Advocating for Homeowners: Clackmannanshire Council's desire for Fair Valuations for Homes Facing Demolition. By Wilson Chowdhry

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On Friday, June 7th, Mr. Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the UK RAAC Campaign Group, held a video conference with three senior officers of Clackmannanshire Council to discuss the procedures for homeowners evacuated from their homes in Tillicoultry.

The council officers present were Murray Sharp, Senior Manager (Housing), Andrew Buchanan, Housing Operations Manager, and Wilson Lees, Homelessness and Supporting People Manager.

At the outset, Mr. Chowdhry requested confirmation that the meeting would be minuted. He was disappointed to learn that due to budget constraints, the council could not provide a minute-taker. Faced with this, Mr. Chowdhry had to decide whether to cancel the meeting and reschedule with a minute-taker or take minutes himself. He had previously agreed with local residents that he would cancel the meeting if minutes could not be taken. Seeking a resolution, he asked if it would be permissible for him to take notes. Upon receiving agreement from the attendees, he proceeded with the meeting.

Aware of time limitations, Mr. Chowdhry had prepared meeting notes to ensure the meeting was effective and orderly. Officers had prepared for the meeting by reviewing (and considering responses to) the questions which Mr Chowdhry had provided in advance of the meeting.

At the very beginning of the meeting, Murray Sharp, Senior Manager (Housing), explained that because some questions were quite specific and detailed, most of them would need to be addressed through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, with written responses to follow. Mr. Chowdhry welcomed this, as it meant local residents would receive clear, documented answers. However, he confirmed that he also wanted to ask some questions during the meeting to provide more immediate responses to beleaguered local residents who felt ignored.

Mr. Sharp and Mr. Wilson Lees stated that they had maintained a good relationship with local residents. They explained the creation of a WhatsApp group by Mr. Lees, which included all homeowners, and mentioned the two private group meetings held with local residents. Mr. Chowdhry acknowledged these efforts but noted that homeowners still felt their requests for information were not being met and that they were being sidelined. It was agreed that Mr. Chowdhry would be invited to join the WhatsApp group after the council sought permission from the homeowners.

1. Voluntary Purchase and Evaluation after evacuation

Mr. Chowdhry initiated the discussion on voluntary purchase requests and compulsory purchase orders (CPOs). He was pleased to hear from Mr. Sharp and Mr. Lees that the council intended to avoid CPOs, which are considered a last resort and highly undesirable. Mr. Chowdhry emphasized that the affected families would not accept any offer less than the pre-evacuation valuation of their homes plus 10% and would strongly oppose any lower offers.

While none of the officers could guarantee a specific price, they stated their preference to make as fair an offer as possible if demolition became necessary. Mr. Lees assured that all factors would be considered and that the council is required to be transparent, with valuations tested in the market. He emphasized his preference to meet pre-October valuations, stating it would not be unreasonable to argue for prices before the discovery of RAAC and that such a proposal was not unrealistic. Mr. Lees also mentioned that final decisions regarding the estate’s future, including potential roof replacements, were still pending. He advised that all decisions rest with the elected members and that the officer’s role was limited to making recommendations, for that reason it was not possible for officers to make any commitments regarding the final outcome .

Mr. Sharp expressed frustration with the contractors, whose delays were due to the high demand from multiple local councils seeking inspections, surveys, and quotes from a limited number of qualified contractors. He acknowledged the council’s desire to provide quicker responses but highlighted that this was beyond their control. Mr. Sharp confirmed that a report would be presented to Clackmannanshire Council on August 29th.

The officers appeared genuine in their sentiments, explaining that while they aimed to make fair offers, the ultimate decision rested with the councillors. At this point, Mr. Chowdhry expressed his desire to represent homeowners at the council meeting where the report would be discussed. He offered to write a petition or requested that the officers facilitate his speaking at the full council meeting if he could demonstrate an adequate additional request for discussion. The officers noted that such a request was unprecedented and would need to be discussed with Clackmannanshire Council's Governance and Legal team.

Throughout the conversation, the officers expressed genuine empathy for the local residents affected by the RAAC crisis, emphasizing how devastated they would feel in a similar situation.

2. Compensation for Expenses and 2. Recompense for Renovations

Mr. Chowdhry chose not to discuss terms of compensation for expenses incurred during evacuations or for renovations wasted due to the move, including one home where a high-end Wren kitchen had been installed just months before the evacuation. He preferred that to be in writing as part of the FOI request. However, Andrew Buchanan, Housing Operations Manager, confirmed that assistance grants were available for disabled residents.

