BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Are Torfaen leaseholders’ being held over a barrel?
ANGRY: Phil Reid, 48, a Bron Afon leaseholder, in Pontynewydd Walk, Northville, Cwmbran. He’s received a bill for £3,000 and says he would rather sell his flat than pay
Bron Afon leaseholders have recently hit out about receiving large bills of up to £27,000 for work to be carried out to their property. KATEY PIGDEN looks at their claims.
MANY people say they have have been left confused as to whether the work carried out on their homes is classed as improvements or repairs.
Several leaseholders would not be required to pay for improvement works because of the conditions of their lease, but would be liable for repairs.
But in many cases the wording of the contracts has been altered from improvements to repairs, leaving leaseholders footing the bill once more.
Bron Afon admits this has caused confusion for leaseholders, yet it would appear it too cannot make up its mind if there is a clear-cut distinction between what constitutes a repair and what constitutes improvements or whether the matter is a more complex one.
Bron Afon’s head of asset management, Peter Howell, states: “The law on the distinction between repairs and improvements for leaseholders is very complex.
“In conversations and letters with some leaseholders we have used the term ‘improvements’ in the sense that external wall insulation ‘improves’ the energy efficiency of a building.
But this is not the reason for doing the work. There is a distinct difference between the definition of ‘Repair’ and ‘Improvement’ as defined by the law in the context of these leases.”
A group of ten Bron Afon leaseholders from New Road, Herbert’s Close and Heol Waun in Garndiffaith set up an action group after they were told to pay £8,000 for improvement works to the outside of their flats despite previously being told they do not own the shell of the buildings.
John Williams, 64, of New Road, has been in discussions with Bron Afon for two years. He said: “We keep being told different things.
The majority of correspondence I have had from Bron Afon refers to the work as improvements. Since I bought my lease from Torfaen, before 1991 when Bron Afon took over, I would not have to pay for improvement works.
“But now Bron Afon are trying to call the works repairs.
“One minute we are being told we don’t own the outside of the building and the next we are told we are responsible for paying £8,000 for insulation, and re-roofing, to bring the building up to Welsh Quality Housing Standards.”
Phil Reid, 48, a Bron Afon leaseholder in Pontnewydd Walk, Northville, Cwmbran, received a bill for £3,000 and says he would rather sell his flat than pay the amount.
He said: “I can’t get my head round it – Bron Afon keep saying it’s their roof, and their building, and then they keep asking for money.
“There has also been a £68 charge for an asbestos inspection, but samples have never been taken. They just keep holding their hand out for money. When our street lights went out it affected the lights in our property. The light outside was repaired and we were then charged £34.”
Leaseholders in Monmouth House in Cwmbran have also received bills for work to be carried out to their block including roof, windows and exterior cladding .
Widow Anne Loveland, 76, has received the largest bill, of £26,384, although she was originally not included in the payment as her lease says she does not have to pay for improvements.
She said: “Contractors and surveyors have clearly stated the work is an improvement and not a repair.
“I have been a Cwmbran Development Corporation leaseholder since 1971, and my original lease states I do not have to pay for improvements, so at first I was told not to worry about paying, but then Bron Afon changed it to a repair.
“There is nothing in law to safeguard leaseholders.
“This issue isn’t just a problem for us, it’s a nationwide problem which the government needs to sort out.”
Della and Robert Burns, aged 74 and 79 respectively, also of Monmouth House, have been handed a bill for £17,200 and have concerns about how they will afford it.
The couple have lived in the building for 25 years and Mr Burns had a stroke around Christmas time, just five days after a meeting with Bron Afon, which they put down to the stress of receiving the bill.
Mrs Burns said: “We’ve never been hit with a bill as large as this, and what’s worse, it’s estimated so could be anything up to £20,000.
We don’t even know what the final bill is going to be.
“I have been advised we have until December 20 to take the matter through the UK courts before we can take it to the European Court of Human Rights.”
Politicians stand up for residents
TORFAEN’S AM, Lynne Neagle, and MP, Paul Murphy, say they are concerned about the problems leaseholders are facing and are working hard to ensure the matter is resolved for them.
Ms Neagle said: “Many residents are facing large bills for improvements to buildings and communal areas that they simply cannot afford and which in some cases are more than they paid for their properties in the first place.
“They are often pensioners on low incomes who do not have the means to pay – even when the costs are spread. I’ve made a number of representations to Bron Afon, and the Welsh Government on this problem over the last year or so.
“The worries have been exacerbated in some cases by administrative errors, which have resulted in some leaseholders being given an incorrect bill.
“In one case I have dealt with a group of leaseholders had been wrongly charged by several thousand pounds.”
‘It’s your responsibility, as your solicitor should tell you’
BRON Afon’s chief executive, Duncan Forbes, said: “It is important to emphasise that when they buy their flats, leaseholders voluntarily agreed to pay a contribution to the upkeep of the whole building in which their flat is situated and they did this with the benefit of legal advice from independent solicitors.
“A solicitor’s job is to advise a leaseholder of their responsibilities under the lease, including responsibility for future major repairs.
“Every flat is also independently valued on the basis of the terms of the lease which made the landlord responsible for paying for these items and recovering the service charge.
“We provide the facts of the sale in the form of a legally binding document (the lease), which individuals voluntarily agree to sign.
“The solicitor acting on behalf of the purchaser has a duty of care to ensure their client fully understands the rights and obligations contained in the lease prior to signing.
“The purchaser also has a responsibility to use their solicitor to make sure they read and understand the lease before they sign.
“All landlords have a responsibility to repair and maintain their buildings to a satisfactory level (and to comply with all relevant legislation). It is standard practice with leasehold properties across the UK for leaseholders to contribute a proportionate amount of the landlord’s costs and Bron Afon’s lease provides for this.
“All Bron Afon are doing is asking them to meet their contractual obligations. Tenants pay for their share of the upkeep through their rents; leaseholders through their service charges. Any work we do benefits leaseholders as it is to the structure of the building they live in.
“If leaseholders do not pay then tenants’ rent is subsidising this work.
“We know that major repairs or improvements to a block mean leaseholders can get a large bill and we understand the financial difficulties this can cause. That is why we have put in place different options for resident leaseholders of paying the charges, including in some cases the option of paying nothing until the flat is sold or agreeing a minimum monthly payment of at least £50. We are also paying for leaseholders to get independent financial advice.
“We have a leaseholder forum every three months and before it starts there is a surgery where leaseholders can come along and ask individual questions about their lease.
“We now have a small dedicated team to answer queries and they also regularly meet leaseholders.
We have also produced a leaseholder pack, which explains all about the different stages of consultation and how they can comment and appeal if they disagree.”