Antonia Cox, the Conservative candidate for Islington South and Finsbury at the next election, reports on the crippling bills imposed on leaseholders for the Government's "Decent Homes" programme. (She is pictured centre with Jacqui Lait MP and a leaseholder representative.)
The London Borough of Islington has never had rave reviews from a Conservative point of view, from its grisly past as Margaret Hodge’s People’s Republic to its regrettable role in housing both Tony Blair
and the restaurant where he and Brown struck their Granita Pact.
That said, its often historic streets include many settled residents who have lived all their lives in the borough. Quite a few of these share core Conservative values that they are increasingly prepared to voice, even though their votes have been taken for granted for so long by the Labour aristocracy of the smarter squares.
Talking to these residents, I was shocked to find out just how badly the 11,000 council leaseholders in the borough were being treated. Those ConHome readers who are councillors will be familiar with the problem of funding maintenance in blocks and on streets where the majority of homes are council-owned and a minority owner-occupied. In Islington, central government funding for works to reach the Decent Homes standard has meant a lot of work has taken place – some of it to the good, but some of it offering questionable value for money, quite apart from the lack of consultation involved.
One factor appears to be poor performance by big-name contractors who take advantage of framework contracts to keep out competition from local firms and place themselves in a position where they can ignore residents’ complaints. Another factor is the fact that many leaseholders are on low incomes and unable to afford the sums demanded. Bills for those in Islington’s many street properties have been capped at £10,000 – but even that is a big sum for those on low incomes.
The council seems to feel – and this has become politicised – that if people have bought their leases, they must be able to cough up. But that is untrue for many. They may have bought at a deep discount but still have sizeable mortgages relative to their incomes, particularly if they are now pensioners . Or they may be “second generation” buyers who bought from the original “right to buy” owners at full market price – in which case they are likely to have even bigger mortgages and little equity. In any case, borrowing more to fund repair bills is tough in a credit crunch. And on the estates, bills can be as high as £30,000 and more.
Islington Conservatives have worked with leaseholder associations in criticising the council and Homes for Islington in local media and at town hall meetings, while calling for easier payment terms in our campaign literature. Jacqui Lait MP addressed our leaseholders and used Islington cases in support of her Private Member’s Bill. Using legal advice generously offered for free, two of our members have won a notable legal victory which we will be highlighting when the time is right.
Within recent weeks Homes for Islington, the Council's housing ALMO, has offered ten year payment terms going well beyond the two years originally on the table. However, its representatives were said to be pressurising residents into signing a document – which I have seen – which made the extended terms conditional on the leaseholder’s giving up his rights to challenge the invoices at the Leasehold Valuation Tribunal.
This seemed fundamentally unjust as well as legally questionable. There are signs that the council may be stepping back. But as our campaign continues I would be grateful for any comments from Conservatives who have grappled with this issue in their own areas.