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Following the fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, the government had issued a series of advice notes intended to provide guidance to building owners about how to make sure their properties are constructed and maintained safely. These were superseded in January 2020 with a consolidated advice note that brought 22 previous advice notes into one document.
To satisfy the requirements of the government advice note, it is often the case that an intrusive inspection of the external walls needs to be carried out by a qualified professional as detailed in Notes 2 and 3 of the EWS1 form. The inspection is to verify the external building and insulation materials, and the quality of their installation. The inspection focuses on combustible materials and the structural installations to prevent fire spreading. To achieve this, cladding or other wall systems often needs to be removed to ensure the inspector has full access to see the fire spread prevention measures.
In recent months, mortgage lenders and valuers have been asking people who apply for mortgages on properties in purpose-built blocks to provide independent certification that the property meets the guidance in the government advice note which says that an external wall system should meet the requirement B4 of schedule 1 of the Building Regulations, regarding resisting the spread of fire over the external wall.
In an effort to provide a way forward for leaseholders and lender the EWS1 form was created by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and agreed with the Building Societies Association (BSA) and UK Finance as a new industry-wide valuation process designed to help people buy and sell homes and re-mortgage in buildings above 18m.
What is it trying to cover? (from the EWS1 form)
“This form is intended for recording in a consistent manner what assessment has been carried out for the external wall construction of residential apartment buildings where the highest floor is 18m or more above ground level or where specific concerns exist (Note 1). It should not be used for other purposes. It is to be completed by a competent person with the levels of expertise as described………”
In all cases, to follow the government advice note for a block, substantial and intrusive expert testing and analysis of the building system is required. For example, the Advice Notes include guidance to building owners in relation to ensuring that external wall systems have been installed correctly.
Building owners can’t rely on the fact that a building received Building Control sign-off at the time it was built in order to confirm that the building meets this guidance, and so significant and intrusive testing of the external wall system may be needed before the guidance can be met.
The Group aims to follow government advice notes as they emerge, and we have a comprehensive programme in place for checking our 18m plus buildings considering the guidance. Due to Covid 19 the programme was paused, however this is anticipated to begin again early in July.
However, in common with other housing associations, we own many buildings that the guidance applies to, and so this process takes time.
Has the EWS1 Form helped?
What is clear is that despite its intention, the EWS1 Form has not made things simpler for people trying to sell or remortgage. The form is not intended for use where buildings are under 18m. However, some lenders are now asking for this form for buildings under 18m and this presents an issue.
We have put in place a systematic building safety programme, the first phase of which prioritises buildings over 18m so that we can get the EWS1 Forms for these and enable our residents to move or remortgage. We do not currently have a programme for buildings below that height other than the normal fire risk and other safety compliance requirement. These will be covered in subsequent phases of our Building Safety Programme.
If my building does not have an EWS1 Form or a certificate that it complies with the government guidelines does that mean it is unsafe?
This does not mean that affected buildings are unsafe, but although it not a legal requirement for a building to meet the government guidance we have put our Building Safety Programme in place because we believe this is the right thing to do.
Notwithstanding the widely publicised issues, lenders are taking the view that they will not be prepared to offer a mortgage until it has been independently certified that a building meets government advice notes and there is an EWS1 Form.
Unfortunately, while this situation continues, in many cases it may not be possible for affected leaseholders to remortgage, staircase or sell their homes.
This is a nationwide issue which is now affecting thousands of leaseholders. We know this includes some of our own leaseholders, and we are sorry for the upset and frustration that this must cause.
We want to do everything we can to support leaseholders whose mortgage application or sales process has been disrupted as a result of the approach that lenders are taking.
Our Building Safety Programme is in place and we are systematically checking our buildings over 18m in light of the guidance. However, in common with other housing associations, we own many buildings (44) that the guidance applies to, and so this process takes time.
In addition, together with our colleagues at the G15, a group of the largest housing associations in London, we will be calling on the new government to step in. We are asking the government to provide clear guidance for both building owners and mortgage lenders on the proportionate implementation of their building safety advice notes.
The safety of our residents is our utmost priority. We maintain a comprehensive programme of health and safety assessments and fire risk assessments for all buildings we own or manage and every year we make substantial investments in improving our homes.
We would like to reassure our residents that all the Group’s homes have an up-to-date Fire Risk Assessment. These are independently reviewed every year and any recommendations are dealt with immediately or, where appropriate, put into a programme of work to be completed within a suitable timeframe.
We are currently looking beyond the 18m plus programme into Phase 2 of our building safety inspections which is to extend our Building Safety Programme inspections to all our blocks regardless of height.
We need to prioritise all these remaining buildings because there are approximately 1400 of them. As well as the height of a building many other factors need to be considered such where there are residents who need additional support, whether there is a stay put or simultaneous evacuation policy in place, what the existing fire safety measures are etc.
This year, Phase 2 will look at the next highest priority buildings. We anticipate 100-150 building will be included in this phase.
In 2021/22, Phase 3 will follow and so on in subsequent years.
With some 1400 plus buildings to look at over time this will be a long process and is further constrained by availability of consultants with capacity, qualification and professional insurance cover.
The work to produce the requested certification is challenging. The information was not produced as part of the original building work and the guidance requires a retrospective analysis of how a building was constructed. The only way to produce that analysis is to physically open up portions of a building and take a detailed look. In addition, external factors add to the process. It takes time to appoint specialist contractors with the appropriate skills and professional indemnities, especially when many other organisations are also conducting similar inspections. Preparing for inspection is a technically complex process and detailed preparation is required to ensure the correct parts of each building are exposed. The contractors work at height and sometimes poor weather means it is not safe to work; they have also found the physical process of removing parts of buildings sometimes takes longer than expected.
We will be continuing our programme of building safety inspections and where these inspections recommend remedial work we will be carrying out that work as needed.
At the same time, our aim is to get the clarification that we need from government in the coming months. Our hope is that this will reassure residents, encourage mortgage lenders to take a more considered view, and give building owners a reasonable and realistic timeframe in which to follow government advice.
In the meantime, we appreciate that this is a frustrating and worrying time for our customers who are affected by this and we will continue to work on providing assurance to mortgage lenders where we can.
If you are concerned that your ability to re-mortgage, staircase or sell your home might be affected by these changes, please seek advice directly from your lender or mortgage broker.