Stevenage Major Works: Leaseholders sent final bills
- Credit: Courtesy of Stevenage Borough Council
Leaseholders have begun receiving bills of up to £20,000 each for controversial major refurbishment works to their flat blocks, collectively costing £45 million.
Stevenage Borough Council’s Major Refurbishment Contract includes all the local authority’s 550 low and medium-rise flat blocks and began in 2018 with Longmeadow, Old Town and Roebuck areas.
The programme of work - which could include roof replacements, structural repairs, window replacements and rewiring - had been due to end in 2023, but the council says it is "reprogramming the remaining years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic".
The works affect 3,850 flats - 1,287 of which are privately owned. The council says it expects to cover up to 80 per cent of the total cost of the works, but leaseholders are liable for the remainder, which amounts to an average estimated bill of about £14,000 per flat for leaseholders.
The Comet has previously run stories about how the major works are affecting leaseholders, including concerns about bankruptcy, homelessness and suicidal thoughts.
The council has promised not to make any leaseholder homeless as a result of the cost of the works, and has offered to discuss various payment options - including discretionary loans - with affected leaseholders.
The quality of the works carried out has also been heavily criticised by residents over the years, from concerns about shoddy electrics to the Health and Safety Executive finding laws had been broken when it came to the handling of asbestos.
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The council, however, says many residents are pleased with the works, highlighting positive feedback from tenants in Albert Street and Torquay Crescent.
In May last year, the council postponed invoicing leaseholders for the first phase of the works, due to the pandemic. These bills have now started to be sent out, with leaseholders given 30 days to settle their bill once it is received. One leaseholder said: "Just had my bill for just under £16,000. I don’t have the money and I'm pretty sure I won’t be able to borrow either."
Another, who is facing a £20,000 bill, said: "We're going to get ready to challenge them at the First Tier Tribunal. There's no way on earth we're going to pay them such a huge amount of money for their disgusting works."
Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland says the council is being "totally unfair" and is encouraging leaseholders to go to the First Tier Tribunal, which handles property disputes.
SBC has previously come under fire for not providing ongoing maintenance to avoid the need for such a huge programme of works, but the local authority blamed government funding cuts.
In 2019, SBC's leader, Sharon Taylor, said: "We accept that in an ideal world we would have delivered a steady cyclical maintenance programme," and she pledged to ensure flat blocks are maintained regularly going forward.
Now, however, the council says "cyclical maintenance on these properties would not have necessarily avoided the work we are doing now" and "multiple visits over a longer period of time would only cause more disruption to residents and potentially cost more".
Asked if the council is satisfied with the standard of work carried out so far, a spokesman said: "The council has a strict process for checking work completed by the contractors, as well as responding to feedback from residents who express any concerns regarding the quality of work.
"This is also supplemented by a customer satisfaction form which all residents receive after works are completed. There is also a defects liability period which lasts for a year after completion, during which our contractors will return to rectify any defects brought to our attention.
"We welcome feedback from our residents and encourage everyone to report any issues with the standard of work. We have a project support team who contact residents and advises us of any dissatisfaction with the quality of work. We will always go back on site to investigate these enquiries."
Councillor Jeannette Thomas, executive member for housing, health and older people, added: “We are really proud of the work that’s been taking place on our flats, making living there more pleasurable and hopefully more desirable for future tenants.”
A representative of the council's finance department addressed people's financial concerns, saying that a cap will apply to estimated figures sent out when the cost of the work is higher than the original estimated sums, a prompt payment discount will be available and discretionary loans will be available in certain cases.
If leaseholders dispute the final cost they are asked to contact the council, but they also have the right to challenge any aspect of the bill independently at a First-Tier Tribunal, the details of which can be found at www.gov.uk/courts-tribunals/first-tier-tribunal-property-chamber.
The council's finance department will contact leaseholders to discuss payment options within five days of posting the bill, to establish any support needs from individuals. The council can also explore buying back the property if necessary to alleviate the level of debt.
A dedicated contact email address will be set up for any payment enquiries to be dealt with as quickly as possible.