In regards to utilities, Mr. Chowdhry was advised that electricity companies were charging some residents standing charges during the period. He himself was aware that many had been charged for electricity during the time when utilities had been left on by the council, which also posed a safety hazard. The council had stated that electricity companies were outside their remit. Mr. Chowdhry confirmed that he would explore if local media could be approached to address this issue.  If they wrote about the unfair charging it might shame some of these companies to observe more fair business practices.

Mr. Lees also explained that the Council was doing all they could for residents and that those placed in temporary accommodation by the Homeless Unit and discretion had been applied to the rental charges levied.

4. Lack of Written Records

A response to the lack of written minutes was again highlighted as a limitation due to budgetary constraints. However, all three officers agreed that in any future meetings with homeowners or other affected residents, the community could take their own minutes and have them approved by the council.

5. Access to Properties

Regarding residents desiring to enter their condemned properties to remove items, Mr. Buchanan stated that the risk levels remain high and that such actions would have to be undertaken under the strictest safety conditions. The council officers informed that they are currently in discussion with all homeowners regards a plan of action for the Council’s Housing Service to coordinate and undertake one final and further recovery of resident belongings. Clarification was provided that the removal of fixtures and fittings would not be possible at this stage but they would look into the possibility.

They advised residents to maintain any evidence of recent renovations, such as the installation of a new Wren kitchen, as there might be a possibility of recompense if the council opts for a demolition and purchase option.

6. Lack of Pre-Advisory:

Mr. Chowdhry then addressed the lack of prior advisory from the council regarding RAAC, both at the time of purchase and the opportunity to repair the property before the evacuation. While most of these concerns were to be addressed in the FOI report, Mr. Chowdhry pressed on the council's failure to recognize the presence of RAAC in these buildings until a local resident, referred to as OC for the purposes of this post, independently paid for a survey,  the Council (having been made aware of the survey findings) then instructed further survey of this property. The Council officers stated that they were unaware of the presence of RAAC within domestic dwellings at the time when a local resident undertook survey of their property. The Councils initial RAAC survey works were focused on non-domestic buidlings (primarily the education estate), attention turned to domestic dwellings when it became apparent that RAAC may also have been used in the construction of certain types of housing

7. Neglect of Property Maintenance:

Mr. Chowdhry spoke about perceived failures by the council in their role as property factors. He highlighted that during their tenure, no comprehensive maintenance history was maintained. Residents were only aware of a few remedial works, including:

Roofs being re-tarred in 1992

Landings being painted in 2000

Security gates were repaired in 2012, costing residents £1,200 each

Questions were raised about the reliability of a report by surveyors from Harley Haddow, which asserted that RAAC panels had been in place for 50 years without any reported failures. This claim was questioned by residents who provided evidence of reports made about roof damage due to water ingress at Chappelle Crescent for over six months, to which the council, as factor, failed to respond. Council Officers suggested that any reports of water ingress made to the Councils Repairs Centre would have been progressed for further investigation. The council acknowledged an oversight in the failure to write to inform residents that they were no longer acting as factors, despite having removed themselves as the listed factor on the Government website. The officers agreed to investigate whether it was their duty to inform residents of their removal as factors and to include this information in the FOI response.

8. Estate Development Plans:

The conversation then moved to development plans for Chappelle Crescent that some local residents had seen at a community regeneration meeting before the COVID-19 pandemic. These plans proposed increasing the number of homes from 100 to 150 and included various community and mixed-development designs. Mr. Buchanan confirmed that these plans were produced by a former roads officer for the council without approval, and the council did not have a copy of them. He assured that these plans were unofficial and were not part of the process of condemning and evacuating the homes of local residents.

9. Awareness of Short Lifespan:

It was agreed that a response to questions about the knowledge and sale of property with short lifespans would be part of the FOI process. However, Mr. Chowdhry raised concerns about the sale of properties under the Right-to-Buy scheme and questioned whether the council felt any responsibility towards homeowners for selling these homes under such a scheme. He highlighted the vaunted aims of the Right-to-Buy scheme as stated on the Government website:

“Home ownership provides a special sense of pride. It would give you more freedom to make the changes you want to your home, and to move when and where you want to – for example, to take up a new job in another area, or take the next step up the property ladder.”

