Stevenage Major Works Contract: 'We are not out to ruin people's lives'
PUBLISHED: 08:26 27 January 2020
Bankruptcy, homelessness and thoughts of suicide - there is a real fear these could become reality for some of the council leaseholders facing bills of up to £20,000 for the major revamp of Stevenage flats.
Stevenage Borough Council's Major Refurbishment Contract includes all 550 low and medium-rise flat blocks in the town and began in 2018 with the Old Town, Longmeadow and Roebuck areas. It is due to end in 2023 and could include roof replacements and structural repairs.
With an average estimated bill of about £14,000 per flat for leaseholders, the council has come under fire for not providing a cyclical maintenance programme to avoid the need for such a huge programme of works, but the local authority blames government funding cuts.
One affected leaseholder said: "This is a social, political and humanitarian issue that will see hard-working people bankrupt, homeless and suicidal. There is no question about this."
Councillor Jeannette Thomas, the council's executive member for housing at SBC, said: "We are not out to ruin people's lives, but to make improvements to our housing stock, which will ultimately benefit leaseholders and tenants.
"The council will not make any leaseholder homeless as a result of the cost of the works.
"For those anxious about the process and worried about the final bill, we have staff who are happy to work with them and talk them through the various payment options.
"There's no denying - with the way work is estimated and the various numbers involved - it can be bewildering and confusing, which is why we are trying to keep leaseholders involved at every stage of the process."
The council had organised a meeting to specifically discuss the major works with leaseholders on Thursday, but said it had to cancel it due to unprecedented demand.
The authority had booked a venue to seat 150 people, although thousands are affected by the plans.
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The event cancellation prompted questions as to why it could not have gone ahead as planned for the 150 people who had booked places, with subsequent events held to accommodate the remaining swell of people.
Cllr Thomas said: "Previous events we have held have attracted nothing like the interest this event did. The Comet's coverage increased awareness.
"We decided, rather than disappoint people or attempt to hold one big meeting - which would not have been an effective platform for people to have their views heard - we would look to hold a series of smaller events.
"The series of smaller events that we will shortly be announcing for the coming weeks will enable us to have more effective face-to-face dialogue than a large scale meeting."
A number of leaseholders have criticised the standard of some of the work carried out so far, particularly relating to electrics.
Leaseholder Matt Endersby, who is a qualified electrician, said: "The standard of work is beyond appalling. [The pipework is] falling down and installed around our door, with fixings hanging out and not level. The original installation is neat and nicely clipped and now I have a complete eyesore."
He says he and his 91-year-old neighbour have been told they must pay up to £5,000 between them for these electrics, and accused the council of "total neglect" of the flat blocks.
Of the electrical work at Mr Endersby's flat block, Cllr Thomas said: "We will be working with our contractors to make sure it is rectified. While we obviously don't like to see work that is not up to the standard we require, we are grateful for the feedback and the opportunity to rectify the situation."
Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland has accused the council of bullying leaseholders and is appealing to anyone affected to contact him with a view to taking every decision to a tribunal.
He said: "I believe it is totally unfair and the council is bullying people and acting far worse than any private landlord has in this town. The council is ripping people off. It is outrageous and we have to try and take every decision to the first-tier housing tribunal. They have the power to reduce the amounts that were charged, write them off and even impose a limit of £100 a year payment, for example.
"I am in discussions with hundreds of leaseholders and the Leaseholder Advisory Service, and I am trying to find a lawyer to act on a pro bono or reduced rate to represent those being ripped off by the council."