LBC reported on the views of Veronica, a landlord in Twickenham who ‘owns a range of properties’, and who has been affected by the issues surrounding the external wall fire review (EWS1) forms. 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’.

This referred 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 UK Finance, the Building Societies Association (BSA) and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), 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 within a month brokers began reporting 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. Residents have complained publicly including Wisteria Apartments in Londontenants of One Housing properties in London and Slough and residents of Zenith Close in London. Yesterday, a Which? investigation revealed that leaseholders are ‘being duped into paying thousands’ to fraudsters using fake EWS1 forms, with the government notified.

LBC was told by Veronica that ‘many’ of her properties ‘are in buildings with cladding that require this form’, and ‘the only way she can get insurance’ is to hire a waking watch ‘to make sure the building is not on fire’, as until she can acquire the forms ‘she can’t sell’. However, ‘she felt worse for the people who lived in those buildings – and don’t know whether they are safe or not’, with up to three million people nationwide surmised to be affected by the situation.

The news outlet noted that with lenders demanding EWS1 forms for blocks, prospective sellers are usually told ‘no form, no sale’ and their flats ‘are worth zero’, with an ‘up to’ 10 year waiting list due to the low number of chartered fire engineers. Veronica told LBC: ‘In one of my buildings, the owners and the occupants are having to pay for “walking watches” - 24-hour watch for people to walk around the building and check every hour because that’s the only way it’s insurable.

‘They check that it’s not on fire and if it is on fire, they raise the alarm. It’s because the insurance company is saying that is what they want to happen in order to insure the building. Not only are people living in a building that they are fearful of living in, but you’ve got an insurance company saying they won’t insure it. So a walking watch is seen as a solution. And this could last for years.’