Michael Gove has been in the news recently as he tries to tackle the thorny issue of who should pay for the huge cost of removing dangerous cladding on high rise buildings.

In 2017, the Grenfell fire cost the lives of 72 people and cast huge doubts over the safety of many high-rise buildings. In response, the government tightened its safety guidelines and nervous mortgage companies began demanding to see proof high rise buildings complied before they would lend against them. With most surveyor’s and valuers unqualified to carry out the required checks, large numbers of flat sales fell through, and mortgage applications were turned down. In order to resolve the situation, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the UK Finance and the Building Societies Association got together to create the EWS1 form (External Wall System) to standardise the new fire safety checks and unblock the market.

The idea was, initially, relatively simple – any apartment blocks over 18 metres high (6 storeys) were to have their cladding, insulation, balconies, and wall structures fire safety assessed. The process required holes to be drilled in external walls and samples of the materials extracted and their flammability assessed. If any of it posed a risk, an exact 3 storey mock-up of the wall would be built, and fire tested. If it failed, the offending material(s) would have to be replaced and the building checked again. The signed off EWS1 form would then be valid for a period of 5 years.

Unfortunately, there were less than 300 people qualified to do the assessments and 307,000 flats were affected. The Government then made a bad situation worse by extending the requirement for an ESW1 to a number of buildings under 6 storeys. These included any 4 to 6 storey buildings that might have combustible cladding or balconies, as well as any 1 to 3 storey ones that had vulnerable occupants, such as care or retirement homes. It is estimated the changes increased the number of flats affected to 1.5 million, or 6% of all the housing stock. The criteria, though, was so vague, no-one was 100% sure which buildings needed assessing.

Amidst all the uncertainty, mortgage companies panicked, often going well beyond the initiative’s intended parameters. There were even reports they were demanding EWS1s for low-rise, brick-built buildings that had no cladding whatsoever. As a result, the owners of 1.5 million were unable to sell or re-mortgage their properties until their buildings had passed an ESW1 check. The lack of inspectors meant they could wait up to 5 years for remedial work to be done. With inspectors prioritising the most dangerous buildings, owners of flats in lower-rise buildings were facing even longer delays. And when buildings are finally inspected, the owners are often left facing bills of tens of thousands of pounds to make their buildings fire safe. In the meantime, many are having to employ hugely expensive waking watches.

The good news is, the scale of the scandal meant it was too big to be ignored, and Michael Gove has claimed he “will make industry pay” to fix the problems rather than leaseholders and is aiming to raise £4bn from developers and cladding manufacturers, either voluntarily or through taxation, to pay for it all.

His latest proposals include:

• People living in buildings between 11 to 18 metres high will no longer have to pay for any remedial work, although they’ll still have to pay for waking watches and any non-cladding issues not covered by the scheme. People who’ve already paid out cash won’t get it back.

• £27m will be spent on installing fire alarms in high-risk buildings and flat owners will be able to claim compensation for a building’s defects for up to 30 years.

• There will be “greater use of sensible, risk-mitigating fire safety measures such as sprinklers and alarms”.

Critics argue that the money will only cover the cladding - two-thirds of the fire risks are actually non-cladding issues. Nor will owners of flats in buildings below 11m receive any kind of help or compensation.

If you have a flat you want to sell in Marylebone, Mayfair, Hyde Park or Regent’s Park and are unsure if this affects you, just give Manors a call.