving up standards – less costly for the taxpayer and less time-consuming for local authorities –  is to back the growth of the build-to-rent sector. Rather than using public money, BTR developers are using institutional funding to build thousands of quality homes. In turn this could drive improvements for renters.

Large-scale developers need to attract renters into their block rather than the one next door. They have a vested interest in excellence. The quality of build-to-rent homes varies but most are professionally managed, offer a sense of community, and provide a growing range of amenities that cater to modern day working and lifestyle trends.

The success of build-to-rent to-date pays testament to this business model. As the January figures show, build-to-rent is set to take an increasing share of the UK rental market and at Ringley we are committed to being part of this via our new brand Life by Ringley. With mandatory qualifications on the cards for property managers and a tranche of regulation on its way, as a professional property agency we are delighted to be offering management services to this exciting sector as it develops and expands.

Rent control – do we really need it?

Every so often the thorny issue of rent control raises its head. Rent control was in the Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto and it has the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan. The Mayor has now said he intends to outline a plan for stabilising and controlling rents for the 2.4 million renters now living in the capital. The London Mayor’s powers don’t extend to bringing in rent control across the city but he has said he will campaign for it and lobby the Government for his proposals to be accepted.

Rents in London are extremely high as a percentage of earnings compared to other parts of the country and private rents rose on average by a whopping 38% between 2005 and 2016. According to Mr Khan the arguments for rent control are “overwhelming” and it is vital the Government acts to improve the quality of millions of lives. Londoners seem to agree with him. A recent survey confirmed that 68% of Londoners were in favour of capping the amount private landlords could charge tenants. But is rent control really the answer to renters’ problems?

Rent control: could it be coming your way?
Rent control: could it be coming your way?

The argument against capping rental levels has always been that it will impact supply as landlords, unable to make a profit, take their properties off the market. As the majority of private landlords only own one property this is a distinct possibility, especially as higher taxes are already eating away at profitibility in the buy-to-rent market. This would certainly add to the problems tenants already have in finding a suitable home to rent. Build to rent developers may also take a step back from the London market if they can’t make the figures add up on new developments. However, the rental market’s loss could be the housebuyer’s gain if there is a sudden flood of former rental housing onto the market.

In other major cities such as New York and Berlin, rent control has been in place for decades. The lesson to learn from the experience in these markets is that in tandem with bringing in rent control, it is important to provide a supply of social housing to mop up the shortfall in private rentals when some landlords, inevitably, decide to quit the market.

Mr Khan has invited Karen Buck, the MP behind the Homes (Fitness for Habitation) Bill, to work with James Murray, the deputy mayor for housing and residential development, to work up proposals for future rent control laws. This is clearly not as straightforward as it may at first appear and the additional social housing that Sadiq Khan has also pledged to provide for London must be brought into the mix, otherwise rent control could be completely self-defeating and simply hurt the people it is intended to support.

So will London follow the lead of other major cities around the world and become the first place in the UK to enforce a rental cap? Watch this space – the next few years could be interesting.

Guaranteed for renters – a home fit to live in

The government aims to ensure a decent home for renters is guaranteed as part of the new Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act. A Private Members’ Bill allowing tenants to sue over the condition of their rental properties completed its paslawsage through Parliament just before Christmas and will become law on 21 March.

The new Act makes changes to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and the Building Act 1984. So what does it mean? Well, from the date the new Act comes into force, all landlords in the social and private sectors must ensure that their property is fit for human habitation at the beginning of the tenancy and stays that way – essentially  guaranteeing that their rented home is fit for purpose. Where this is not the case, tenants will have the right to take legal action for breach of contract on the grounds that the property is unfit to live in. The new Act only applies to tenancies in England. The Welsh Government has already included similar rights for tenants in the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016.

The Residential Landlords Association and National Association of Landlords are backing the changes set out in the new Act but some individual landlords are not so keen. They are worried that the new law could mean tenants refusing to pay rent until the freeholder carries out repairs, etc. leading to landlords getting caught up in costly litigation while rogue tenants are given free rein to cause damage.

A simple way to get around this issue is to carry out regular inspections and ensure tenants sign these off every time. Any damage caused can then be noted and a paper trail created that can be used by both sides to prove that what should have been actioned has been done and the tenant charged for repairs where appropriate.

In fact, where not carrying out repairs counts as a breach of contract, tenants have had the right to take their landlord to court since 2015 under the Consumer Rights Act, so that hasn’t really changed. What is new though, is that what defines  ‘fit for habitation’ is now enshrined in law over and above the existing ‘hazards’ that are listed in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This is already used by local authorities to ensure that rented housing is of an acceptable level. At the end of the day responsible landlords have nothing to fear from the new Act – after all, any property that is let should automatically be guaranteed to be of an acceptable standard.

As part of a bigger package of reforms that tackles housing problems, the government has also announced  a new Housing Complaint Resolution Service. This guarantees protection for homeowners as well as tenants and gives them a single point of contact to sort out disputes over repairs and maintenance. All private landlords must sign up to the new scheme. If they don’t they could face fines of up to to £5,000. A new Home Ombudsman is also on the cards, so watch this space. All good news for renters and flat owners we think.

Discover more about renting – it’s worth the effort.

informationDiscover more about renting – it could pay dividends. TotallyMoney’s Mark Moloney recently told Letting Agent Today that knowing your rights and being able to keep an eye out for warning signs means you’re well prepared in the event of an issue or a dispute.

We agree 100%. At Ringley we are fully committed to helping our clients and their residents stay as well informed as possible but we weren’t entirely surprised to read that a recent survey carried out by the credit report website revealed that tenants know a lot less than they should about the rental sector. This is also a problem among long leaseholders. In many cases, tenants and flat owners know very little about their rights and responsibilities.

According to TotallyMoney, a staggering 97% of renters do not know their full rights, while 50% don’t know if their landlord could change their rent without notifying them. Perhaps more worrying is that 38% of people renting a house or flat don’t know when the landlord is allowed to enter the property.

And it’s not just tenants who don’t have as much information at their fingertips as they need. Some landlords aren’t very well informed either. The most searched questions landlords  regularly ask online are pretty basic and include:

  • how long does a landlord have to return a deposit?
  • who pays council tax, the tenant or the landlord?
  • what does landlord insurance cover?

Our website at www.ringley.co.uk is packed with useful information. Need to know more about block management? Are you thinking of buying or extending your lease? Interested in right to manage or build to rent? Need legal or financial advice? Whether you are a tenant, a landlord or a developer, we have something for you.   We have teams of block managers, legal specialists, surveyors, engineers and finance professionals with experience of just about everything you can think of that’s related to property. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for online, one of our experts will be able to answer your questions or point you in the right direction. Just give us a call. We’re always here to help.