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 Institution 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’.

More 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 that there are ‘fewer than 300’ qualified chartered fire engineers to undertake the surveys.

A series of residents have now complained publicly about the issue affecting their ability to sell homes, including Wisteria Apartments – owned by fashion company Burberry – in London, alongside tenants of One Housing properties across both London and Slough. LBC has now reported on similar concerns for the residents of the block in Colindale, after building surveys found ‘fire safety defects’ in the external walls.

Residents said that they felt like ‘prisoners in their own homes’ having been told that flats were ‘effectively worthless’, as it ‘could be up to 42 months’ before the EWS1 process is completed and ‘they can sell up and leave’. The building was given a B2 rating, meaning combustible materials were found in the walls and ‘an adequate standard of safety is not achieved, with combustible insulation having been installed and cavity barriers ‘missing’ around windows.

Building management company Notting Hill Genesis told residents that the building ‘doesn’t match the drawings they were provided with from the builder’, Hill, with which it had a ‘design and build contract’ – meaning that the two firms are ‘locked in negotiations over who should pay’, a process which could take up to 42 months ‘before the building can be made safe again’. Residents are also concerned about the ‘thousands of pounds a year’ for a waking watch and new fire alarm system.

Hill were contacted for comment, while a Notting Hill Genesis spokesperson stated: ‘Our appointed fire experts have carried our extensive surveys of 11, 13 and 15 Zenith Close and identified combustible insulation within cavity walls and missing cavity barriers. While these are not deemed to be high risk, we are following the advice of our fire consultants and best practice to fulfil our role as a responsible landlord.

‘This has included using a 24-hour waking watch and upgrading the fire alarm system. We are working with the original developers to agree a programme of works, but from our experience these discussions can take anything from six to 18 months to find a settlement. At this stage we are unable to specific about when we expect the work to be completed.

‘We are sympathetic to the issues being faced by leaseholders who are unable to sell their home and supporting them as much as we can, including granting permission to sub-let. This is a national issue affecting all building owners whether public or private and we will continue to help our residents deal with the effects of this latest government guidance.’