'Cash cows': Leaseholders fight for clarity and better value over 'huge bills'
- Credit: Polly Hancock
A group of Camden leaseholders are fighting for greater transparency when it comes to huge major works bills, which put their homes and their mortgages under threat.
People who own property where the freehold belongs to the town hall are angry at how Camden manages maintenance and major works bills, especially as in some cases more than two-thirds of a bill can be itemised as an "overhead".
The Camden Leaseholders Forum set up a sub-group focussing on the issue - and it has presented the council a series of demands over transparency.
It wants to see Camden streamline how it deals with complaints about major works bills and provide more detail about how it tenders for projects and how the bills are calculated.
They are also calling for updated legislation to better protect people in their situation.
The CLF provided the council with the complaints of 16 leaseholders, most around high charges, a lack of value for money, and limited transparency over what they were paying for.
On the St Silas Estate, off Prince of Wales Road, major heating works have been taking place since 2019. Both Jerome Boughton Mills and Imogen Pelham told this newspaper of bills running into tens of thousands of pounds
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Imogen, who has been asked to pay more than £25,000 over the past three years for work on her Southfleet flat and told to expect a further bill of around £13,000, said: "Obviously that's a huge amount of money. I can't quite understand how it is so expensive or how I am liable for so much."
She said she had already negotiated a payment plan with Camden but more bils are expected and she added: "I have no idea how I am going to afford that. And it's a time I'd be wanting to think about starting a family. This makes that harder."
Jerome said: "We are in a very very difficult position. Unless there's some sort of legislation brought forward I can't see what recourse we have."
He added: "I am in a better situation than some but my finances are not a bottomless pit, and I'm sure there are others suffering worse than I am."
Citing large management fees and calling the system "opaque", he added: "The way business is undertaken is a concern."
Katya Erichsen owns a property in Smyrna Road, Kilburn. She has also raised concerns about the quality of work taking place.
"If I look at the work that's been done, and try to relate that to the cost, I just can't."
She said has struggled to get a breakdown of what she is being charged. She was billed £7,500 in 2020, more than £4,000 of which was listed as overheads or supervisory fees. She said though she had been sent a spreadsheet of costs, she feels "you have to do forensic accounting to understand it".
Another woman, living in Gaisford Street, in Kentish Town, said she was landed with £30,000 bill for roof replacement work, around £10,000 of which was towards overheads for Camden and its contractors.
"The overheads seem high, especially given one of the key things was that the quality of the was lacking", she said. The woman added: "It's as if they see private leaseholders as cash cows."
All four say the bills effectively trap them in a property which becomes unaffordable.
Isabella Luger, a vice-chair of the CLF, said the unpredictable bills make it difficult for leaseholders to plan.
"It's so insecure financially," she said. "If Camden continue this policy, what kind of residents do they want in the borough?"
She said major works contracts tenders "should be in the public eye".
Jo Darbyshire, a founder of the National Leasehold Campaign, said campaigning for reforms to leasehold is ongoing.
She said: "For people who buy a leasehold property, particularly a communal leasehold property, it's vital to understand the terms and to be aware what the costs are likely to be."
Camden's opposition leader, Cllr Oliver Cooper (Con, Hampstead Town), said: "Camden treats leaseholders like second-class citizens. I've seen works bills where over half the cost is for overheads: not improving the property."
Citing government figures showing that as of March 2020, Camden had 3,777 "non-decent" council homes - the fourth most in the country - Cllr Cooper added: "It's not even as if these whopping bills are helping bring social housing up to scratch."
He said passing on overheads to leaseholders is Camden "passing the buck" for poor project management, adding: "Consultation with [leaseholders] must give them a real say and if they're not happy with works, they shouldn't happen."
A Camden Council spokesperson said: “We have an important duty to ensure that tenant’s and leaseholder’s homes are safe, secure and well-maintained and, through our major works programme, we are meeting this duty while also delivering a new standard of living and resident safety for our residents."
They said the town hall is committed to involving leaseholders in "every aspect of any major works project for their home and delivering value for money for taxpayers and leaseholders alike".
They said there are a "number of different payment options" where leaseholders might struggle to meet high bills.