THE ROYAL Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) will introduce a course, funded by the government, to help surveyors ‘progress their knowledge’ in fire safety and help solve the external wall fire review (EWS1) process issue.

Best Advice reported on the launch of the training, which the government announced at the same time as it confirmed that flat owners in buildings without cladding ‘will no longer need’ EWS1 forms to sell or remortgage properties. The course will help ‘chartered building and building control surveyors further progress their knowledge in fire safety’, with the government announcing £700,000 in funding to train ‘more assessors’.

This would help in turn to increase the speed of the ‘valuation process for homeowners in cases where an EWS1 form is required’, with the training to be launched in January 2021 and – according to the government – mean that ‘up to 200 additional assessors will be qualified to carry out the EWS1 assessment within a month, 900 within three months, and 2,000 within six months’.

The course will take up to eight weeks to complete, and is designed for chartered building and building control surveyors ‘who already have a base knowledge to undertake external wall system assessments for low to medium risk residential buildings’, in turn ‘increasing the number of professionals to support the current market demand’, though buildings 18m or over requiring specialist training ‘will still require a qualified fire safety engineer’.

The course aims to ensure professionals can ‘identify and interpret effective information required for inspections from stakeholders’, as well as undertake inspection processes in addition to ‘intrusive’ inspections. They will also be able to ‘assess an external wall system’ including materials, construction and fire safety performance; understand fire risks presented by these; and define the scope of work ‘effectively through contracts and terms of engagement when taking instructions’.

Finally, it will help them ‘identify the legal framework and key standards affecting fire safety’ as well as legal liability’, and to ‘prepare a comprehensive report with recommendations’. RICS chief executive officer Sean Tompkins stated: ‘We are aware of the severe impact this has had on some homeowners and we agree that buildings without cladding should not be subject to the process. We will be taking forward work with industry on this.

‘Further, we recognise the acute market shortage of fire engineers to carry out EWS1 assessments and welcome the Government’s support on working with us to upskill other regulated professions, such as Chartered Building Surveyors, to create additional capacity in the market.’

BBC News and The Guardian reported however on concerns about the training, with Adrian Buckmaster, director of cladding company Tetraclad wondering whether ‘they can just give these people a two-day training course for £350? You can’t train experience in the built environment’.

The Building Societies Association and UK Finance welcomed the training, stating it would ‘focus attention for more investigation on the higher-risk buildings’, and adding in a joint statement: ‘We welcome the announcement of the training and guidance for valuers that will deliver more assessors and the work to ensure that these assessors have the necessary professional indemnity insurance.

‘In time, this will enable a more proportionate approach, allowing these valuers to triage the buildings they look at and focus attention for more investigation on the higher-risk buildings. Lenders’ objective is to ensure the safety of all, whilst enabling a normally functioning market and we will continue to work with government and RICS in pursuit of the best solution for affected customers.

‘In practical terms, with the exception of a few occasions where they were demanded in error, which have since been rectified, an EWS1 form has never been required for a building without any form of cladding. There are buildings which may look as though they are solid brick built, but are in fact clad with unknown materials behind the brick and some buildings with no cladding may have a balcony built of combustible material which a surveyor zay refer for further investigation.’

Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed in parliament that a reassessment of the form was being undertaken by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), after the news earlier this year that the housing, communities and local government committee (HCLGC) had branded the EWS1 form ‘slow and expensive’, and asked for the government to step in.

This was not only because the process was ‘not working’, but it should create a ‘faster and fairer’ system, because the ‘industry-designed’ form was ‘slow and expensive’ and ‘applied to an unnecessarily wide range of buildings’. The form, introduced last December, 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 building 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 the aforementioned 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’, before 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’.

Mr Pincher later admitted that there are ‘fewer than 300’ qualified chartered fire engineers to undertake the surveys. Residents have complained publicly including Wisteria Apartments in Londontenants of One Housing properties in London and Sloughresidents of Zenith Close in London, a resident in Hackney and a landlord in Twickenham

In late August, Which? revealed that leaseholders are ‘being duped into paying thousands’ to fraudsters using fake EWS1 forms, with the government notified, and the growing crisis has seen mortgage brokers report ‘delays and scuppered plans’ for their clients. A survey of leaseholders found that ‘nearly nine in 10’ or 89% who have received EWS1 checks have been told their buildings require remediation work.

Last month, it was discovered that the EWS1 form for Marseilles House at Century Wharf in Cardiff was fake, with a surveyor confirming that she ‘had not carried out the survey or signed the form’, and ‘was horrified that the survey took place with her signature’. The company hired to conduct the survey said it ‘only produces a report’ signed off by a third party chartered surveyor for £200, and ‘had also been the victim of fraud’.

That company – Specialist Facade Inspections (SFI) - withdrew every certificate containing the false signature, reviewed each case and reissued each certificate, but was reported later to have provided ‘at least 15 more’ forged certificates – and its new certificates also have signatures ‘from someone apparently not currently registered to sign the forms’.

More recently, 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, and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) reported that the government and banks are working on a more ‘risk-based’ approach to assessing properties with cladding.

Most recently, 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’.

He added that the process ‘was designed by’ RICS ‘to address lender concerns about cladding in high-rise residential buildings, but industry has applied it more widely than it was intended. Government does not support a blanket use of EWS1. The building safety minister has met with mortgage lenders seeking their support to a more proportionate approach to valuation of multi storey, multi-occupied residential buildings’.