HOUSING MINISTER Christopher Pincher admitted in parliament that there are ‘fewer than 300’ qualified chartered fire engineers who can carry out the external wall fire review (EWS1) survey.
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’.
Mortgage Solutions has now reported on the admission by Mr Pincher – in response to a written question from Labour MP Ruth Cadbury – that there are only 291 chartered fire engineers who ‘can carry out an EWS1 survey to assess the suitability of cladding on high rise buildings’. He also commented that the government was working with the fire sector to ‘try to increase’ the number, and to improve guidance for ‘assessing cladding and other external wall coverings’ on high rises.
Mr Pincher stated: ‘The EWS1 process was designed by [RICS] to support the valuation of flats in high-rise blocks. In some cases, this will require an assessment by a fire engineer. The Institution of Fire Engineers has informed [MHCLG] that there are around 291 chartered fire engineers.’
Ms Cadbury asked what the government was doing to increase the number of engineers, and what support and additional training was available, with Mr Pincher replying: ‘MHCLG and the Home Office are working with professional bodies and industry associations to assess the capacity of the fire engineering sector and support them to develop a robust pipeline strategy.
‘We are also working closely with the fire safety sector to develop technical guidance to support the fire risk assessment of external wall systems which will support increased capability within the wider sector and are supporting industry-led approaches to understanding fire engineering resource requirements within the sector.’