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Is this the best the Government can do to solve the cladding crisis?

Ministers lurch from one announcement to the next, with each new set of guidance sparking another panic

Hundreds of thousands of flat owners have been trapped in a cladding nightmare for months, with many more waiting years. 

On the weekend, there was a glimmer of hope – although it didn’t last long.

Ministers announced that flats in buildings without cladding do not need a fire safety check, and to attain a EWS1 form, to get lending. But we already knew that this was the case. UK Finance, which represents banks, and the Building Societies Association, a trade body, said that “an EWS1 form has never been required for a building without any form of cladding or a combustible wooden balcony”. 

The Government has lurched from one cladding announcement to the next, with each new set of guidance sparking another panic without getting to the core of the problem that threatens to topple the housing market

Mary-Anne Bowring, of Ringley Group, a property management firm, said that the Government’s latest intervention “brings up more questions than answers and the problem goes on”.

So why did the Government make this announcement? Is this the best it could do? It smacks of simply needing to have something to announce: this gets us no further to solving the unending nightmare for millions of homeowners who feel unsafe in their own homes and cannot get lending to sell up.

Despite these measures an estimated 800,000 people still need to get the checks carried out in order to secure lending.

The cladding situation ballooned out of control in January, when the Government quietly published guidance that led to lenders demanding these fire safety checks for buildings under 18m. (Previously it had just been taller buildings that needed to be checked for specific kinds of cladding, with Government funding available for remediation works.)

As a result, flat owners have been trapped in their homes, unable to move because they can’t get lending, and with some facing possible bankruptcy after being lumbered with the bill to fix the problems.

Since then, all parties involved – ministers, lenders, surveyors – have been passing the buck and playing the blame game. On the weekend, the Government claimed it had reached an agreement with them.

But UK Finance, which represents banks, was quoted on the weekend as saying the deal “doesn’t address wooden balconies or other forms of cladding”, so “doesn’t really solve anything”. It and the BSA are understood not to have consented to being included in the Government’s announcement.

If ministers don’t have the banks on side, the guidance is not worth the paper it’s written on. 

The Government claims that its new guidance will allow around 450,000 flat owners to sell, move or remortgage their homes. But it’s more complicated than simply flicking a switch.

It also asks the fundamental question – what actually is cladding? Wooden balconies may count as cladding but what if it is not made of wood? How do you account for small elements of cladding that may be hidden from view? Or should we just be concerned with what is visibly cladding? UK Finance and the BSA added in their response to the guidance that “there are buildings which may look as though they are solid brick built, but are in fact clad with unknown materials behind the brick”.

This puts flat owners in a sticky, even more confounding position. It’s very likely that they will need a survey to say whether or not a property has cladding and therefore if you need the official fire safety checks carried out. 

Whose word will lenders take to guarantee if a building has cladding or not? Since the Government opened a Pandora’s Box in January with its suggestion that all buildings under 18m should be subject to the fire safety checks, lenders can’t simply file away those doubts. 

The Government also pointed out that it is putting £700,000 towards training 2,000 new EWS1 assessors by June 2021. Which is just as well, given that there are currently only 291 that can do it now. 

But break it down, and that seems rather less impressive – that's only £350 to train each surveyor. Which begs the question: is this the best the Government can do?