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RMC Building Safety Explained

Building safety – planning for change

The Government is undertaking a complete overhaul of the rules and regulations around fire safety in England and Wales. Widely seen as a once in a generation package of reform, its aim is to modernise the current system, raise standards, and make homes safer for the people who live in them.

The planned changes have been closely scrutinised and debated by politicians and experts, and some details still need to be ironed out and finalised. We know that change can be unsettling. This web page seeks to explain the main proposals being put forward as they currently stand, but will be updated as further details are confirmed.

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What’s going to change and why?

The new regime will affect everyone who lives in what will be known as a higher risk residential building (HRRB). Based on current draft legislation, this is defined as a residential building that is either seven storeys and above or more than 18 metres high.

The changes are the result of nearly five years of work by the UK Government. They will apply to buildings in England as well as Wales, and will give ministers in the Senedd Cymru the power to adapt and reform construction specifications. They do not apply to Scotland, which uses a different system of building ownership and management, and is putting in place its own reforms to safety systems and regulations.

The key principles of the new system are covered in the Building Safety Act, a significant piece of legislation. At the same time, the Government is also seeking to give leaseholders more control and power over the places they live. That will involve changes to the leasehold system which will mean residents have more of a say over the day-to-day running of their developments.

Together, the two reform agendas mean that residents will have more fire safety requirements to plan for. Different developments operate in different ways, and the impact of these changes will vary for people in traditional leasehold-freehold buildings, compared to those in resident managed or commonhold developments. Our view is that one size doesn’t fit all, and each model has its benefits – reform is an opportunity to bring more choice to our customers and that should be welcomed.

However, for these changes to succeed, it is important that everyone understands how their role will evolve, the level of responsibility they will have, and the support which is available to them including from their property manager. In particular, resident management companies (RMCs) will be given more responsibility in the new regulatory regime and so it is especially important for resident directors to have all the information they need.

We know that most volunteer for the role, or are elected to it, because they have pride in the places they live and want to have a positive impact on it. In our recent survey 70% of RMC directors said that this was the case. These changes should mean that they will have more opportunity to step up and make a difference. However, our research shows that at the moment only 12% of resident directors say they have a strong grasp of the changes that are due to take place.

The information below covers how the new framework is expected to work, what it will mean for RMCs and resident directors, the role of property managers like FirstPort in the new system, and how responsibilities will be enforced.

Key principles of the new building safety framework

1. Roles and responsibilities – who does what?

The Building Safety Act has introduced new roles and job titles to the building safety system. The most important of these is the Accountable Person.

The Accountable Person will be the person or group of people with the ultimate job of ensuring building safety standards are met. They will assess risks, ensure all the right information is kept about the development, and make sure that residents are up to date with all relevant safety information, like what to do if there is a fire.

It is expected that in most cases, the Accountable Person will be the building’s owner (or 'freeholder'), but in circumstances where a development is managed by an RMC, they will take on the role. That means that individual resident directors will need to make sure the new building safety system is being followed.

For some this will be a natural extension of their current role, but for many it will mean a new set of duties. The Building Safety Act takes these responsibilities very seriously, and they are legally binding obligations which resident directors will need to fulfil.

As residents look to take a greater active role in the management of their homes, we are seeing an increasing number of RMCs established at newly-built developments. That means the number of RMCs operating in England and Wales is set to grow, making it all the more important for everyone to understand their role.

While the Accountable Person is expected to have ultimate responsibility for buildings and their safety, in many cases they will need to rely on other experts with the know-how and skills needed to carry out the necessary safety functions and be the ‘boots on the ground’. The Accountable Person will determine how this should be done.

2. Standards and competency – what does good look like?

Some of the most important parts of the new framework for building safety are about improving transparency and making more information available. This is to make sure that it is always clear who has responsibility for the building and any changes to it. This includes documenting which materials have been used in construction, and confirming that building safety systems are operating properly.

That will be achieved through a number of new mechanisms. Fundamentally the new system is designed so that each development has a 'golden thread' of information attached to it. In practice that will be a digital case file which contains all of the necessary safety information, from blueprint designs to up to date risk assessments. Importantly, this golden thread will include everything relevant from the planning and construction phase through to the present day. It will be the job of the Accountable Person to build and update the golden thread.

