The government has issued new advice clarifying that multi-storey, multi-occupied residential buildings do not need to be assessed for external wall surveys if they do not have external cladding.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick agreed that buildings without cladding do not need an External Wall Survey (EWS1) form, clearing the way for up to nearly 450,000 flat owners to sell, move or remortgage their homes.
Government has also put in £700,000 to fund training for more fire risk assessors to complete the industry-created EWS1 form – at present there are just 300 servicing the whole UK.
And it is also exploring ways to widen professional indemnity insurance availability for those fire risk assessors.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) statement said the new advice was part of a wider solution to support those homeowners who have unsafe cladding on their buildings and where there is still more to do.
According to the latest data from MHCLG, there are 88,000 buildings in the UK above 11m in height – of these, the department estimates that only 30,000 do not require an EWS1 form, meaning around 58,000 still do.
Pressure from lenders pays off
The move to issue new advice was agreed with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and lenders after pressure from lenders for MHCLG to clarify its guidance note published in January.
That January guidance extended previously issued guidance on buildings over 18m tall to all multi-storey residential buildings.
This led to extended use of the EWS1 form to assess the risk of external cladding on more buildings than originally intended and is causing significant hold-ups of months or even years due to a shortage of fire safety inspectors.
MHCLG has continually said it was down to lenders not to use the EWS1 forms where unnecessary, but mortgage providers have protested they must ensure that all buildings are safe for residents and for them to understand the risk they are lending on.
More proportionate approach allowed
RICS and lenders welcomed the move.
A RICS spokesperson said: “RICS welcomes the announcement from government, in particular the commitment to work with us on the delivery of vital training which will allow the upskilling of many professionals to undertake these assessments.
“Following supplementary guidance published by the government, RICS will review the guidance and will work with lenders, valuers, conveyancers, in consultation with fire safety bodies, to develop new advice for surveyors.
“This will support valuers and lenders in taking a consistent approach to valuing properties with external cladding systems.”
A joint statement from lender trade bodies UK Finance and the Building Societies Association (BSA) said they sympathised with the impact of cladding-related issues for homeowners and that they held a common interest that their flat is a safe place to live.
“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,” they said.
“In time, this will enable a more proportionate approach which will ensure attention is focused on higher-risk buildings. Lenders’ objective is to ensure the safety of all, while enabling a normally functioning market.
“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 or a combustible wooden balcony.
“However, there are buildings which may look as though they are solid brick built, but are in fact clad with unknown materials behind the brick. We will continue to work with government and RICS in pursuit of the best solution for customers in relation to these,” it added.
Still more to do
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Through no fault of their own, some flat-owners have been unable to sell or remortgage their homes – and this cannot be allowed to continue.
“That’s why the government has secured agreement that the EWS1 form will not be needed on buildings where there is no cladding; providing certainty for the almost 450,000 homeowners who may have felt stuck in limbo.
“However, this is only part of a wider solution and we continue to support those homeowners who do have cladding on their buildings and where there is still more to do.
“I welcome the support we have received from RICS and industry to resolve this matter and will be working urgently with lenders to resolve these challenges, ensuring that EWS1 forms are requested only where absolutely necessary and that the number of surveyors able to complete them is increased urgently to meet demand.”
Advice note and training scheme
The MHCLG advice note was published on 21 November and comes into effect immediately.
“The advice allows for professional judgement to be made regarding the safety of a building’s external wall system,” it said.
“If some combustible materials have been used, replacement may not necessarily be required. This will depend on risks and mitigations present.
“That should be for professional judgement on a building-by-building basis, taking into account the guidance in the advice note, other relevant guidance, and recent experience from fires both in the UK and overseas.”
Meanwhile, the new training programme will begin in January 2021 and is projected to take up to eight weeks.
The training programme 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.
This will increase the number of professionals to support the current market demand.
Buildings over 18m or those which require specialist testing will still require a qualified fire safety engineer.
“This increased capacity will help speed up the assessment of properties necessary to ensure valuers can give appropriate advice to purchasers and lenders and so reduce delays in transactions involving properties covered by the government’s guidance,” RICS said.
Owain Thomas is features and contributing editor of Mortgage Solutions and editor of Specialist Lending Solutions.
He also has experience in the protection, pensions, workplace benefits and HR areas.
Owain has won two Headline Money Awards and the Protection Review’s Journalist of the Year award.