The tragedy at Grenfell Tower has led to a massive review of fire safety measures, including the materials used in construction, which it is believed led to the huge conflagration that took so many lives, and other fire safety measures in multi-storey blocks. Pledges that this would never happen again mean vast sums of money will be used to install whatever fire safety precautions may be necessary.
Wandsworth Council will be particularly hard hit, having 100 structures, 10 storeys or more, of residential accommodation. As it has been found that Sprinklers are the most effective of fire safety measures to limit the damage and danger of fire, a commitment was made by the Council that a sprinkler system would be installed in each of the around 2300 properties in the tower blocks. Whilst fitting sprinklers in a new build property has been estimated to cost in the region of £1100 each unit, to retro-fit on such a huge scale will cost approximately £24 million.
Sharp in-take of breath – this is a huge sum – how will this be funded? Wandsworth have come up with a novel way of funding what would now be perceived as vitally important improvements to the fire safety measures in the properties – they will ask the tenants to pay for it through service charges. This would mean they would have to recover approximately £3-4,000 for each flat.
Can you imagine the reaction of council enforcement teams if private sector tenants approached them saying they were being asked to pay for safety measures to be installed? They would immediately, and quite rightly, decide to take action against this rogue landlord who had no care for the safety of their tenants and expected them to pay to have an increased level of safety.
This cannot be put on the same level as someone who wants his magnolia lounge painted black or shocking pink; that is a matter of choice and if the property is in good condition, even if not a very fashionable colour, it is understandable that the landlord should expect the tenant to pay. To install measures that could save the tenant’s life is quite another matter.
Wandsworth’s decision to use the service charges to recover the costs was made in the middle of September by the Council’s executive. Not all councils will have leases that allow service charges to be used, but Wandsworth leases state ‘enables the council to do such things as the council may decide are necessary to ensure the efficient maintenance, administration or security of the block’. As these will be new installations, it cannot be said to be maintenance; it is not administration, but conceivably could be considered to add to the security of the building, so can therefore be covered by service charges.
Croydon Council has 25 high rise blocks and 1 block of supported housing and have committed £10 million to install sprinklers. They have taken the more traditional and perhaps more acceptable approach, of saying it will fund the sprinkler installation from its Housing Revenue Account Planned Maintenance and Improvement Programme.
Two neighbouring Authorities, both approaching the same problem in radically different ways.
The findings following Grenfell have dictated that works must be carried out throughout the country to make tower blocks safer. How these improvements are to be paid for will be challenging every Authority. Private Sector landlords cannot say that they can’t afford to do repairs; if they say this, they will be sharply told that they should not be in the business. They cannot ask the tenant to pay for the repairs themselves.
It appears that it is perfectly acceptable for a local authority to do just that, as in Wandsworth. One rule for the social sector, one for the Private. Where is the equity in that?
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