New regulations brought in to improve fire safety after the Grenfell fire have inadvertently left flat owners trapped in near-unsellable homes.
After the Grenfell tragedy in June 2017, new rules were implemented by the bodies representing banks and surveyors in a bid to ensure houses being sold were safe.
From December 2019, mortgages for flats in buildings higher than 18m would only be approved if they had passed an External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) survey.
However, the following month the government published revised fire safety guidance which said potentially dangerous cladding – or combustible balconies – on all blocks, not just high rises, should be removed.
This followed several fires – including one in Pankhurst Road, Brighton – in which fires had rapidly spread across timber balconies.
The government guidance has led many mortgage companies to now require EWS1 certificates on flats in any sized building, with any combustible material on the external walls.
Meanwhile, it’s feared leaseholders in blocks which have failed the ESW1 surveys could now face eyewatering bills for remedial work.
The increasing requirement for ESW1 certificates has left many flat owners unable to sell their homes.
One flat owner, who asked not to be named as his one-bedroom flat in a block less than 18m tall is still on the market, said although some mortgage lenders are willing to lend, it is discouraging people from putting in offers.
He said: “I’ve been at the flat for three years. I have been happy here but I want to move on now.
“I feel stuck. It’s not good for your mental health, feeling trapped in your own home. All my money is tied up in this building.
“I just want to move somewhere bigger but I know people who are in my block who need to move because they have got kids.
“There’s this dark area with mortgage lenders. A lot of them have just applied a blanket approach for this certificate and they’re asking for it regardless even if you can prove what the cladding is.
“Some people in my block have managed to sell to people with mortgages so it’s not every mortgage lender but a majority of them.
“Someone in my block had to do take a lower offer from a cash buyer – about £10,000 lower.
“I wrote to Caroline Lucas, and she wrote to the people who own the building and they have written back and said that they will be conducting surveys but because our block is under 18 metres it won’t necessarily mean it will get one of these forms because they’re for blocks over 18 metres.
“The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote back and said they’re working with mortgage lenders to agree another approach and they know people are stuck and it’s distressing.
“But they say this isn’t a government regulatory requirement and the government aren’t saying the buildings have to have it.”
Many of Brighton and Hove’s blocks are owned by housing associations, such as Southern Housing. Although Southern only has one block in the city over 18m, a brick building which has an EWS1 certificate, it says it is aware of leaseholders who have been affected by this.
A spokesman for Southern said: “Although the government has been clear that EWS1 forms (which are used to provide evidence to mortgage lenders that the external wall system of buildings over 18m comply with government guidelines) are not a statutory requirement, we have seen many instances of lenders requiring residents to produce them when they are not appropriate – for example where a building is under 18m in height.
“We know that the government is urging lenders not to do this but the consequence of this continued practice is that many residents are not able to sell or re-mortgage which causes delay and hardship in many instances.
“The safety and wellbeing of our residents is our first priority and we will continue to work with residents to support them depending in their individual needs.”
Guinness, which owns the Pankhurst block which went up in flames, and two others next to it, said it did not own any buildings over 18m in Brighton and Hove.
Caroline Lucas said: “It’s clear that a review of fire safety in many residential properties is needed following decades of regulation being watered down, and other factors including the privatisation of the building inspector processes creating some further questions about the independence of decision-making with some developments.
“The Pankhurst fire raised issues such as many buildings falling outside of the high-rise category of the some of the legislation, and issuing guidance to housing providers, rather than clear requirements to act, is problematic on many levels – such as the impact on leaseholders when they come to sell.”
David Beaken, president of the Brighton and Hove Estate Agents Association said: “There is too much ambiguity around the situation and this is what is causing the problems.
“There doesn’t seem to be clear guidance for home owners or estate agents in terms of what does or doesn’t need an EWS1 form. Therefor it appears that both surveys and lenders seem to be covering themselves and flagging certain properties as potential problems.
“The knock on effect is that it can leave a seller needing to produce an EWS1 form purely to tick a box rather than because there is a specific issue which needs addressing.
“This is leading to huge expense in some circumstance and it can potentially leave people with properties which could be difficult to sell.
“Keeping people safe has to be the top priority but as an industry we would certainly like clear guidance and process around what is required in which circumstances.”
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