HOUSING MINISTER Christopher Pincher said that over 450 assessors are being trained by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) on how to undertake external wall review (EWS1) checks.

Earlier this month, RICS revealed that the training course it had developed to help train more people to undertake EWS1 surveys had seen 1,2000 registrations, with the form, introduced in December 2019, having aimed to ‘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 professional ‘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 lenders began 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 being delayed. As a result of government advice ‘a much larger number of buildings’ fell into scope ‘than had been envisaged’, and the process ‘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’, and Minister for Fire and Building Safety Lord Greenhalgh held talks with RICS to ‘attempt to resolve confusion’. 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 form for possibly ‘several years’.

He later admitted that there are ‘fewer than 300’ qualified chartered fire engineers to undertake the surveys. In late August last year, Which? revealed leaseholders are ‘being duped into paying thousands’ to fraudsters using fake forms, and the crisis saw mortgage brokers report ‘delays and scuppered plans’ for clients.

The Fire Industry Association launched a portal that will ‘provide a central readily-accessible location for EWS1 forms’ and allow fire engineers to complete forms online. After this, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) reported that the government and banks are working on a more ‘risk-based’ approach to assessing properties with cladding. 

Then, Mr Pincher ‘refused to acknowledge’ any role in the issues stemming from government guidance, stating that the Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings guidance – released in January – ‘was written for building owners to ensure the safety of their buildings. It was not designed to be used for valuation purposes’.

In late November, Mr Johnson ‘slammed’ mortgage lenders for use of the form, but ‘failed to promise that leaseholders would not have to pay for cladding removal’, and in December the director of delivery at the Conveyancing Association (CA) revealed that the results of EWS1 surveys can be hidden if administrators want them to be.

Also in November, the government announced it would help homeowners by ensuring that owners of flats in buildings without cladding ‘will no longer need an EWS1 form to sell or remortgage’, as part of an agreement the government claimed it had reached with RICS, UK Finance and the Building Societies Association (BSA).

However, UK Finance and the BSA ‘did not consent’ to being part of the announcement, which said EWS1 forms ‘are not and have never been required’ for buildings without cladding. A finance industry source also said the proposal ‘did not mean properties with issues other than cladding would automatically be exempt’ from an EWS1 survey.

Buildings with wooden balconies and other issues ‘should have been included among those which still required’ external fire safety checks, and it would depend on the decision of a ‘suitably qualified, independent and properly insured surveyor’. The UK Cladding Action Group also pointed out that only a ‘small subset’ of buildings would benefit.

The UK mortgage industry added that this ‘does not solve the problem’ and that it ‘it changed nothing’ for buyers or sellers. In October, Mr Johnson had revealed that a reassessment of the form was being undertaken by RICS, after the housing, communities and local government committee (HCLGC) had, last yearbranded the form ‘slow and expensive’.

In January, a report from consultants Capital Economics found that around 1.27m flats in England ‘could be unmortgageable’ due to combustible cladding concerns. The consultants added that ‘if it was to be assumed’ that the government’s November statement in relation to EWS1 not applying to certain buildings ‘made no difference to the behaviour of lenders’, complications ‘could affect’ all buildings taller than 11m or three storeys.

More recently, RICS launched a consultation on new guidance that aimed to ‘clarify’ buildings that are required to undertake an EWS1 survey, and to ‘significantly’ reduce the number of properties requiring one. The guidance ‘looks to clarify’ building types that surveyors and mortgage lenders ‘should demand’ an EWS1 form for before the sale or purchase of apartments.

RICS then said that the government’s plan to provide indemnity insurance for professionals for fire safety assessments as part of its new cladding funding announcement ‘will ease current bottlenecks’. Most recently, mortgage lenders introduced legal clauses that prevent high rise tower blocks from ‘being used as security’ on housing association loans, contingent on an EWS1 certificate being provided.

Now, Inside Housing has reported on the latest comments from Mr Pincher, who confirmed in a parliamentary question last week that over 450 assessors are being trained by RICS to ‘give them the skills to carry out’ EWS1 checks on buildings clad with ‘potentially dangerous’ materials. He said last week that 453 candidates were ‘currently being put through’ the training programme.

The news outlet noted that the training is ‘aimed at upskilling chartered building surveyors and building control surveyors so they can carry out EWS checks and help unstick the flat sale market’. It also pointed out that the course helps inspectors ‘assess’ external wall systems and materials, construction and fire safety performance, and gives them the ‘skills to prepare a comprehensive report’ including recommendations, as well as defining ‘the scope of works’ required.

While passing the course will allow assessors to take decisions on buildings up to 18m, those above that height or those requiring ‘specialist training’ will still require a qualified fire safety engineer to undertake the EWS1 survey. Mr Pincher said: ‘To speed up valuations where EWS1 forms are justified, the government is providing nearly £700,000 funding to [RICS] to train up to 2,000 more assessors in 2021. This training commenced in January and there are currently 453 candidates on the course.’

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