Developers building new homes with same fire-safety defects as high-rise flats

At Greenacres in Exeter, Paul Frost, 56, a snagging inspector, found his family’s five-bedroom detached Persimmon house lacked fire barriers after a 2018 blaze at a terraced house on the estate quickly spread next door.

After he pushed Persimmon to investigate, the housebuilder found more than a third of homes at Greenacres had the same defect, and it wrote to more than 1,000 people in the southwest, saying their properties needed checking.

Martina Lees, Senior Property Writer www.thetimes.co.uk 

Houses are now being caught in the building safety crisis that has paralysed the market for modern flats in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Fire risks similar to those in flats have been discovered at thousands of recently built houses. In one case, a bank asked a house buyer for an “external wall system” (EWS1) form, requiring an invasive fire-safety survey designed for tall blocks of flats.

One of the first analyses of the crisis by economists warns it could leave the property market “significantly weaker” than their already grim forecasts due to coronavirus. Capital Economics said up to 900,000 flats — 4.5% of England’s private property market — faced mortgage problems because their blocks lacked EWS1 sign-off. Without this, banks will not lend and owners cannot sell, leaving millions trapped.

Industry figures say a review of the EWS1 form, which flat owners had hoped would unblock the mortgage logjam, is “not EWS2” and will have limited effect.

The scandal is hitting houses too. At the Hamptons, a 650-home Berkeley development in Worcester Park, southwest London, missing fire barriers in cavity walls allowed a block of flats to burn down in 11 minutes in September. Houses on the estate have the same defect.

In one £600,000 terrace, contractors will need a month to fix fire-safety defects, including missing fire barriers. “I feel really nervous living in my own house,” said the owner. St James, the Berkeley subsidiary that built it, said “work will be completed as quickly as possible and signed off by an independent fire engineer”.

At Greenacres in Exeter, Paul Frost, 56, a snagging inspector, found his family’s five-bedroom detached Persimmon house lacked fire barriers after a 2018 blaze at a terraced house on the estate quickly spread next door.

After he pushed Persimmon to investigate, the housebuilder found more than a third of homes at Greenacres had the same defect, and it wrote to more than 1,000 people in the southwest, saying their properties needed checking.

Last year an independent review found Persimmon had overseen a “systemic nationwide failure” to fit fire barriers in its timber-frame properties. The company’s annual profit has topped £1bn in the past two years and it paid its chief executive a £75m bonus in 2018. “For it not to install cavity barriers that cost a few pounds — there’s no excuse,” Frost said. Persimmon is inspecting 16,000 homes and promised to fix those affected.

In Wales, it told hundreds of homeowners in Bryn, Llanelli, and Sketty, Swansea, of the same defects only a week ago.

On a Devon estate by another housebuilder, a retired couple must move out of their new timber-framed terraced house to allow faults, including missing fire stops, to be fixed. “You expect it to be safe. You don’t expect the next-door neighbour’s cooker to kill you,” the wife said. They also own an unmortgageable London flat in a low-rise block with no EWS1 form. “When you’re living in two £0-rated properties, that’s not good,” she said.

A Sunday Times campaign to end the hidden housing scandal calls for a fairer, faster process to replace the EWS1 form. The campaign revealed that 9 in 10 buildings have failed the checks. Leaseholders must then pay to fix cladding, insulation, balconies and wall structures. It can cost £75,000 per flat and take 5-10 years.

Even new-build houses with no known fire risks can be affected. In Birmingham, the sale of a terraced house stalled for two months after the buyer’s lender, TSB, wanted an EWS1 form, said Tania Rawle, 49, the owner. TSB’s valuer asked whether two small panels of cladding on the house, built 10 years ago, were flammable. “I had never noticed them before,” she said.

Fewer than 300 fire engineers can perform EWS1 checks. Rawle said she struggled to find one. “It’s a lender being ridiculously overcautious and potentially harming the flow of properties. And it’s bloody annoying.”

TSB said later that the valuer had requested the EWS1 “in error” and waived the demand. It does not require EWS1 forms for houses “as there is no government requirement”.

The form was designed to reassure lenders on flats in blocks taller than 18 metres (59 ft, or six storeys) after the Grenfell fire, which killed 72 people in 2017, exposed a nationwide failure of building regulations. Since January, when the government tightened safety advice for all flats, some banks have refused to lend even on three-storey brick blocks without EWS1 forms.

Capital Economics said the forms could be required for up to 900,000 private flats — the number in modern blocks over three storeys . The “downside risks are significant” for housing transactions in 2021.

It said: “Problems may become more important next year, as any cladding delays cool housing demand on top of any weakness arising from a fragile economy and the end of the stamp duty cut.”

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