This time last year, if you’d asked me what would be the biggest issue for the property sector in 2020, I might have said Brexit. That’s still a concern, of course, with questions to be answered as the transition period runs out. I might also have predicted severe issues around cladding and fire safety which proved to be devastating for many leaseholders unable to sell up and move on, and in the meantime feeling unsafe in their own homes. It’s been estimated that replacing unsafe cladding in London alone will cost £4 billion, and understandably, time and funds have been diverted into dealing with cladding at the expense of regular maintenance.
What none of us saw coming a year ago was the impact of coronavirus. In a matter of weeks early this year, it went from being something that was happening in China to an emergency that changed the way we all live and work. So between the pandemic and the cladding catastrophe, Brexit has barely registered as a concern in 2020. These are the issues that have seen many of our long-term plans go out the window.
As a result of the lockdowns, many buildings have not had the attention they normally would. There have been fewer routine inspections and less attention to maintenance. On top of that, with thousands of people either not able to work at all or on reduced incomes, some leaseholders are struggling to make their service charge payments, which in turn means property managers’ budgets have taken a hit. For many if not most landlords and managing agents, whatever maintenance strategy they previously had in place has had to be reassessed to account for pandemic-related budget issues, as well as fire upgrades and similar urgent priorities.
Looking forward, then, what this means is that the focus for the next two or three years may, out of necessity, be reactive rather than proactive. That might not be ideal, but we have to live in the real world. The point I want to emphasise is that this doesn’t have to mean abandoning a strategic view altogether. The difference is that in this context, being strategic means making a conscious decision to be reactive, and making sure everyone is aligned with that, at least as a temporary measure. So if we’re going to have a reactive regime, we can at least ensure it’s a “planned” reactive regime.
First things first, we know many buildings are going to need urgent major works to put in place fire upgrades and cladding replacements, and those things are going to take a massive chunk out of budgets as a minimum, leading to a backlog of other maintenance priorities. We need to be prepared for the fact that these unexpected “big ticket” items are undoubtedly going to dictate the shape of maintenance cycles for the next few years.
But making a deliberate decision to postpone other works is very different from simply forgetting about them, because this way we can at least make a note that they will be required in due course, and monitor the situation to check for any further deterioration. In other words, better a backlog you know about than one you don’t!
We know traditional planned preventative maintenance (PPM) is going to be seen by many building managers as a luxury they can’t afford, but it’s important not to forget that a good maintenance strategy will save money and hassle in the long run. And the good news is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It is possible for surveyors to carry out a more basic health-check on buildings to flag any issues that are obvious to a trained professional but might be missed by someone else. That way, they can offer reassurance where appropriate, or advice about interim measures that might be necessary even in lieu of full repairs.
Digital technology is also proving increasingly helpful in our business. One consequence of lockdown is that businesses everywhere are taking advantage of online video apps to hold virtual meetings and presentations, and the residential property sector is no different. Similar technology can be used to put together more time and cost-efficient alternatives to a written planned preventative maintenance plan. A surveyor can simply take a phone or tablet and ‘walk through’ a building area by area to point out issues the property manager should be looking out for, which they can then use to guide their own inspections, calling in additional help if they have any concerns.
Meanwhile, another piece of tech that’s come into its own is drones. These provide visual access to areas that would not otherwise be accessible without expensive scaffolding, and frankly offer better views. And of course they provide a permanent record that can be viewed again and again. Drones have been handy this year, but they are also likely to remain part of the maintenance toolkit in the years to come.
Despite the challenges that 2020 has thrown our way, we have done our best to adapt and even flourish: new working practices, new team members, and arguably better alignment with key clients. 2020 has, however, hit us all in various ways, and has certainly had an impact on the property sector. But as much as we recognise the need to adapt, dropping planned maintenance altogether is not an option. Doing it differently certainly is. We might not have seen the pandemic coming, but as we all adapt to the new normal, let’s head into 2021 with our eyes wide open.
14th December 2020
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