By Harry Scoffin
Government ministers seem set to scrap the controversial recommendation that all leasehold buildings of more than seven stories have a building safety manager (in addition to their managing agents), according to The Daily Telegraph.
The proposal came from Dame Judith Hackitt, a former chair of the Health and Safety Executive, who was tasked to examine residential building safety after the Grenfell fire.
It was endorsed by experts such as Sir Ken Knight, a fire safety consultant who is also director of a company which has provided freehold owners reviews recommending leaseholder paid-for waking watch services.
Leaseholders in a Manchester block with a limited amount of dangerous cladding experienced a threefold increase in waking watch costs after a review by a company owned by Sir Ken Knight, chair of the government’s expert panel #UKhousing Britton House in Manchester originally had a waking watch imposed in September after a surveyor concluded that a thin strip of cladding running vertically up the building poses a fire risk.
A decision is expected before the end of the month but a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up said on Tuesday that “we continue to engage closely with leaseholder groups on the issue and recognise the concerns they have raised on the need to avoid excessive bills and bureaucracy”.
The Telegraph added: “The policy has been informally under review for the past month after the fire safety minister, Lord Greenhalgh, raised concerns that the policy could impose unnecessary costs on leaseholders.
“A government source told The Telegraph that ministers were closely examining the policy following concerns from leaseholders.”
Michael Gove is poised to abandon a rule forcing apartment blocks more than seven storeys high to have a safety manager after campaigners warned it would impose thousands of pounds of additional costs on property owners. The administrative role, which has faced opposition from cladding campaign groups, would cost about £60,000 per building a year, according to government impact assessments.
The Telegraph report follows cross-party criticism of the scheme, led by independent crossbencher Baroness (Claire) Fox of Buckley and LibDem Baroness Kath Pinnock in the Lords, and LibDem Docklands councillor Rabina Khan outside it.
A series of video clips of leasehold professionals talking up building safety managers, acknowledging the high salaries required, has been doing the rounds on Twitter whipping up leaseholder indignation.
Last December, Leasehold Knowledge Partnership was the first organisation to publish the negative implications of the building safety managers policy for leaseholders, and the way blocks of flats are administrated and managed in this country:
LKP has repeatedly told Parliament that the scheme, which has never been put out to public consultation, would add unnecessary costs to leaseholders and introduce further complexity and sources of leasehold conflict.
LKP has also criticised the way the policy’s architect, Dame Judith Hackitt, had declined to engage with leasehold experts and campaigners when devising her post-Grenfell blueprint for the management and maintenance of apartment buildings.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s post-Grenfell review of building regulations has also attracted scrutiny by LKP for having treated blocks of flats as inherently dangerous and requiring high-spec major works projects, with costs to homeowners a secondary consideration.
Many believe that Dame Judith Hackitt’s “Building a Safer Future” report of May 2018 helped inflict financial hardship and distress on flat leaseholders, as seen in the EWS1 crisis, which even shocked Hackitt into giving an interview to The Guardian, saying:
“Morally they shouldn’t have to pay, but what shocks me is the size of some of the bills and whether the problem is being added to by them being exploited … They seem to have no right to challenge what is being prescribed.”
Leaseholders risk being “fleeced” by profiteering landlords and builders in the post-Grenfell fire safety crisis, a senior government adviser has warned in comments likely to increase pressure on ministers to finally resolve the problem. More than four years after the disaster that claimed 72 lives, tens of thousands of leaseholders are being landed with crippling remediation bills exceeding £200,000 per household in the worst cases.
In September, LKP chair Martin Boyd appeared before the cross-party Public Bill Committee for its fourth hearing of the Building Safety Bill, where he explained that managing agents and their property managers would likely find any separately appointed building safety manager a nuisance when it came to planning service charge budgets.
The BSMs would likely have their own agenda and want money allocated to fire safety upgrades, at the expense of day-to-day maintenance and other items without a fire or building safety element.
Mr Boyd told The Telegraph:
“We have to move away from the mindset that says these are high-risk buildings simply because they are tall. We have the government’s main fire safety experts saying high rise is not high risk, but a Bill that enshrines the concept that all tall buildings are intrinsically higher risk. Nobody goes on holiday thinking large planes are somehow a higher risk aircraft.”
