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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Leaseholders livid with scaffolding outside homes for five years serve council ‘astronomical’ £99K bill to remove it

East London leaseholders who haven’t been able to see properly outside their windows for the past five years because it’s covered in scaffolding have slammed an ‘astronomical’ bill from the council. Residents living at Old Market Square told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) the scaffolding was put up to treat concrete cancer in 2019 however, they claim it has never come down due to an ‘admin error’ at Tower Hamlets Council, which is now asking for up to £99,000 per flat to remove it and carry out a refurbishment.

Sarah Barraclough has been leading a legal campaign against the council to take the scaffolding down. Image: LDRS

Sarah Barraclough, a leaseholder on the estate, said: “Then the excuses started with Covid, which felt silly because the same company did major works on the block next to us during Covid and the scaffolding came down from there. We think the council didn’t have enough budget during that financial year to do our block as well, so they’ve rolled it to the next financial year and each new financial year that has come round, there’s still not enough budget.”

Over the past five years, Ms Barraclough estimates she has replied to around 70 different email threads asking the council about the scaffolding and when it will be removed. Ms Barraclough and other leaseholders had threatened to take the council to court over the scaffolding and sought legal action after years of ‘begging and being fobbed off’.

Last month leaseholders at Old Market Square were issued Section 20 consultation notices by the council which estimates it will cost up to £99,000 to remove the scaffolding and to carry out other external refurbishment works, depending on the size of each flat. As part of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, a Section 20 notice is given to leaseholders if their freeholder or management company wishes to carry out any major works which will cost over £250.

Ms Barraclough and her partner were issued a Section 20 consultation notice amounting to £95,000, which she claims is not only inaccurate but has been ‘completely fabricated’. The couple’s Section 20 notice shows the council wanted to charge them £30,591.46 to supply and fit ‘keep shut’ signs to store doors and lift lobbies as part of ‘fire safety works’ however, the block they live in doesn’t have any lifts.

Ms Barraclough said: “We don’t have lifts, and you’re telling me a ‘keep shut’ sign is going to cost £30,000? How have they worked this out? It cannot be correct, how can you send this bill to people for £95,000 which is a life-altering amount of money.” She added: “There’s other crazy things like doors, the new doors will cost £10,000 and I asked for the breakdown and [the council] said there’s 16 communal doors but there are two. This is completely full of inaccuracies.”

When the LDRS got in touch with Tower Hamlets Council, a spokesperson said some costs had been ‘incorrectly allocated’, but that the overall cost was correct. The council is now withdrawing the Section 20 consultation notices and is getting a third party to validate the scope of works and costs.

Ms Barraclough added: “We do have a duty as leaseholders to pay for major works, it’s something that you know so you brace yourselves for that, but you also wonder would it have been cheaper had the work been done 5 years ago? Has this building degraded more?”

She said the cost of the bill was ‘astronomical’, and added: “[The council] says you can pay it off over four years, which sounds nice but then you do the maths, that’s £2,000 per month, who’s got that much?” The residents of Old Market Square are made up of leaseholders, private renters and social housing tenants who all share the same goal, for the scaffolding to be removed.

Council tenants do not pay for the works to be done, however it is the leaseholders who will have to pay the costs to their freeholder, the council, which range from £38,000 to £99,000. Orla Tomlinson, a private renter living at Old Market Square, said: “If I was a [leaseholder], I would be absolutely livid.

Afruz Miah cannot look out of his council flat because of scaffolding that has been there for five years. Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

“It also really disturbs me from the council that they are okay with letting people live like this for so long and it’s just come down to an admin error.” The LDRS also spoke to council tenant, Afruz Miah, who said it was unfair that his block and home where he has lived for almost 40 years was still surrounded by scaffolding.

Ms Miah said: “They should remove the scaffolding, it’s not fair. They took scaffolding from the other buildings but for our building they didn’t take it away. Work was done everywhere but our building [has been] left.” George Jennings is a leaseholder who lives in another block of flats at Old Market Square and has had scaffolding outside his home more recently in September 2023.

George Jennings who also lives at Old Market Square, has had scaffolding outside his home since September 2023 Image: LDRS

Mr Jennings claims he wasn’t initially told that scaffolding would be going up outside his flat, and said a crack has appeared in the wall of his flat after the scaffolding was put up. When he first moved in, Mr Jennings was unaware that the block next to him has had scaffolding there for several years and now fears a similar fate.

He explained: “They said someone would be doing work in February [2024], someone went up there and said it needs repairing and then they said ‘we don’t know when it’s going to be repaired’. So you think, what’s going on? It seems such a waste, [the council] don’t care, they just don’t care what it’s like to have scaffolding outside your house. I suspect it’s going to be up for at least a year for no reason whatsoever.”

The LDRS contacted the two companies who are responsible for the scaffolding at Old Market Square however neither responded to requests for comment. Mr Jennings added: “We pay for the council, and they are saying the people who live there will always be paying for some of it even though it’s [the council’s] fault that it’s taken this long.

“They didn’t tell me it was going to happen, which I think is a disgrace. We’ve had people climbing it, we’ve had a pigeon infestation, it’s dodgy.” Mr Jennings’ neighbour, Adam Jones, has called the situation ‘deeply bizarre and concerning’ and said the scaffolding has created conditions for antisocial behaviour.

Mr Jones said: “Are the buildings unsafe? I have no idea, but it certainly tends to give you that impression in the absence of any explanation or progress. I want clarity on what the issues are and what the proposed time-line is for resolving them.”

The LDRS understands the council has written to leaseholders to apologise for the Section 20 consultation notice it sent out and has provided a new and accurate version of the costs. A council spokesperson told the LDRS: “We are aware of and working on the legal case with lawyers representing the residents, so are unable to comment on these specific issues.

“However, we can confirm that a meeting was held with representatives from Old Market Square on Wednesday [17 April] where it was agreed that the Section 20 consultation will be withdrawn, and a peer review undertaken by a third party to validate the scope of works and costings.”

They added: “We accept there was an issue with the Section 20 information that was sent out to residents. Some costs were incorrectly allocated, including the amounts listed for signage, but the overall cost was correct. We apologise for this mistake and understand that the high cost would cause concern for leaseholders and are currently reviewing the options that are available to support leaseholders.”

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