Most people are now familiar with safety concerns over combustible cladding, following the tragedy of Grenfell. However, even more widespread is the prevalence of incorrect construction, such as at Zenith, which renders impacted buildings unsafe in the event of a fire.
There are millions of UK households who are currently trapped by what is a nation wide construction scandal. Most of these people have not yet realised they are impacted.
If you live in a modern flat, this impacts you
The shocking truth is that most modern blocks of flats, not just those with obvious cladding, are built with defects that fail fire safety regulation. Don’t believe us? When Housing Association Hyde surveyed their portfolio, they found all 86 of their buildings that were above 18 metres high were built with fire safety defects.
Although many buildings look on paper like they would pass the EWS1 survey, most certifications now require that an intrusive survey is carried out, at which point almost every building fails.
A failure of regulation
This is not the fault of the survey but rather the industry that constructed these buildings and successive governments who have failed to properly regulate the sector and protect the public.
Intrusive surveys are expensive and time consuming - they take apart walls and look into hidden areas developers never thought would be seen again once the building was complete.
These are often areas where one could get away with sub-par work, changing to cheaper materials not approved in the plans, or perhaps missing off safety features (such as cavity barriers) altogether. There was little prospect of such corner-cutting ever being unearthed before Grenfell shook the industry.
The role of the EWS1 Form
The industry has realised the scale of this problem. So should the public.
Intrusive surveys should be the exception rather than the norm. However, as the prevalence of defects became apparent, insurers began to refuse to indemnify the work of professionals completing EWS1 forms unless intrusive surveys had taken place. This was under the realisation that most buildings tend to fail these surveys, as they are often not built to the original plans stated by the developers.
Worthless homes and trapped leaseholders are not the fault of the EWS1 survey itself, which was created to simplify certifying buildings as safe by way of a single-page certificate. This problem has instead arisen from an unprecedented situation in which the majority of buildings are being found to be unsafe. Consequently, mortgage lenders and insurers are now requiring most buildings to have a thorough investigation before they will lend on them. Completing the EWS1 form is the final step at the end of this investigation.
The need to know how safe we are
We cannot avoid the need to investigate buildings and certify their safety, especially as we now know what a nationwide problem this is. However, the current way in which the EWS1 form is being demanded needs to be regulated with a soft introduction of the form, before making the form a legal requirement at a future date. This would be similar to how Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) were introduced. This would also give building owners the time to complete such investigations and ensure residents are safe. This could all be done without putting leaseholders' lives on hold, and trapping residents in their flats.
What the government should do next
The current ‘Draft Building Safety Bill’ is a shockingly tone deaf piece of work from the government, which does little to alleviate the situation in which millions of leaseholders are now finding themselves. The draft bill totally misses the chance to address the human and life-ruining elements of the present situation.
It is notable how woefully inadequate the government response has been so far to this crisis. However, it isn’t too late to change this by introducing the five common sense measures that we have outlined below:
The government needs to provide an upfront commercial loan scheme to freeholders to fix buildings immediately, once safety defects are found. This is a much better alternative to leaving buildings such as Zenith unsafe for years while negotiations with the developer take place. The loan would eventually be paid back by the party found to bear responsibility.
In the event where costs end up falling to leaseholders, the government needs to step in and cap leaseholders’ contributions at no more than 5-10% of the market value of their flats. This is less than most people’s deposit and its proportional nature would help to avoid bankrupting ordinary people through no fault of their own. The maximum potential costs to leaseholders for remediation work could then be accounted for by lenders, which would de-risk lending and kickstart the mortgage market for these flats again.
The government needs to step in and regulate the overuse of waking watch. Providers are taking advantage of the current situation and the government also needs to regulate obscene insurance and other service charge costs that are being levelled on impacted flats.
The EWS1 form is necessary in the long run and we cannot close our eyes to where buildings are not safe. The use of this form should, however, be introduced in a graduated fashion in the same way that EPC surveys were. Under this system, EWS1 forms will become a requirement by a certain future date, to allow freeholders time to get these surveys carried out, rather than needed as a non-negotiable requirement today.
Where buildings have not yet had EWS1 surveys carried out, the government should introduce a guarantor scheme on those mortgages relating to fire safety defects, which would allow banks to carry on lending and prevent total market gridlock with a whole generation of mortgage prisoners created.