Fire safety in flats is not just about cladding, although this has been a very newsworthy part of fire safety since the Grenfell fire. We often get asked by clients how Fire Safety legislation affects their property or one they are considering purchasing. Here are some of the most common questions we’ve been asked:
What are the changes with regard to fire safety in flats?
The biggest change will be the new Fire Safety Bill, likely to be implemented in April 2021. The main elements of the Fire Safety Bill include a clarification that the scope includes the external walls of the building, including cladding as well as fire doors for domestic premises of multiple occupancy.
These changes won’t just affect new builds, but also existing parts of the building where it is needed to ensure that the extension is compliant.
Last year, guidance was also updated to reduce the height threshold for the inclusion of sprinklers in new residential blocks of more than to 11m, along with guidance for more consistent wayfinding signage in new residential blocks of flats with a top floor of more than 11m from ground level.
As a flat owner, what is my responsibility?
Every block of flats no matter what size needs a Fire Risk Assessment. The building owner or managing agent is responsible for establishing what materials are on their building. They need to confirm what the wall system is made up of and whether an assessment is required.
The new fire safety bill places a legal requirement on building owners to inspect cladding, balconies, windows and fire doors in a block of flats. All residential buildings over six storeys will be covered by its new fire safety regime, while sprinklers will be required on all buildings above 11 metres.
There is no strict timescale of how often fire safety reviews need to be done, but guidance suggests newer properties should be reviewed every 2 years and blocks with higher stories or older properties be reviewed every year.
The ESW1 is an External Wall Fire Review. The EWS1 form is a way for residential building owners to prove to lenders and valuers that the external cladding has been assessed by an expert. The initial focus was on the removal of aluminium composite material (ACM) from buildings over 18 metres, but this has now broadened to include other types of combustible cladding.
EWS1 forms are not a statutory requirement. The information gathered is used for valuation purposes. Lenders may refuse a mortgage application where one cannot be produced – this is a commercial decision. The EWS process involves an assessment by a suitably qualified professional who completes the EWS1 form.
Whilst initially the scope was for buildings of over 18m, the need to assess and manage the risk of external fire spread applies to buildings of any height. On 21 November RICS, UK Finance, the Building Societies Association and Government agreed that an EWS1 form is no longer needed for sales or re-mortgages on flats in blocks with no cladding.
Regardless of height if your property has combustible cladding you may still need an EWS1 form
How does this affect leaseholders?
The main issue with fire safety assessment is the cost of remedial work following an assessment. The building owner, which can be an individual leaseholder, may have to bear the cost if remedial works are required. This is a significant problem, as the cost to rectify issues for a single apartment could be as much as £50,000, normally charged through an increase in service charges. Even having to implement a sprinkler system can be around £10,000.
In recent months there have been multiple news reports of people being refused mortgages and unable to sell their properties, because of cladding. The Government has now stepped in to pay for the removal of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in high-rise buildings and offered a new government-backed financing arrangement for flats between 11 and 18m. It is hoped that mortgage providers can be confident that where cladding removal is needed, properties will be worth lending against.
In a well-documented case in South London, following a fire assessment, the landlord tried to sue the leaseholder into paying for remedial work, after they refused to pay for the work themselves.
How might this impact the sale of a property or the purchase of a new flat?
In 2019 lenders began to seek assurance on the safety of external wall systems as a condition of approving mortgage applications. There was concern that flats in high-rise blocks wouldn’t represent good security and that owners could be liable for remediation costs. An increasing number of mortgage applications were rejected leading to sales falling through.
In terms of selling the property, your assessment may highlight work that needs to be carried out before a sale can be made or there may be small issues that the new owner is happy to deal with, but may command a reduction in sale value.
Fire safety is a very complex issue. We have sought to address some of the key questions we have been asked, but we always recommend talking to an expert on this subject.