David Cameron stepped into a row at a retirement development in his own Witney constituency where the freeholder is the Tchenguiz’s owned Retirement Care (BH) Limited and the managing agent was Peverel.
Both appear to have bent over backwards to accommodate the prime minister, and – remarkably – Peverel walked away without fighting the issues. Indeed, it offered an “elegant solution” to what seemed an intractable legal case.
By March last year pensioners at Windrush Court, in Burford, the “gateway to the Cotswolds”, had been mutinous for three years and some were refusing to pay service charges at the new-build development.
These had risen to £2,100 a year, residents claim, even though 17 of the houses on the site are freehold and there are only three leasehold properties.
“The service charges just kept on rising and Peverel came up with all sorts of excuses to levy fees,” claims Susan Hunt, who has sold the £285,000 two-bedroom house that belonged to her 92-year-old mother, who has moved into a nursing home.
“When people buy into this sort of retirement complex they have no idea what they are doing.”
Hunt also expressed her exasperation at exit fees, sub-letting fees and the managing agent seeking to check that tenants and new purchasers are aged over 60, which is a condition of the site.
There is no evidence that Peverel did anything other than enforce the contacts and lease terms, and it claims the fees did not increase unreasonably at Windrush Court.
“The average annual increase in management fees over the last five years was 3.6 per cent,” Peverel claims. “The average annual increase in service charges over the last five years was 3.7 per cent.”
Nonetheless, the pensioners turned to their local MP, David Cameron, complaining about what Alice Williams, 85, described as Peverel’s “intimidatory practices”.
‘Like a jelly in front of PM’
Last September, Cameron summoned the pensioners to his constituency office along with Keith Edgar, the chief executive of Peverel Retirement, which manages 65,000 retirement flats around the country.
“Cameron was fantastic,” says Alice. “He took complete control of the meeting and just said that as Peverel was not wanted it should clear off.
“Keith Edgar was like a jelly in front of him. When he brought up the issue of Peverel’s legal fees, Cameron just said ‘No. No more fees!’ and the matter was dropped.”
Two months ago Peverel at last vacated the site. It is now under the management of Covenant, the first managing agent to join the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. (Covenant was not contacted for the purposes of this article.) Since the site was taken over, fees have fallen from £2,100 a year to £1,500, the residents claim.
The pensioners were jubilant and decided to celebrate at Chipping Norton golf club, inviting Cameron to attend. In a hand-written note to Alice he said:
“Far from being a chore it is causes like this one that make this job worthwhile.”
Peverel stresses that Cameron’s involvement was purely as the constituency MP.
“Following discussions with the Windrush Court Residents’ Association in March 2011, it was agreed that an alternative to a deed of variation was not an appropriate solution.
“Peverel proposed an alternative, elegant solution to a complex legal problem to avoid expensive legal bills for the residents. This course of action was agreed by all parties and the details of the suggested solution are with the residents and their legal advisors.
“Agreement on this course of action was recorded in the minutes of the meeting attended by David Cameron in his capacity as a constituency MP.”
Peverel claims that “only a handful of residents withheld service charges”.
It added: “We aim to be fair and reasonable in our dealings with property owners who do not meet the requirements of their lease by failing to pay their service charge.
“Our standard process is to hold a period of consultation with them and explore ways of addressing any queries and concerns before embarking on any form of credit control.”
Alice Williams added: “I certainly think that Cameron has got a very good idea of how retirement developments are being run.”
It is good that Cameron decided to intervene in this matter, which is a complicated one because of the mixed freehold and leasehold tenures. In fact, the mix of freehold and leasehold residents would not have enjoyed the legal protections offered at leasehold sites, inadequate though these are.
While he seems happy to look after his own patch, Cameron should spare time for a five-minute chat with Grant Shapps, the housing minister. Thousands of people live in retirement and other leasehold properties in far more vexatious circumstances than the residents of Windrush Court. (See www.betterretirementhousing.com website.)
Surely his involvement has persuaded him that this sector is badly out of balance, that residents are vulnerable – as has been established repeatedly at LVT – and that managing agents should be regulated?