Recently, the housing, communities and local government committee (HCLGC) found that ‘fixing fire safety defects’ in high risk residential buildings could cost up to £15bn, and branded the mortgage industry’s cladding form ‘slow and expensive’, specifically the EWS1 process to help banks ‘make lending decisions on high rise properties with a potential fire risk’.

It asked for the government to step in, as not only was the process ‘not working’ but it should ‘take control’ by putting a ‘faster and fairer’ system in place, as the ‘industry-designed’ process was ‘slow and expensive’ and ‘applied to an unnecessarily wide range of buildings’. It also believed ministers should have ‘issued clearer guidance’ to mortgage lenders before advising on fire risk buildings.

The form, introduced last December, came from collaborations between mortgage and housing market trade bodies and industry experts, including UK Finance, the Building Societies Association and the Royal Insitution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). It was intended to help ‘create a standardised process that would make it easier for brokers and homeowners to find suitable mortgages’.

A valuer could request it from a building owner or representative, and require a building professional to ‘confirm that the actual material on the walls posed a limited risk or was non-combustible’. Should it contain materials that ‘posed a significant fire risk’, a ‘detailed description of what was needed to fix it had to be issued’, but within a month brokers began reporting that lenders were rejecting mortgage applications.

This was because of ‘outstanding cladding inspections trapping borrowers with their current providers’, and so applications were being cancelled due to inspection requests – made to management and maintenance companies of high rises affected – being delayed. At the time, this related to ‘those qualified to issue the EWS1 certificate, the number of buildings that need to be inspected and the time needed to complete this review’.

HCLGC said there was a ‘lack of qualified, insured chartered fire engineers to undertake the required surveys’, so a ‘large number of buildings would not be inspected for many years’. The EWS1 surveys have also been expensive, with costs ‘typically passed to residents through their service charges even where no fire safety defects were found’.

As a result of fire safety advice from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), ‘a much larger number of buildings’ fell into scope ‘than had been envisaged’, and ‘the process has lacked sufficient input from leaseholder representatives, but also other important stakeholders, including the insurance industry’.

RICS urged the government ‘to take greater ownership of the situation’, whilst also noting that ‘at least’ 860 EWS forms ‘have already been completed’, meaning homeowners in at least 800 blocks ‘have been able to buy, sell and remortgage or plan remediation works. EWS1 was created to find a solution to the problems caused in 18m+ tower blocks by MHCLG advice’.

MHCLG’s consolidated advice note in January 2020 ‘caused further significant confusion when it brought all buildings regardless of height into scope and added to the already known capacity issues with fire experts. RICS continues to call on government to take ownership and properly fund remediation works to all affected buildings. Only with a well thought out, government funded strategy, will leaseholders be able to live in safe buildings’.

Recently, Minister for Fire and Building Safety Lord Greenhalgh held talks with RICS to ‘attempt to resolve confusion’, and then Housing Minister Christopher Pincher stated mortgage lenders are reviewing how the forms are used, though some residents have been told by housing associations that they ‘cannot produce’ the EWS1 form for possibly ‘several years’. Mr Pincher later admitted in parliament that there are ‘fewer than 300’ qualified chartered fire engineers to undertake the surveys.

Inside Housing reported on the Hackney block and Burberry being ‘dragged into [the] EWS crisis’, with leaseholders and shared owners in the block having ‘voiced their frustration’ after flat sales fell through ‘due to the freeholder being unable to carry out checks’ on its cladding. Some have also been unable to remortgage blocks, and alleged that ‘despite knowing about the issues for months Burberry has been unable to make progress’ on undertaking the EWS1 checks.

The 87 apartment block – which has an outlet store for the fashion company on the ground floor – was ‘stressed’ by the company to be ‘safe’, and it also noted that it has ‘engaged extensively’ with ‘multiple fire safety specialists over recent years’ to ensure that the building ‘remains compliant with all government guidelines, standards and legislation’. It understood residents’ ‘stress and frustration’, and was ‘trying to navigate the lengthy and complex process to obtain’ an EWS certificate.

The block had a fire risk assessment in March, which identified expanded polystyrene was used on the building, with the assessment calling for this to be ‘tested to assess the safety of the material’. Inside Housing said it understood the material is ‘confined to a small part of the building and is not in the cladding’, with Burberry adding that it had the cladding inspected in 2018, at which time it ‘complied with government regulations’.

It has also looked to have a BS 8414 test on the cladding to show it remains compliant, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘demand for testing facilities’ its attempts have been ‘beset by delays’, while it is also experiencing issue with ‘securing the original as-built drawings of the building’. Building management company Peabody told leaseholders in a letter that tests could not begin until original developer Mount Anvil has provided the drawings, which have not yet ‘been possible to obtain’.

As a consequence, EWS checks ‘cannot yet be arranged’, and it could ‘take until the end of the year for this to be completed’, though Burberry will fund ‘all of the labour and costs associated’ with the testing. One leaseholder said: ‘Following the latest fire assessment for the building we are aware there is EPS cladding in our building and it falls on Burberry to investigate this before providing a EWS form and Burberry has known about this for some time. To date we still don’t know if the cladding/materials within our building are safe.’

A Burberry spokesperson responded: ‘Working with the Peabody Trust and Mount Anvil, we are doing everything we can to help residents. Safety remains our top priority and we have engaged extensively with multiple fire safety specialists over recent years to ensure the building remains compliant with all government guidelines, standards and legislation, as these have been updated. The building is safe.

‘We understand the stress and frustration residents are experiencing as we work to navigate the lengthy and complex process to obtain the required certification. We are doing all we can to resolve this as quickly as possible, working with specialist partners and regulatory bodies.’