The Financial Times recently published a feature highlighting serious issues with Peabody’s service charges. (Peabody is the UK’s third-largest housing association).
The report in the Financial Times article – Residents’ experiences of Peabody service charges – was compiled by Peabody’s Resident Scrutiny Panel. It has not been published publicly. However, a copy was leaked to the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC). Shared Ownership Resources contacted SHAC to find out whether shared owners were affected by the problems described in the Financial Times article..
Did Peabody’s Resident Scrutiny Panel talk to shared owners when reviewing Peabody service charges?
SHAC: Yes. The panel surveyed 2,271 residents in total: 1,000 tenants, 271 freeholders and 1,000 shared owners and leaseholders.
What were the key findings?
SHAC: Shared owners expressed very high levels of dissatisfaction. In fact, 90% of shared owners thought Peabody service charges were unreasonable given the actual services provided.
“I would like to sell but I am trapped because the service charge is so high”.Peabody shared owner
Many problems were experienced by shared owners, leaseholders, freeholders and tenants alike. But some were specific to shared owners.
What were the main problems encountered by shared owners?
SHAC: Shared owners reported a number of different problems including 100% liability for all costs, high service charges compared to private owners, and a lack of transparency in online accounts.
Many shared owners complained that they are liable for 100% of all building repair costs, and Peabody for zero costs. Even though they might have purchased only a 25% share, with Peabody owning the remaining 75%. They compared themselves with tenants who are not liable for any such costs.
Shared owners pay, but Peabody benefits
Shared owners were unhappy that Peabody would benefit from any increase in the value of its own share, even though ALL repair and maintenance costs would be met by the shared owner who would receive only a percentage of any gain on sale.
High Peabody service charges compared to private owners
The panel’s research brought up repeated problems in new mixed developments with a superior landlord. For example, a development might include one block of Peabody shared ownership homes alongside non-Peabody private blocks. Private owners may have access to facilities like gyms, swimming pools, and a 24-hour concierge. Whereas shared owners’ leases give them no such access. Yet shared owners’ service charges are similar to, or even higher than, private owners.
In one development Peabody charged a shared owner £6.75 per square foot, with no access to facilities. But a private resident in a similar property in the same development, with access to facilities, was charged only £5.61.
No distinction between rent and service charges in online accounts
Peabody online accounts do not distinguish between rent and service charge, with the two elements combined into one overall figure. This makes it difficult for shared owners to understand exactly what they are being charged for.
What other problems did the panel uncover?
SHAC: Residents, including shared owners, reported a number of other problems.
Service charges rising faster than inflation
Peabody’s Resident Scrutiny Panel found that 74% of all respondents considered that their service charges were rising faster than inflation.
“Charges should show the percentage increase on the previous year and/or last year’s costs for transparency”.Peabody shared owner
This is one of the reasons that service charges are a growing issue for many residents.
A majority of leaseholders and shared owners had queried their service charges. Of these, 84% found the process difficult. The majority discovered they had been overcharged.
“I finally got an adjustment for being overcharged. It took 14 months. I was told to keep it quiet and not tell other residents”.Peabody leaseholder
Only 6% had been charged correctly.
Poor communication and missing paperwork
Peabody’s policy is that enquirers can inspect documents only by attending a Peabody office in central London, with limited office hours. The panel consider that the policy discriminates against those less able to take time off work, and those with mobility issues.
“Peabody have been completely unwilling to consider digital means of providing the paperwork.”Peabody shared owner
Even when enquirers have visited the London office, invoices can be missing and unavailable, leaving queries unresolved.
Errors and fraud
There were also recurring themes regarding repairs. New-builds often have problems that need correcting, but many residents reported a slow and poor repair service.
Leaseholders and shared owners expressed concerns there was no incentive for Peabody to check contractors’ charges, as they would all be passed onto leaseholders anyway. In a similar vein, there is no incentive to verify the quality of work, or even that work has actually been carried out.
Some were concerned that the apparent lack of checks left the system open to fraud.
Will this report change anything?
SHAC: Peabody’s Resident Scrutiny Panel made 15 recommendations. These included:
- Make the main goal and priority of the Property Accounts Team that all service charges are accurate and reasonable rather than maximising recharging.
- The Property Accounts Team should perform extra checks on the accuracy of the charges where service charges are being increased at a rate higher than inflation.
- Peabody to establish better procedures so that Contract Managers understand that contractors’ invoices need to be verified, accurate and correctly assignable before passing on to the Property Accounts Team for recharging to residents.
- Allow shared owners to see their service charge separately from their rent in their online accounts.
- All service charge demands should show the percentage change from the previous year.
The scrutiny report was submitted to Peabody management in December 2021. The housing association provided a management response in June 2022. The process is ongoing.
The report describes the findings as ‘shocking’. How do Peabody service charges compare to other housing associations?
SHAC: We have been campaigning to highlight such problems for a considerable time. In our long experience, it is clear that you could replace Peabody’s name with that of virtually any large housing association. These problems are endemic. Only root and branch reform of the service charging system would work, together with much tougher legislation plus punitive sanctions for inaccuracies.