Tuesday, 19 December 2017

My latest Leigh and Westcliff Times article



The aphorism that the law is an ass was more than appropriately demonstrated at the recent Full Council meeting. Here, we had a debate on the decision taken at the Standards Committee to allow dispensation for landlord councillors to speak and vote in debates on landlord licensing and rent controls; a decision allowed in law.

Normally, pecuniary interests would mean that a councillor would not be able to take part in a debate; there is a clear case of self-interest. However, the landlord councillors ignored natural justice, and in so doing have made Southend-on-Sea Borough Council unique.

Alone amongst all the local authorities in the United Kingdom to allow such dispensation, we have become a borough where financial interest, gain perhaps, is no barrier to involvement. This has encouraged Private Eye magazine to award rotten borough status to Southend-on-Sea; not something to be proud of.

The Standards Committee Chair bravely tried to defend the indefensible, and managed an unconvincing display of obfuscation and downright avoidance in fielding questions from opposition members.

I have to say that whilst it was a disappointing decision it did not surprise me. Self-interest is high on the list of priorities for local Conservatives, and allowing themselves to have a say on matters that could clearly impact them illustrates this amply.

In many ways it was a shoddy debate. Originally the Conservative landlord councillors claimed that political balance would be upset without their involvement, tempting me to speculate as to why they would want to politicise the debate. The local Conservatives regularly boast of having no whip, which makes me wonder how political balance could possibly be affected anyway. Then the Chair of Standards Committee appeared to suggest that political balance was not what the dispensations were about – which surely meant that several the dispensations should have been ruled out of order.

In the end the Tories have defied logic as well as any sense of fairness in voting how they did. Whatever our political differences I had always thought that fair play would prevail. After granting these dispensation that sense of fair play has seriously been dented.

There are a considerable number of new developments going on right across the borough, and many new flats and houses are being built. These are invariably leasehold, and a significant issue has come to my attention regarding this. The spectre of doubling ground rents haunts these new properties, and I wonder if those who will be purchasing fully realise what they could be letting themselves in for. In worst case scenarios, properties purchased could be rendered unsaleable and effectively worthless.

 I am no expert on property law and have never bought leasehold, but from the little I do know it does appear there is plenty of scope for unfair practices. Certainly, stories there are of people being caught, trapped even, in a (in my opinion) nefarious trend that sees developers sell homes as leasehold, and then finding that purchasing the leasehold has become very (sometimes prohibitively) expensive. Doubling ground rents are not unheard of, and one does not have to be a whizz at arithmetic to see how unaffordable this could rapidly become.

Ellesmere Port & Neston MP, Justin Madders, introduced a bill last month that seeks to address this. In his words:

“A straightforward, cost effective and fair system should be established for the owners of leasehold houses to purchase the freehold of their home, an MP will propose in a new Bill. The system would also apply to the owners of flats where a majority of leaseholders within a block wish to purchase the freehold.

The new system would be based on a simple calculation, with a cap on the total paid for a freehold and would replace the lengthy, complicated and expensive system of enfranchisement currently in operation. Similar systems exist in Scotland, Northern Ireland and a number of other countries.”

I hope this makes it into law.

On another topic, if asked to guess how many people are touched in one way or another by mental health issues I would go for 100%, yes, everyone. Whilst somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of people will have mental health issues, there is a knock-on effect on loved ones, families, partners, friends, colleagues. I cannot imagine anyone who is, therefore, not touched in one way or another by this largely hidden health issue.

There is still a certain amount of stigma attached to mental health, which is no inducement for some to speak up about it. It is a significant factor for rough-sleepers, and whether the homeless have mental health issues before they become homeless, or homelessness is the cause of the mental health issues, it is there, and not really being addressed.

Health budgets are being squeezed. Mental Health, though, as it seems to me, has been the poor relation, the somewhat overlooked sector. It is getting more attention nowadays, but funding is nowhere near adequate. The Government has to pay attention, and see that mental health is given more financial resources. Money is not the answer to everything, but underfunding will mean that those who need help will either have to wait (which can be disastrous) or will not helped at all.

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