In the aftermath of the harrowing Grenfell fire in 2017, the UK was awakened to the terrifying reality of fire risks in residential buildings. Flammable cladding was identified as a significant hazard, throwing homeowners like Caroline Stimpson into years of uncertainty and financial stress.
Stimpson was not alone in her plight. According to a Sunday Times investigation, out of the 4.2 million properties exposed to fire risks post-Grenfell, 1.5 million became potentially unsellable, and an alarming 375,000 were deemed outright unsafe.
However, the introduction of the Building Safety Act in 2021 offered leaseholders a glimmer of hope. The Act shifted the onus of fixing fire risks from the leaseholders to the developers, or, if they could not be traced, the landlords. Ben Pett, a Leasehold Specialist with MJP Conveyancing Solicitors, notes, “The Act was a significant step forward in protecting leaseholders from the financial burden of remediation costs.”
Following the introduction of the Act, the six largest mortgage lenders in the UK, including Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, Nationwide, NatWest, and Santander, pledged to consider lending on fire-risk flats.
Despite these promising developments, selling such properties remains an uphill battle for most owners. The mortgage criteria vary across lenders, and many solicitors are hesitant to handle such sales. Stimpson was one of the fortunate few who managed to sell her flat after Halifax, a subsidiary of Lloyds bank, granted her buyer a mortgage. This was possible after her block’s managing agent confirmed that the developer would bear the remediation costs.
However, the journey to this point was far from smooth. In 2020, government advice led to the introduction of EWS1 forms as proof of fire safety. These forms required invasive inspections of cladding, insulation, and structure, causing a near paralysis in the market for newly built flats. Despite the government’s efforts to discourage the use of EWS1 forms for blocks under 18m, their usage continues to rise.
Moreover, the Building Safety Act’s complexity creates further hurdles. The Act does not offer equal protection to all leaseholders. For instance, if a leaseholder owned more than three properties as of February 14, 2022, they would face unlimited safety bills indefinitely. This affects roughly 400,000 flats in blocks over 11m, potentially delaying or preventing necessary remediation work.
In response to these challenges, the House of Lords has passed changes to protect non-qualifying leaseholders and cap their liability once defects are fixed. This amendment will also address the “marriage penalty,” which unfairly affects couples by counting jointly owned homes as separate properties, thereby pushing them over the three-property threshold.
Caroline Stimpson’s story serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing cladding crisis and the complexity of navigating the property market in its wake. Yet, amidst the uncertainty, her success provides a beacon of hope for those still caught in the labyrinth of red tape and regulation.