Building Control and Agent Strike-Off
Despite having come to a grinding halt in getting anyone to assist me with the problems our block was experiencing I was again forced to write to the council (in sheer frustration and panic) because a heavy storm had led to water entering our electrical supply through the roof, which in turn blew out our ring mains!
I told them we had already sought legal advice (spending several hundred pounds in doing so) only to be told that we could either get ourselves in debt to the tune of around £20,000 to go to court, (with no guarantee of a result in our favour, which to me beggared belief) or take the time-consuming legislative routes available, which had already been well and truly ruled out (for reasons which will become clear later).
Building Control Attend
The council leader had said in earlier correspondence that he would see if the council’s Legal Team would refer the issues of our block to the Building Control Team to ask if there was anything they could do to help.
This led to them attending our block and carrying out a basic structural survey. We received a letter on their findings which stated the following:
- Several cracks on the balustrading were a mix of some which had developed over time and others which were quite recent. None of them were in a serious enough condition to call for immediate action but Building Control were concerned enough to state they would write to the managing agents bringing the problems to their attention;
- Although a detailed structural or conditions survey had not been carried out, the building was found to be generally structurally sound, in spite of the problems of the walkway parapets;
- Whilst there were long-standing problems with deteriorating roof coverings, damp penetration through the roof decking would inevitably lead to a weakening of the roof structure;
- The rainwater goods (gutters and downpipes) were defective and in poor condition which in turn allowed the external walls in places to become saturated, no doubt encouraging damp interiors of several flats;
- Some of the walkway soffits (the underside of an architectural structure such as an arch, a balcony, or overhanging eaves) were also deteriorating rapidly, with fractures and holes appearing;
- The presence of asbestos sheeting should also be surveyed and checked;
- The low ground level retaining wall at the side of the property, (which also forms the boundary wall to a common area walkway) had a degree of lean which could rapidly fail if allowed to reach its stability threshold.
Notice Sent To Managing Agents
Good to their word, Building Control sent a notice to the (so-called)managing agents, (under Part 6 (miscellaneous) (Part 4) of the London Local Authorities Act 2000 and the London Building Acts (Amended Act) 1939 Part vii (Dangerous and Defective Structures) drawing their attention to the defects noted at the recent inspection.
The notice went on to state that urgent action was required and the reason they have been brought to the attention of the managing parties by Building Control was so they were fully aware of the extent of the problems and could take steps to remedy them. It was also to avoid the need for the Council to take action under dangerous structure proceedings.
The notice finished by requesting a reply with the next 14 days.
NOTIFICATION OF AGENT’S STRIKE-OFF APPEARS IN LONDON GAZETTE!
Now whether this had anything to do with the constant attention of the council I don’t know (although I suspect it did) but the first notification of the strike-off of our managing agent by Companies House appeared in the London Gazette. I lodged an objection to this (for several reasons) and sent a number of documents showing the business activities of our freeholder and his family over a number of years. I was hoping that their Compliance Department would be interested in looking into them.
I was however advised that Companies House are only able to write to ‘live’ companies on the register in respect of overdue accounts and annual returns, or alleged breaches of the Companies Act. They have no investigative powers but they are an Executive Agency of the Department of Trade and Industry which has a Company Investigations Branch (CIB). Their responsibility for conducting investigations into companies is by use of the statutory powers of enquiry contained in the Companies Act 1985.
On contacting the CBI I was advised that when they receive a complaint it goes through a vetting process to decide whether it merits an investigation. This means they will consider my complaint, take into account any other information they have, and decide whether to carry out a formal investigation.
What Use Were They? None!
In correspondence to me they highlighted the importance of confidentiality which basically meant that they couldn’t enter into any public debate on the merits of complaints so they would not confirm or deny that an investigation into a particular company is taking or has taken place and they would not tell me what the outcome of the complaint was!
So again I wrote to my local MP and the leader of the council because by now I was getting really desperate! There had been earlier reference made to the rights of leaseholders under legislation but at this time we couldn’t meet any of it for the following reasons:
- Collective enfranchisement, (group action to buy the freehold): we had extreme difficulty in tracing leaseholders because the Land Registry only held the address of the rental property, and most flats on the block were rented;
- Replacing management via the FTT: we couldn’t meet the criteria and we also couldn’t afford the legal support so often recommened. Not only that but the agents I contacted for help would not touch us because a) the building had fallen into such a state of disrepair, b) the need to get buildings insurance might need specialist cover and c) the potential difficulty in tracing owners and getting them to start paying service charges;
- Right to Manage (replacing the current managing agent with one of our own choosing): we couldn’t meet the criteria;
- We didn’t have enough owner-occupiers to set up a Residents Association.
As if that weren’t bad enough, whilst the Housing Ombudsman (in 2006) stated that they could deal with complaints if they were about the landlord and tenant relationship (to include tenant, leaseholders, licensees and others who received services from landlords who belong to their schemes) our relationship with our agent was not one that fell into any of those categories!
So all that redress and for a considerable amount of time, we couldn’t use any of it so where were we supposed to go from here when we had spent nearly 2 years trying to get our situation resolved?
That was when I decided to look at the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (HHSRS). Whilst it is primarily used for assessing the conditions of rented flats, it actually applies to all residential properties including blocks of flats and their common areas. Under Part 1, Chapter 1 s4 of the Housing Act 2004 (inspections by local authorities to see whether category 1 or 2 hazards exist) it states that ”if an official complaint about the condition of any residential premises is made to the proper officer of the authority’ i.e.a complaint received by writing by a ‘justice of the peace having jurisdiction in any part of the district’,’ or the ‘parish or community council for a parish or community within the district’ and if the circumstances complained of indicate that any Category 1 or 2 hazard may exist on those premises or an area in the district should be dealt with as a clearance area, the proper officer must inspect the premises or area.
My first request for an inspection was refused but when I established what was required under the above legislation, and our MP stepped into the breach, my second request was granted. A number of risks were flagged but by the time they were, the agents had got themselves struck off Companies House Register so we had no-one for the council to work with in terms of remedying the issues!
COUNCIL LEADER ACCEPTS LEGISLATION FAILED US!
My MP remained concerned enough to personally write to the Chief Environmental Health Officer in which he said that our problems were complicated even further by the fact that 18 our of 22 flats are sublet. This meant that most of the occupiers had a relatively transitory relationship with the building and so would be unlikely to join in any formal actions. He also said that if the managing parties were not prepared to carry out the work when they had a notice served on them then the work should be carried out and they should be forced to pay the bills.
The council leader also accepted that the legislative process had failed us. He was therefore happy to raise the issues on my behalf with his parliamentary party colleagues so that the matter could be brought to the attention of the proper people in government. He also said a change in the current law may be the only solution!
In the meantime, whilst the building continued to deteriorate and I continued my research, very high winds sent the top of an unsecured water tank into my next door neighbour’s garden! I was horrified at its size and the potential damage to both life and property it could have caused. We were however fortunate(?) that the very large satellite dish rolling round on the roof didn’t go overboard too! Even though my partner had a prolapsed disk he went to the roof and moved the dish to a safer place, protected from the wind. He also found another water tank serving another flat completely exposed!