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Owners of low-rise flats freed from wall safety certificate need

The Guardian - Wed Jul 21 18:50

Ministers have sought to ease the difficulties of thousands of owners of flats trapped in properties they cannot sell or remortgage by changing advice on fire safety paperwork on lower-rise blocks, a requirement introduced after the Grenfell tower blaze.

In a statement released at the same time as a Commons debate on the building safety bill, which seeks to tackle the safety and regulatory repercussions of the 2017 tower block fire in London, the housing and communities department announced the change.

Following expert advice by a group led by Dame Judith Hackitt, who reviewed building regulations after the Grenfell disaster, people living in blocks below 18 metres in height will no longer be advised to have an external wall survey, or EWS1 certificate, before they sell their flats.

Many people seeking to sell or remortgage have found their building does not have an EWS1, a document that certifies that a block’s construction is free of combustible materials. And some leaseholders have been obliged to embark on extensive remedial works to gain the certificate.

The new guidance is not mandatory, as EWS1 certificates are not regulated by government, but the strong guidance to mortgage lenders that the certificates are not needed is intended to iron out what officials call “unintended consequences” of post-Grenfell advice.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government argues that there is no systemic fire risk in such lower-rise blocks, and that work can be limited to less expensive measures such as fitting alarms or sprinklers, rather than removal of cladding.

Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, described the new advice as “a significant step forward” for leaseholders who had had problems selling their homes.

He said: “While we are strengthening the overall regulatory system, leaseholders cannot remain stuck in homes they cannot sell because of excessive industry caution, nor should they feel that they are living in homes that are unsafe when the evidence demonstrates otherwise.”

The End Our Cladding Scandal pressure group said it cautiously welcomed the announcement, but warned that in the past mortgage lenders had not listened to similar advice.

The group said: “At every turn the government has sought to find solace in the market even though it has been abundantly clear for years that the only body truly capable of standing up to the vested interests in the leasehold, construction and insurance sectors, and ending this living nightmare, is the government itself.”

The change of guidance is backed by the National Fire Chiefs Council, and the Institution of Fire Engineers. Mortgage lenders, including HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds, have said they will abide by it.

Previously, ministers said that blocks under 18 metres in height needed an EWS1 check only if they had certain particularly worrying types of cladding, but the check had become the default for most buildings.

Stephen McPartland, the Conservative MP for Stevenage, who has been a regular critic of the government over the response to the cladding issue, told MPs during the debate on the building safety bill that Jenrick had “created a market failure” with the previous advice.

He said: “[The change] could reverse some of the damage he did, but it will need to be put into legislation to provide real, practical, support to leaseholders, not just rhetoric.” Without proper action, McPartland said, the change risked being no more than “weasel words”.

The MP also requested information on the position for people in lower-rise buildings who faced significant bills due to work necessitated by EWS1 checks. Officials hope that in many cases, if no work has begun, leaseholders could be spared having to pay since the work would no longer be needed.