LKP trustee Liam Spender, for End Our Cladding Scandal, told the paper:
“If a building is safe, building safety managers will just walk around making work for themselves … This job is already covered in the responsibilities of managing agents. If the plans stay as they are, it will be a death knell to resident-managed buildings.”
Last month, Rabina Khan, who is running to be Tower Hamlets mayor in the May elections, cited the work of LKP in Inside Housing, where she attacked the policy of building safety managers. They would create a shadow property management industry at a time when managing agents are headed for strict statutory regulation after the recommendations laid out in the government-commissioned Lord Best RoPA report of July 2019. This had followed years of leasehold scandals.
Inside Housing, news, analysis, and comment about the social housing sector in the UK.
The LibDem Shadwell councillor wrote:
“Safer homes are not going to come from employing someone to march around blocks of flats trying to find issues to justify their existence. As we have seen already, when someone else is picking up the tab, it pays to say there is remedial work that needs doing.”
On February 23, UK Action Cladding Group co-founder Ritu Saha noticed that the government’s own factsheet explaining Building Safety Managers, including the estimated £60,000pa cost, had been quietly removed from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities website.
Rabina Khan’s work was then picked up in the House of Lords by Baroness Fox, the Academy of Ideas director and former Brexit Party MEP, who laid down a series of technical amendments to the Building Safety Bill, including ones that would expunge the Bill of building safety managers. She held government to account over a policy that has long been overlooked due to the still-raging debate over who should pay to make good dangerously-clad and other unsafe blocks of flats.
Baroness Fox, a Haringey leaseholder, said:
“The truth is that fires are relatively rare, but they cannot be prevented altogether. The priority of this Bill should be to build in adequate safety systems and then maintain those properly so that residents can evacuate as quickly and easily as possible should fire occur. Instead, these clauses create an unnecessary duplicate role that will—guess what?—yet once more, financially cripple leaseholders.
“The Government themselves estimate that the cost of a building safety manager will be £60,000 a year per block. For Lucy, in a block of 33 flats, this will add £1,818 to her annual service charge. For Ruth, in a block of 19 flats, the building safety manager costs would add £3,157 a year to her service charges. It is not clear, either, whether that £60,000 estimate that was on the Government’s website has factored in employers’ national insurance and pension, plus the 20% VAT that an employing company would have to add to the charge. That would bring the cost to £85,000, in which case Lucy’s annual service charges would rise by £2,575 and Ruth’s by £4,473.
“… This is a version of the waking watch debacle, replacing hi-vis jacket patrols walking around buildings looking for sparks with a suited and booted manager with an iPad finding risks, faults and unnecessary fire safety work. If they do not find any problems, what is the point of their job? I finish with that question. What is the point of the job? I hope the Minister agrees that there is no point.“
Baroness Fox had also picked up on the now-deleted government factsheet, brandishing screenshots of the webpage, a stunt that attracted laughs in the chamber. Her full speech can be viewed here:
Baroness Fox’s intervention was strongly supported by peers, including independent crossbencher and surveyor Lord Thurlow, who is also a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on leasehold and commonhold reform.
Known by leaseholders as an implacable opponent of the two-storey rooftop extensions giveaway, Lord Thurlow said:
“I support the very interesting comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox — most interestingly, it is immensely refreshing to listen to an amendment that is driven not only by cost savings for leaseholders but by common sense. In many cases, the sub-contracting of services on multi-let buildings is appointed through external managing agents, who apply a levy; they will charge, let us say, 10% on the fee for the work being done. In the £60,000 example, another £6,000 goes on to the tenants’ bills at the end of the year.
“I simply support this proposal. It will be a difficult one for the Minister, but common sense is short in the Bill because of the layers of bureaucracy. This will save money for tenants.”
On Sunday, in reply to Cllr Rabina Khan, Lord Greenhalgh tweeted:
It remains to be seen as to whether government has listened to leaseholders or the sector over the building safety managers policy.
LKP awaits the final round of government amendments to the Building Safety Bill set to be unveiled later this month.