A story of one tree and a cracking wall aka what it’s really like to deal with local councils in England

Some years ago I purchased so called ex-council property. For anyone outside of England, the ‘ex-council’ and ‘council’ way of labeling refers exclusively to properties built and rented out as a form of affordable housing by local authorities. After some years, the renters are able to purchase the properties, usually at a discount, making them ‘ex’ council properties. These properties can then be sold on as the owners move up in life. A significant number of properties available in London, and all cities in England, can be classed as ex-council. Social housing in England is a thing and dates right back to the Victorian times – yes, many of the beautiful Victorian terraces started their life as social housing built under Queen Victoria’s rule.

Owning an ex-council property comes with some advantages and some disadvantages. The advantages, especially for the smaller blocks without lifts, include room sizes larger than new builds for more affordable price, low service charge costs, comparably lower building insurance and general one-off repair costs, and lastly a tiny ground rent.

The disadvantages are less numerous but considerable. Specifically the first one is the neighbours – this usually is not a problem when the building has already been largely privatised, but often in properties majority-owned by the council your council-tenant neighbours will just not care about the upkeep since they don’t own their home and pay low rent for it. The second issue is the councils themselves as freeholders – I don’t know how this situation looks like outside of London, but in London the councils have a bad rap of being poor estate managers, slow and unhelpful landlords and political money-wasters.

With this LONG explanation now over, here’s the story of how a tree was starting to ruin the building I had a flat in and what it took to get the problem solved.

The issue

After I moved into a property, I noticed cracks appearing all over the place, seemingly out of nowhere. The property was over the top two floors of a building and if there is a subsidence issue impacting a building, and subsidence is a common problem in most places in the south-eastern England, the top floors show it first. I am blessed with a surprising amount of knowledge about structural integrity in properties and likely causes of the lack of, so I sent myself for a walk around the block of flats and identified the likely cause – a tree which has grown exponentially over mere few months.

I notified the council, including photos of the damage and of the likely offender tree and asked for a visit from a building surveyor. In response … I got crickets. The council did acknowledge the receipt of my message and said they’d look into it, but 3 months later I still had no actual response. After following up, another 3 months went by with again no response.

Grabbing the attention

At that point I took a walk around the building again and spoke to some of the neighbours, documenting the issues with random cracks appearing in their homes and finding out about any council interactions they had. Turns out, two other neighbours reported the same issue and were ignored.

Armed with that knowledge I wrote another, more strongly worded email demanding a review of the problem and direct contact details of person in charge of the ward (ward=area of greenery my property is within), contact details of the council housing department’s legal team and a copy of the insurance policy, including any provisions made for subsidence in addition to standard policy wording.

I asked for these specific pieces of information so that I can speak to the person who is supposed to deal with issues observed at my property, in case I need to serve them any legal notices under my lease to force them to do the work, and so that I can check what coverage is in place for the building and individual flats in case the issue is subsidence.

The council responded to me a little more promptly this time round, but again without an action plan. So anther three months and two weeks of fruitless email Ping-Pong in, I picked up the phone and called the contact number of the person responsible for the area I live in. Unsurprisingly, not available. In his absence I spoke to another person and made it known that the issue is not one I will let go of, and that it’s becoming urgent. I was polite and sweet as a sugar to the poor secretary – but I also made my intentions known right away. Three days later an independent survey company called up to arrange an inspection.

Following through

It took close to a month for the report to be ‘received’ by the council. I immediately requested a copy and despite the council initially refusing, I kept pressing to see it. After two weeks of emails and phone calls I finally received the report which advised, to no surprise, trimming back of the offending greenery, alongside some additional work to the front façade where one of the gutters was leaking. At this stage, it pays to know the schedule of tree maintenance of your local council and as it turned out, the schedule was not followed correctly in my ward. This is of course a bad news for anyone with a house on clay soil, but in my case this was a good news because it pointed the finger of responsibility at the council, without a shadow of a doubt.

However, in order to have the council do something as drastic as trimming a tree down out of season, you need to be a special kind of persistent. In the interest of this article I counted my written communications. I sent a total of 34 emails in between October 2017 and June 2018, and I made 14 phone calls with requests for updates. If this sounds as harassment, in July I raised a formal complaint against the ward manager not because the work was not being done but because I have not had a single response from this person. My complaint was dealt with seriously – a tree inspection was scheduled for October 2018. And did not go ahead.

Let me tell you one thing – if you are dealing with somebody unwilling to get the job done, you either keep at it or give up. In for a penny, in for a pound. I don’t like cracking walls, so I lodged a second complaint and raised a separate distress request with the emergency services dealing with trees in the area (by that time we were 20 months in, the tree located just 6 meters from the building was about three times the height of it and sucking the clay soil beneath the foundations dry). The distress people showed up 3 days later to a different call, to cut down a tree across the fence, damaging a gutter on the building I live in. About a week later I received a letter telling me that the property manager has approved the work to fix the gutter and advising what the cost per unit in my building would be. Turns out, the approver was the same person in charge of getting the tree drama sorted from the start.

Actually getting it done

And that’s when I called the person managing my second complain and advised that if there is not an action plan in writing to me within a week, I will lodge a third complaint and notify my solicitors on the grounds of gross negligence by the property manager. Because you see, if somebody is refusing to deal with something within their job description which impacts physical safety of others, that’s gross negligence.

I never got that plan, but about a week later I woke up to a realisation that the tree was in fact gone. It was cut down the previous day apparently, while I was at work, and when I woke up it was no longer there. Funny, isn’t it? It only took 2 years to get there. I called the complaints manager in the afternoon to thank her for her work and let her know the issue had been resolved.

Since that incident, the building I live in has a new manager. Work gets done a little faster, I have not had the need to lodge any more formal complaints and somehow I did not have to file the insurance claim – the building started re-settling with the cracks going away within weeks from the tree being gone.

This story is to say that sometimes opting for a ‘value’ product like an ex-council property results in unexpected emotional cost of having to chase the council for basic maintenance work with the persistence of a professional bailiff. My experience is not exaggerated nor unique, and if I have put you off from purchasing an ex-council flat, I don’t even feel bad about that. However, if you are looking to move into an ex-council building simply because they are significantly less expensive to purchase as compared to period and new build properties, do your due diligence and find out exactly what the residents have to say about the standard of care from the council’s housing services. It is worth knowing how thick of a skin you need to grow before you put the money on the table.

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