UK flats

A SURVEY of social landlords found that fire safety would be their ‘biggest housing management concern’ over the next 12 months, though ‘the job is far from over’ despite work already done.

Inside Housing reported on its survey of social housing landlords alongside communication specialist BECG, which saw half of respondents stating that fire safety ‘would be their biggest housing management concern of the next 12 months’. With a ‘wave’ of remedial works having taken place in the sector post Grenfell, and with the Fire Safety Bill and amendments to building regulations, social landlords have ‘conducted major refurbishments’, repairs and maintenance.

However, the survey found that ‘although much has been done around fire safety, the job is far from over’, with fire safety costs ‘anticipated to take a further financial toll on the sector’ in the next year. Added to this, the ‘challenging backdrop’ of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant an ‘interesting trend’ towards digital communications ‘appears to be accelerating’, because social landlords continue to ‘grapple with the complexities’ of keeping residents informed about ‘complex and disruptive works’.

The survey polled 111 organisations from across the UK, with 89.2% part of the social housing sector and ‘nearly two-thirds’ of these housing associations, while the other 10% included private rented landlords (4.5%), hospital trusts (0.9%) and supported living facilities (2.7%). Asked to rank fire safety surveying and remediation in terms of risk management, 82% of those surveyed it said these are a ‘top-three priority’, with ‘nearly a third’ saying these were a ‘number-one’ priority.

Nearly half of respondents said these would be their ‘biggest housing management issue over the next 12 months’, meanwhile, and the news outlet pointed out that the results ‘crystallise’ how much of a financial impact this will have on the sector, with over half stating that fire safety would have either a ‘very significant’ or a ‘significant’ impact on financial performance in the next 12 months.

On communicating changes to residents, a ‘clear trend emerged’ of organisations offering a more digital approach, as a ‘substantial’ 76% of respondents said they’d either implemented a ‘more joined-up’ digital consumer approach in the last year or ‘would be looking to introduce one’ in the next 12 months. Another 31% said they implemented such systems faster due to COVID-19, and 22% said a transformation to this would be completed within 12 months; 18% within two to five years.

Tony O’Neill, director of asset management at Sanctuary Group, said that fire safety costs would ‘absolutely’ and ‘undoubtedly affect’ the sector ‘in a major way’, and ‘are going to have a significant impact, particularly with the guidance that’s coming out. Bearing in mind that we wouldn’t have allowed for this two to three years ago in terms of reinvestment or strategy going forward. In fact, I personally think it’s going to put quite a lot of housing associations under’.

He was one of 66 respondents, or 63%, who believe the government is ‘not providing enough financial support’ to cover costs of external wall fire safety surveying and remediation work, while BECG board director Julius Duncan noted that the survey showed the sector is ‘clearly on board’ with ‘cutting through these complicated issues to find ways of communicating better with residents’, and COVID-19 ‘playing a critical role in accelerating that innovation’.

He added: ‘You’ve got a double effect of just how much additional work there is and communicating this quite complicated information to residents, plus you’ve got COVID-19 wrapping around that, which means digital communication and remote engagement is becoming more and more important.

‘For those landlords who have needed to continue with large fire safety remediation projects this year, it has been vital to update residents to the changes that will affect their home, for example the erecting of scaffolding or the temporary closure of a car park. To keep projects moving, many housing providers have been relying on technology a lot more, such as holding resident meetings as webinars.

‘We’ve found residents respond to this well as they like the real-time conversation and because of the flexibility of an online forum compared to a physical meeting, there has been more attendance. It is also more engaging and effective than delivering letters through doors – and there is the cost-saving element.’