Another key function of a good development will be the safety case report. This is an assessment that will be made by the Accountable Person of building safety risks, as well as the steps which have been taken to prevent incidents. There will also be a register of higher risk residential buildings which relevant developments must be signed up to.

Ultimately, good practice will involve thorough and careful work by the Accountable Person – supported by building and safety experts – to identify risks and show how they are being managed. Reporting systems and the golden thread are designed to make that process easier – setting out clearly how information is recorded and logged.

Listening to residents will be really important. A major part of the job of the Accountable Person will be to develop systems which allow for the investigation of complaints or concerns from those who live in the building.

3. Regulation and oversight – how will the new regime be managed and kept on track?

The Building Safety Act is introducing a new regulator for buildings which fall under its remit within England. This will be known as the Building Safety Regulator. The regulator will be a body that oversees how building safety laws are put into practice and will set the timetable for doing so. It is being created by the Government but will be independent and will have the job of administering the new rules and making sure these are being adhered to. It will have the power to review and issue penalties if the new building safety regime is not being followed.

The regulator will be tasked with making sure that those involved in planning, designing and building homes have the right level of skills and expertise. It will also check this is the case for companies that manage buildings once they have been built and are being lived in.

To show that a building is safe, a Building Assurance Certificate will need to be obtained from the Building Safety Regulator for all HRRBs, and the building will need to be registered. Getting one of these certificates will be the job of the Accountable Person and will be subject to how well the safety case report has been put together.

To do its job, the regulator will need to work in partnership with others including local councils, fire and rescue services and building control bodies.

New legislation will also require developers to be members of the New Homes Ombudsman, and allow residents of new build homes to escalate complaints to the ombudsman and receive an independent ruling.

While the regulator will only oversee buildings in England, the devolved Government in Wales has also announced plans to establish a similar body.

4. Communication and transparency – the residents’ voice and Golden Thread

One of the most important findings from the Government’s work on building safety has been that residents’ voices should be heard. People should be empowered to call out bad practice, and they must feel confident their comments or concerns will be listened to.

The Government therefore wants to make sure that residents have access to more information and can be more involved in management of risk in their building. This is to help improve accountability, and make sure that any errors or wrongdoing can be spotted.

One of the key ways that information will be made available is through the golden thread. The Building Safety Regulator will require this to be in place for all HRRBs and it will be up to the Accountable Person to make sure it is regularly updated and accurate.

The Accountable Person will also be required to proactively engage with residents in HRRBs, including by creating and regularly updating a Residents’ Engagement Strategy, and making sure there is a clear and effective complaints process in place. In the new system, residents will also be able to escalate concerns directly to the regulator.

What does this mean for resident directors? How to prepare for change and where to find support

For resident directors, there is time to prepare for the changes which are coming down the track. It is expected that the new framework won’t be finalised until the end of 2022 at the earliest, and work will likely extend into 2023.

The most important thing is that each person understands and can prepare for their responsibilities. Even though all the detail is yet to be confirmed, the sooner you can start conversations with your freeholder and property manager, the better.

Experienced and professional operators in our industry are already making preparations as well. The new regime will affect the work we do and we expect to support the Accountable Person in carrying out many of the new responsibilities set out in the Building Safety Act through – adapting and in some cases expanding our existing services.

For RMCs which take on the Accountable Person role, appointing the right professional team will be a crucial decision. A good manager will take the pressure off resident directors, so that you don’t have to worry about day-to-day jobs and tasks. They will also be able to provide knowledge and advice. Professional managers understand how fire systems work and have the skills and knowledge needed to service large and complex buildings. These will be priceless tools.

It is important that RMC directors collaborate with property managers which are ready and prepared for the change. Our industry is not formally regulated and standards often vary between smaller operators and larger management companies like FirstPort. We actively support more formal standards and would welcome statutory regulation of our industry. We also work with industry bodies like the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA), which represent managing agents and are working to raise standards among those at the less professional end of the sector.

About FirstPort

We understand the responsibilities, pressures and complexities that property management creates for Resident Directors. We’re here to help Directors of Right to Manage (RTM) Companies and Resident Management Companies (RMC), as well as Residents Associations, to successfully navigate their duties and make sure their homes are a great place to live for their neighbours and communities.

With over 40 years’ experience, FirstPort works with over 1,000 resident managed developments across the UK, helping RTM and RMC Directors meet their management and legal obligations, all while delivering a great service for residents too.

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