Reviewed 17 February 2021

Cladding, Fire Safety and Re-mortgaging, staircasing or selling your home

Since mid-2019 mortgage lenders have been asking people seeking to buy, staircase or re-mortgage properties in some apartment blocks for independent certification that the building meets new government safety guidelines.

Unfortunately, this means that in some cases it may not be possible for leaseholders to re-mortgage, staircase or sell their homes until such time as this independent certification can be provided. Furthermore, in some cases the independent certification cannot be issued until significant work (for example re-cladding) is completed.

Like so many Landlords we have a number of properties where there is a known issue with the building, which we are dealing with prior to the issue of a satisfactory EWS1 or where an issue has now been identified through the EWS1 intrusive inspection process.. Although we have a programme to complete all the necessary inspections, due to the availability of inspectors and delays due to COVID-19 we also have buildings where there may not be an issue, but we have yet to complete the independent inspections and reports to verify that no further work is required.

We acknowledge that this has had a life-changing impact on many of our resident’s lives, who in the absence of a satisfactory EWS1 certificate, have had their plans to sell, re-mortgage or staircase their homes disrupted and we would like to apologise for this. We would like to reassure residents that this issue is being treated with the upmost priority by our teams who are committed to supporting you through what unfortunately is likely to be a longer process than anyone would wish.

We’ve set out below why this is happening, what Swan is doing, and what help you are entitled to.

What is happening?

Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017, the Government changed its building safety guidelines by issuing a series of advice notes. These advice notes were intended to give building owners clear guidance about how to make sure their properties are constructed and maintained safely.

In 2019, mortgage lenders and valuers began asking people who applied for mortgages on properties in some apartment blocks to provide independent certification that the building met the requirements of government Advice Note 14.

This advice note stated that all materials used in the construction of the external walls of high-rise buildings (buildings over 18m high – about 6 storey and above) should be of limited combustibility (or have passed certain safety tests) and have been installed and maintained correctly.

These requirements were not in place when the blocks were built, which means that in most cases, to prove that a building meets the new requirements, building owners must now go back and undertake complex intrusive inspections (which involve

opening up multiple walls to check the materials they are made of), carry out safety tests, and then, in some cases, complete remedial works.

Only then can building owners obtain the certification that mortgage lenders are asking for.

A new form, called an EWS1, was introduced in December 2019 to try and help building owners provide the certification more easily. However, in most cases this still requires the same process outlined above.

Unfortunately, in the short-term at least, this means that many building owners, including Swan can’t provide the certification that mortgage lenders are asking for.

In January 2020, the Government consolidated its Advice Notes into a single document. This did not fundamentally change most aspects of the previous guidance however, it did say that it should now apply to apartment blocks of four storeys and above where combustible cladding is in place, which has increased the number of blocks which now need an EWS1 certificate.

What are Swan doing?

Swan began a programme of initial surveys in 2019, starting (in line with Government advice at the time), with all of our blocks over 18m in height, but which now has expanded to include all of our blocks.

As set out above, these intrusive EWS1 surveys check that materials used in the external wall system of a building meet the new Building Control fire safety standards. However, because it is so intrusive, this is a slow process which has been significantly hampered for some considerable time as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have established a dedicated Building Safety team to prioritise this work and we are working with our advisors to get the EWS1 certificates issued as soon as possible and in early 2021 have seen our EWS1 programme accelerate with the appointment of additional fire safety advisors. However, because this is a national issue, nationally there are a small number of qualified assessors available to sign off the final certificates so progress will continue to be a challenge. With the need to undertake additional external investigations, a full review of products used in the original construction, a detailed review of health & safety files and to complete a full assessment of the drawings for when properties were originally built, means these reviews take time.

Given that Swan owns so many buildings affected by the guidance, we are not able to inspect, test, and then carry out works on them all at once. Instead we have prioritised our buildings based on risk. Our highest risk buildings, defined by height, occupancy and building materials, among other factors, will be inspected first. We expect to complete this exercise for all our buildings by June 2021 and then we will be able to inform residents about the timescales for an inspection of their building as we work through this programme.  Like other landlords, through these intrusive surveys, we are identifying a number of buildings where further work is required  and where this is the case these works will become part of the programme and be completed as soon as possible.  Unfortunately however, where the EWS1 survey identifies the need for further works, this is the start of a process which then requires further expert analysis to review what measures are needed and in many cases does require significant work which will take time to complete.

How long will this all take Swan?

Given the extent of the Government guidance, the likelihood of most buildings requiring some degree of remedial work is high, and so we anticipate that our programme of inspections, testing and remedial works is likely to take several years to deliver.

