20 January 2021

The safety of our residents is the number one priority for housing associations. It is also the biggest challenge facing the sector, financially, with g15 housing associations alone projected to spend more on fire safety measures than the government’s building safety fund, but also logistically. Those involved in building and managing high-rise residential blocks on a day-to-day basis are acutely aware of the complexity involved in identifying and managing risk and working out how to best protect people living in these homes.

Dame Judith Hackitt urged all the professions involved to get on with it and “raise the bar” of building safety, not because the rules and regulations say you must, but because it is the right thing to do. The Building Safety Bill, when it comes, will help, but as a sector we’re not waiting for laws or regulations to change. We’re utilising all of the expertise available to instigate a forensic, comprehensive programme of investigation and remediation or mitigation where necessary. Through this process, social landlords and responsible building owners are already beginning to develop our own building safety cases in advance of legislation.

This isn’t a straightforward process, and reasonable and practicable solutions are not always apparent. Complex wall build ups, with a myriad of elements used in a variety of combinations, have become increasingly common in the last 20 years or so. A historic lack of clarity within the building regulations and different interpretations of compliance add to the challenges. Then, there are judgements to be made. Some decisions are clear-cut: ACM on tall buildings has to come off and we were quick to remove this. Others are less so.

There is no getting away from the scale of the challenge, and we must never forget the impact of this on residents. Many of them are worried, not knowing if their homes are safe and seeking immediate reassurance from their landlord. We have to be able to translate complex technical information in a way that is accessible and meaningful, but also explain why definitive answers are not always available. This doesn’t mean their buildings are unsafe but you can perfectly understand the anger and frustration many are feeling. Many leaseholders have the additional fear of potential service charge bills for the remediation of flats they bought in good faith hanging over them.

The discussions we have together as a sector will help us navigate these extraordinary challenges. Only by sharing and implementing good practice and knowledge will we be able to move forward and find solutions to the building safety crisis in this country. These are problems we did not know existed before, but together we’re gaining more knowledge and experience with each problem we encounter. This will prove invaluable as we go forward and is why the NHF Building and Fire Safety in Housing event on 22 February is so important. I look forward to the discussions we’ll have there.

Tara Agarwal

Tara Agarwal is Director of Building Safety, Customer Services at Peabody and is on our conference advisory board.

Tara has been working at Peabody since 2016, and led the compliance and fire safety teams through integration and transformation following the merger with Family Mosaic in 2017. She has a background of asset management, investment, development and compliance in both local authority and ALMO housing organisations. The creation of a Building Safety Directorate puts resident safety is at the heart of service delivery at Peabody, and this is the lens through which all housing providers must now view their activities.

How we can come together and raise the bar of building safety