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 external wall fire review (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 most recently Housing Minister Christopher Pincher stated mortgage lenders are reviewing how the forms are used. Mortgage Solutions has now reported on Siobhan Frost and her partner, who live in a housing association flat in a seven storey block on Mint Street in Bethnal Green, and are ‘trapped’ because housing association Peabody ‘cannot produce’ the EWS1 form.

The couple were warned that it could be ‘several years’ before the form is ready, and under their lease they cannot ‘rent out the property’, having bought the two bedroom flat via shared ownership five years ago and got into a position at the end of 2019 to ‘staircase’ up to buy the rest of the property, allowing them to own the flat ‘and be able to sell it on the open market’.

Having paid for a valuation and been offered a mortgage ‘on the proviso of producing’ the EWS1 form, they then ‘found it difficult to get hold of anyone’ at Peabody ‘who could provide any information on how to get hold of the form to give to the lender’, and ‘in the mean time the mortgage offer expired’. After chasing for weeks, they were told the association had over 500 buildings to check and could not provide a date when the form would be available.

Ms Frost stated: ‘We were told by Peabody they don’t know how long it’s going to take for the form, it may take a couple of years. We also can’t rent it out because of Peabody rules. We’re stuck and left in limbo – and about to have a baby. It’s a really frustrating situation.’

The news outlet pointed out that the building they live in has cladding on the top floor ‘which will likely need removing before’ the form can be provided, with the cladding an extra concern despite Peabody installing ‘extra fire alarms’. An MHCLG spokesperson said: ‘It is unacceptable that some residents have found themselves in limbo.

‘The EWS1 process is designed to support valuations for high rises where cladding may be a concern – this is because of the exceptional risk fire can present at height. While not all lenders require an EWS1 form, owners of buildings 18m and over should be as transparent as possible about the construction of their building and fire safety measures in place.’

A Peabody spokesman added: ‘We understand the frustration and anxiety felt by leaseholders who are in this difficult position through no fault of their own. Regrettably it is an issue affecting thousands of people up and down the country. As you will be aware, the problem arose last year and is being driven by mortgage lenders and valuers wanting evidence that is complex and difficult to obtain.

‘Many will not lend on a property unless they have evidence that a building is compliant with the latest government advice issued in January this year. This evidence is an EWS1 form and to get this we have to carry out a detailed, sometimes intrusive, survey which then has to be signed off by a chartered fire engineer.

‘With many thousands of buildings affected there are a limited number of qualified fire experts in the UK who can assess buildings, carry out inspections, confirm whether remediation work is required, and issue EWS1 certification. At Mint Street, works will involve replacing the cladding on the upper floors, as well as investigating the external wall system to resolve any issues.

‘These two things will happen at the same time, which means that the fire engineer can sign an EWS1 form based on their assessment of the building after the work is completed. We are aware that residents have been concerned about our communications on this. We’ve apologised and wrote to all residents at the development last week to update them on our plans. We’ll now be providing monthly updates to keep them up to date on our progress.’