Expect a period of limbo while owners wait for more government guidance – and for insurers to respond, writes Andrew Mellor

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Last week MHCLG published a statement on fire safety which focused on medium- to low-rise residential buildings and primarily the external walls of such buildings.

The statement was co-authored by a small group of experts including Judith Hackitt and former fire chief Ken Knight at the request of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Their brief was to consider what the proportional levels of risk are in such buildings, what approaches to risk mitigation are appropriate and, in addition, to consider what the current related impact is on the housing market.

The experts concluded that there have been systemic failures in ensuring quality in residential buildings, yet that the risk to life safety is extremely low in buildings of the heights being considered.

The experts deemed that there has been a disproportionate level of response from building owners to perceived safety risks in these medium- to low-rise buildings. This has resulted in the need for EWS1 forms and remedial work, higher insurance costs – and an attendant impact on residents’ anxiety levels and wellbeing.

The experts therefore proposed that government intervention was necessary.

Consequently, the experts have proposed that: EWS1 forms should no longer be required for residential buildings below 18m; mitigation solutions rather than remediation of external walls should primarily be used to deal with any identified safety risks with the external walls and associated attachments; leaseholders should be able to formally challenge any proposed remediation works; and that fire risk assessments should be evidence-based and auditable by the Building Safety Regulator or another approved third party.

The above will require further guidance and potentially new policy to be quickly developed by MHCLG and the Building Safety Regulator so that the recommendations in last week’s announcement can be followed by industry.

In the period between now and that guidance being published many building owners and leaseholders will be in a continued state of limbo whereby the identification and classification of risks in external walls cannot be achieved until PAS 9980 is published, and suitable mitigation measures cannot be determined until guidance on that matter is published. That is, assuming it will be.

Any response to risk will need to be proportionate, as will the proposed solution. Recommending an alarm or suppression system in lieu of remediating the external walls may be more expensive than the remediation. Cost-benefit analysis will therefore be required before decisions can be made. This will include the costs of ongoing maintenance and safety checks associated with any active mitigation measures.

There are of course many other factors to be considered here and we wait to see what the response will be to this early guidance from building insurers, professional indemnity insurers and mortgage providers.

Furthermore, building owners should be considering cyclical maintenance and replacement programmes for external walls such that they are factored into the cost-benefit analysis. If a façade is near the end of its life or maintenance is required in the near future then it may be more cost-effective to remove the risk now than to install mitigation measures.

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The advice from government continues to evolve as it reacts to the industry’s responses to previous advice and market conditions. On the basis of last week’s statement and the recently enacted Fire Safety Act, we can expect further guidance to be published in the coming months on assessing and responding to risks in existing residential buildings.

Clarity and the ability to provide proportional responses will be welcomed by all. However we can expect a period of uncertainty while some building owners await further more formal guidance.

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