Following the events of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the headlines for the building and development industry have been dominated by a focus on materials. However, discussions on another crucial – but at times overlooked – priority for fire safety have also been ramping up: that of resident engagement. Mark Varley, group head of health and safety at FirstPort, takes a look
As the UK’s largest residential property manager, overseeing 185,000 homes across 3,900 developments, FirstPort recently responded to a government call for evidence that seeks to understand the importance of good resident engagement, its implications for fire safety, and how standards can be raised across the board.
Effective engagement is one of the most nuanced aspects of property management and is relevant across all forms of building and tenure. The key challenge within the existing system is the fragmentation of health and safety responsibilities between different parties – the developer, building owner or landlord, property manager and residents.
It is building owners that, post-Hackitt, are set to become dutyholders for health and safety. To perform this role effectively, they need greater oversight and access to homes within buildings to keep their occupants safe. Our role, as property managers, is to make sure that we foster the good relationships and genuine trust with residents that make this job easier – and ultimately keeps buildings safe.
Working in tandem
It’s only through good engagement with both the supply chain and residents that property managers will be able to support dutyholders properly.
Dame Judith’s findings emphasise the need for transparency and scrutiny over health and safety throughout a building’s lifetime – this is what she calls the ‘golden thread’. Dutyholders therefore need thorough oversight of contractors’ activity from day one – starting with initial blueprints, and continuing through a paper trail documenting all subsequent interventions in the building fabric.
To be robust, this must include activity both within communal areas and individual dwellings. Experienced property managers are well placed to track this information on behalf of dutyholders, but need to be given the necessary rights to manage the responsibility. In future, this will very possibly involve rights to go ‘behind the flat front door’ and ensure safety standards are being met in individual dwellings as well as in common areas. This is a sensitive topic, which makes fostering good relationships and genuine trust with residents even more critical.
Building this trust depends on having a personable and responsive approach and on cultivating strong relationships. Some residents will always be more open to this than others, and it’s part of our job to make sure we engage those who are hard to reach.
Proposals have been put forward for more robust and standardised strategies – and we support this. However, it’s vital that engagement doesn’t become a ‘tick-box’ exercise – resident engagement is an inexact science and strategies should be tailored at each development. Crucially, better practice doesn’t always mean more engagement; rather, it requires meaningful communication with residents, in the way that is most effective for them. This comes through being proactive, using clear and good quality communication to minimise hazards and helping residents manage the risks in their homes.
Our response to the government’s call for evidence outlined our belief that engagement should be collaborative, inclusive and personal. This means being responsive to feedback and encouraging involvement and choice over health and safety matters where we can. It means engaging all residents and making sure that issues are decided fairly and democratically. And it means tailoring engagement to the specific needs and circumstances of residents.
Adopting this approach to better resident engagement enables us to support dutyholders for health and safety. However, at the same time, we need to recognise that engagement can sometimes only go so far. The division of risk is a fundamental aspect of whole-building safety – and while resident engagement can help maintain this, there are times when greater intervention is required.
This needs to be considered in the context of wider reform to the residential property system, including of the leasehold and management systems. While the response to Hackitt is ongoing, large parts of these frameworks are also under review, with an emphasis – quite rightly – on giving consumers more involvement and control over their homes. While we welcome this aim, it’s important to recognise that more control can lead to onerous responsibilities for resident management companies – including significant fire safety obligations.
This is a complex puzzle, and we need clear guidance from government on how responsibility for fire safety will be divided. It’s critical that the obligations of dutyholders for health and safety are supported by rights to identify, manage and remediate risks.
The sector needs certainty over the mechanisms through which building owners as dutyholders and their property management teams can take a whole building approach to managing health and safety – ensuring that residents’ voices are heard, but that new dutyholders also have appropriate oversight where they need to.
While we are moving in the right direction, for example with anticipated new rights to go ‘beyond the flat front door’, it is crucial that reform is considered from all perspectives if we are to achieve Hackitt’s objectives, and keep our buildings safe.
Head of Health and Safety