All three officers made it clear that the Right-to-Buy scheme was not promoted by the local council but was a scheme promoted by the UK Government, from which the Scottish Government extricated itself in 2016. They confirmed that most of the houses sold to local people would have been sold before Scotland removed itself from the scheme. Mr. Chowdhry agreed to write to the UK Government to inquire if they felt partially responsible for the predicament of Scottish homeowners due to the selling of homes that did not meet the scheme's principles.

10. Excessive Costings: 

Mr. Chowdhry inquired about the origin of a £400,000 figure for a replacement roof, which had been brought up by an officer of the council at a private meeting for all homeowners, as local residents found it to be extremely overpriced. Mr. Lees confirmed that an official quote was being obtained and that this would form part of a paper to be presented to Council, the Housing Service aim is to have this paper ready for August Council however officers pointed out that the timeline for this is challenging.

At this juncture, Mr. Chowdhry reiterated his intention to represent the views of homeowners at the meeting and expressed his readiness to prepare a presentation after reviewing the report online. All three officers agreed to consider the possibility of this representation and to seek clarity from legal and governance officers.

11. Mental health support.  

A request was made to the council that local people affected by RAAC should be entitled to mental health support and counseling. Mr. Chowdhry explained that one resident, in particular, was in tears during a recent group telephone meeting he held with a dozen local homeowners. This resident had been moved into a homeless unit that was noisy, visited regularly by local police, and deemed cramped and insalubrious. He also described how the woman and her husband had invested their lives into their homes and were too old to start again. They wanted a home for a home, not money that they could not really use. Mr. Chowdhry suggested that for those who can wait and desire it, an offer of a home should be made available. He pointed out that if the council proceeds with the demolition process, they have already identified that an additional 50 homes could be built on the 100-property site, some of which could assist families who may not find homes elsewhere that match the value of their previous cherished ones.

Mr. Lees confirmed that an approach would be made to the Housing and Social Care department, and once suitable advice had been sourced, he would share this information with local residents. Mr. Chowdhry expressed concern that such a wait may be too late for many residents and sought the immediate release of contact details for regular mental health services, which should be available to every resident of the district at all times. Mr. Lees agreed to facilitate this, and as of today, June 11th, 2024, the information has already been shared with residents via a WhatsApp group.

12. A home for a home:

Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Sharp both expressed their willingness to explore all possible options available with regards to any potential future proposal for new housing development this once[AB1] they were further along in the decision-making process regarding remedial works or demolition and rebuild. Officers acknowledged that the option of a “home for a home” had not been considered previously, officers were unsure of how achievable this would be butwere willing to have further conversation regards this in future.

12. Insensitivity and Lack of Communication: 

One local resident had documented a series of administrative issues he felt were insensitive and lacked professionalism. He experienced:

Requests for information are being ignored.

Follow-up requests are being disputed as constituting a new request for information.

Unanswered Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Ignored requests for review of FOI responses.

Adjudications by the Scottish Information Commissioner require the council to supply information.

Eventually receiving incomplete and heavily redacted information from the council.

Further reports to the Scottish Information Commissioner are necessary to adjudicate on the redactions.

Mr. Chowdhry sought confirmation that evidence being redacted or not found was not intentionally being excluded to protect the council, but rather for legal reasons related to privacy of information. The officers were unable to provide an answer and committed to consulting their legal team to address this question as part of the FOI response.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Chowdhry thanked the three officers for their time, and there was a sense of mutual respect. After the meeting, Mr. Chowdhry commented:

"The meeting was characterized by candid and friendly exchanges, leaving me with no doubts about the integrity of the officers' statements. Each council member appeared genuinely committed to addressing concerns, openly discussing their limitations and objectives, and providing extensive information on policies favoring homeowners."

"The UK RAAC Campaign Group remains steadfast in its pursuit of clarity and fairness from Clackmannanshire Council. Despite this commitment, the council's stance on compensation for relocation costs, temporary accommodations, and recent renovations remains unclear."

"It's imperative that any purchase order reflects the unique circumstances of each homeowner, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. I'm encouraged by the council's efforts to share information on accessing mental health support and their proactive approach in providing requested inspection reports and including me in the local WhatsApp group after consulting with residents. These actions demonstrate a sincere commitment to transparency and accountability."

"While I hope this report alleviates some concerns for local homeowners, it's essential to remember that the UK RAAC Campaign Group stands ready to support them throughout this crisis."

 

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