The Government realises that this is the case for many building owners like Swan, so along with our colleagues in the sector, including the National Housing Federation and the G15 (a group of the largest housing associations in London), we have been calling on the Government to reassure residents that they will not need to fund any expensive works required, to give building owners a reasonable timeframe in which to resolve any outstanding issues, and work with mortgage lenders, valuers and insurers to collaborate and find a solution to enable the market to function.  We continue to work through the implications of recent Government announcements on Fire Safety work funding to analyse what additional funding may be available.

In the meantime, we would like to apologise to those residents who will need to wait for their building to be inspected – we understand how difficult this situation is for you.

Our teams continue to offer various types of support to residents who may find themselves unable to staircase, re-mortgage or sell their home (see below).

Does this mean that affected apartment blocks are unsafe?

It does not automatically mean that a building is unsafe if the owner cannot provide the certification being requested by a mortgage lender and it is not yet a legal requirement for a building to meet the conditions of the new building safety guidance.

However, lenders may still take the view that if independent certification cannot be provided to demonstrate compliance, they won’t offer a mortgage.

We would like to reassure our residents that all of the apartment blocks that are owned in freehold by Swan would have:

  • received Building Control sign-off at the time they were built
  • an up-to-date fire risk assessment – we review these each year for our high-rise blocks (regardless of their height) and any recommendations are dealt with immediately, or put into a programme of work to be completed as soon as possible

If any EWS1 outcomes require additional safety measures to be put in place to help ensure residents safety during the remediation process, for example Waking Watch, our teams will follow our expert assessors advice and put this in place.

What will you do if I can’t sell/staircase/re-mortgage my property?

We want to do what we can to support leaseholders whose mortgage application or sales process has been disrupted as a result of the approach that lenders are taking.

Some homeowners paid money to us to cover administration or application fees while trying to sell, staircase or re-mortgage their home. We’ve already issued refunds for these fees to the homeowners we know have been refused a mortgage as a result of the new guidance.

In addition to this, if you began a sales or re-mortgaging process which was stopped from progressing by your or your buyer’s lender, we will waive our administration fees

should you wish to begin this process again once the necessary certification has been obtained (please note that this offer does not include the resale nomination fee, which we are obliged to charge as a condition of the lease, however it does include valuation and landlord’s enquiry pack fees). We will honour this for up to two years after certification is obtained.

If you believe you’re entitled to a refund and haven’t received one, please contact our Leasehold team by calling 0300 303 2500 or Hera team on 0345 683 8812.

We are advising any residents who would like to re-mortgage, staircase or sell their home to seek advice directly from their lender or mortgage broker before beginning this process.

The technical bits

By way of background, the External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) process was launched by the banking trade bodies UK Finance and the Building Societies Association (BSA), and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). The EWS1 is a survey that assesses whether the external wall system of a property contains materials that are potentially dangerous, offering clarity to lenders and peace of mind for homeowners and buyers. The survey was recommended solely for blocks 18 metres or taller, but a month after its launch, the Government published revised fire safety guidance which instructed that potentially dangerous cladding should be removed from blocks of any height. This effectively meant that mortgage lenders expected the EWS1 on thousands of buildings between four and six storey’s as well as those over 18m before agreeing to offer loans on them and has placed even more stress on the sector in its ability to deliver. 

The impact of the changes and their application to a wide variety of buildings has meant that Swan has had to prioritise matters and in doing so we continue to work to deliver our process of inspection surveys and EWS1 forms for those blocks 18m and above. Swan will continue to inspect lower risk and lower rise buildings on a rolling programmes of Fire Risk Assessments. 

The extension of the EWS1 form for buildings below 18m in height has since been clarified by RICS to only apply where there are specific fire safety concerns. As such Swan will not be providing EWS1 forms for buildings under 18m in height unless there are specific fire safety concerns.  If you have concerns please raise them with us immediately by contacting claddingequiries@swan.org.uk   

To determine whether a building conforms to less than 18m in height this is measured to floor level of the top occupied storey (as per Diagram D6 of Approved Document B 2019 edition). The 18m threshold is established in the guidance to the Building Regulations and is the point at which additional fire safety provisions are provided for. Where Swan believes we have issues with external cladding systems we have already taken additional fire safety provisions that accords with Government guidance.

Once again, we would like to apologise for any stress or upset that this situation is causing.

We know that nationally, many people affected by this say that it is affecting their mental health. You can find out more about mental health on the NHS website here.