Few of us will forget the Grenfell Tower tragedy of June 2017, but for people trying to buy or sell a high rise flat since then, the repercussions of legislation which was subsequently put in place with the intention of improving the safety of such buildings will also be memorable.

The unintended effect of the measures introduced by the Government left many owners unable to sell a property that to all intents and purposes had been rendered valueless, and prospective buyers unable to obtain a mortgage to be able to buy one.

A building which is more than 18 metres in height, (the measurement being linked to the historical reach of fire and rescue service equipment), is designated as a high rise.  Following the fire, there was initially a focus on removing aluminium composite material from high rise buildings, which was later widened to other types of combustible cladding.  In 2019, mortgage lenders started requiring reassurance as to the safety of external wall systems (“EWS”).  Surveyors took the view that in the absence of a certificate confirming compliance, flats in these buildings had no value, mortgage applications were rejected, and sales stalled.  In response to this problem, there was cross industry consultation, resulting in the EWS1 process being put in place in December 2019.  An EWS1 was required, irrespective of whether the building had cladding or not, and could also be required in other instances, for buildings of fewer storeys, if there were specific concerns.

The EWS1 process requires a fire safety assessment to be commissioned, (which is usually done by the freeholder), and which is undertaken by a Chartered Fire Engineer, or other suitably qualified professional. When the EWS1 is issued it covers the whole building and is valid for five years (unless alterations are made to the building).  The rules are different in Scotland, where only individual flats are covered.

Although this should have helped to resolve the problem, in practice it only added to it, as there were fewer than three hundred suitably qualified professionals nationwide able to undertake such assessments and the estimate of times for these to be carried out ran into months, if not years.

As a result, and following further consultation, in November 2020 it was announced that an ESW1 form would no longer be required to sell or remortgage a flat in a building with no cladding. This should ease the situation for some 450,000 homeowners.

There obviously remains a problem where the building does have cladding. There have been warnings to beware of fake EWS1 certificates being provided by scammers and the government has provided funding for the training of an additional two thousand assessors and is seeking ways to secure access to professional indemnity insurance for them.

Even if the problem of securing an assessment can be improved, what happens when a building is assessed?  There are five possible levels of certification: –

A1 and A2.  External wall materials are unlikely to be combustible and no further action may be required.

A3.  Remedial work may be needed to attachments to an external wall – such as balconies for example.

B1.  Combustible materials are present, but the surveyor has determined the fire risk is low and no remedial work is required.

B2.  There is an inadequate standard of fire safety and remedial work or interim measures are required.

Potential buyers should bear in mind that B2 properties may well remain unsellable and unmortgageable until such time as any necessary remedial works have been carried out, as until they are done, individual lessees may be asked to fund a round the clock fire watch and also to bear the cost of those remedial works between themselves, which may run into many thousands of pounds.

If you would like to know more about any of the information mentioned in this article, then you can contact Paula Land in the Property team in Honiton on 01404 540024 or email paulaland@wbw.co.uk. WBW Solicitors has offices in Newton Abbot, Paignton, Torquay, Bovey Tracey, Exeter, Launceston, Exmouth, Sidmouth and Honiton.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.