Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Leak Saga

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For the sake of clarity, I’ve so far omitted the parallel saga of the leak in the mains water pipe in the communal entrance hall downstairs. (Click on the Wandsworth tag to read the story so far…)

It’s coming up to three years since I first reported the leak to Ms Parris on 5th May 2006. It’s not a gushing leak, just a gradual and inconsistent seepage from the valve, but on occasion the water has reached carpet level.

Because the leak is on the mains, the water needs to be turned off at the external stop valve in order to carry out the repair. My plumber, who first spotted the leak, told me he couldn't find the external stop valve in the pavement - it's usually directly outside the property. He also said you couldn't freeze the pipes either as there wasn't enough room to access them.

Anyway, shortly after Ms Parris had been round to inspect my flat in May 2006 and had also seen the leak, Council contractors arrived unannounced to repair it. I told them they couldn’t repair it until the external valve had been found and, sure enough, after having a look they told me they couldn’t repair it.

I phoned Ms Parris shortly afterwards. She told me that the contractors had said they’d repaired the leak. I told her this wasn’t true and that she’d have to get Thames Water to find the external stop valve first. Subsequently, I wrote several times to Ms Parris, enquiring as to progress. She didn't reply. And so, around the end of 2006, I began to chase Thames Water myself, as Ms Parris clearly wasn’t planning to do her job any time soon.

The Thames Water game went like this. I would call Thames Water and give all my details, explain the problem, and they’d say someone would call me back within 24 hours to arrange an appointment. If I missed that call, they wouldn’t try calling again. I’d have to go back to square one and call the call centre, explain it all again, to be promised another call back. Sometimes, the call centre would try to tell me that Thames Water don’t come to investigate stop valve location.

Thames Water dug up the pavement three times without success. By the summer of 2008 I was beginning to get desperate and one day I flipped and insisted on speaking to the manager. It worked; I got put through to a top secret, crack-team, department of Thames Water. The man said he would personally ensure that the stop valve would be located, and would not rest till this objective had been achieved. He even gave me a direct line phone number to bypass the call centre routine.

A special Thames Water engineer arrived the next day and found the stop valve in about ten minutes. I had mixed feelings: joy that the 18 month search was finally over, mingled with the face-palming knowledge that the hours spent on the phone to Thames Water, the waiting in for appointments, the digging, could all have been avoided if they'd sent this guy round in the first place.

* * * * *

By this time, beige fungus was growing out of the carpet in the communal hall, and the damp was spreading up the wall. I sent photos with my letter to the Director of Housing (17th July 2008), gave details of the problem, and the location of the exterior stop valve.

Mr Crawley’s letter of 22nd August 2008 said he was ‘currently liaising with the Senior Building Maintenance Inspector’; his letter of 16th September, however, said he had spoken with Thames Water and unfortunately they were unwilling to discuss the matter for reasons of data protection. I replied, pointing out that Thames Water’s involvement was unnecessary due to the fact that the exterior stop valve had already been located, as explained in my letter of 17th July.

At the end of November 2008, a Council contractor came to have a look at it. That was two months ago. Still waiting for them to come back and actually repair the leak.

Thursday, 29 January 2009


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I wish they did a mug version of this. I approve of incompetence-related merchandise, but slogan t-shirts rarely look good on anyone, except the occasional skinny geek. 

Via notcot and available from printliberation.  

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Letter to Mr Crawley, Wandsworth Housing Department

* * * * *

Dear Mr Crawley

Thank you for your letter dated 18th November 2008. I note your apology but do not accept you could have been unaware that threatening me with legal action would ‘come across as threatening’.

Regarding the matter of consent for the alterations, as I said in my letter dated 28th October 2008, I will be taking this complaint to the Chief Executive in accordance with council complaints procedure as you seem unable to appreciate that I am not perversely withholding the documents you have requested
ad nauseam but, as explained, am unable to provide them due to the fact that Ms Parris failed to request them at the appropriate time in Spring 2006, a failure for which I am not in any way liable, yet which you refuse to acknowledge other than as a ‘misunderstanding’.

I originally wrote to you to complain about Ms Parris’ failure to respond to my letters over a two year period, and to resolve the simple matter of formal Landlord’s consent; consent which I sought at the appropriate time, for alterations which were fully supervised and approved by Wandsworth Building Control.

You have not only failed to apologize for Ms Parris’ negligence, or explain the loss of every single document sent to her, you have also spectacularly failed to show any willingness to resolve the central issue of consent. Your most constructive suggestion has been to propose legal action against me. I therefore see no point in continuing our correspondence on this matter.

As regards the roof ridge repointing, and your request for ‘further information’ as to ‘the nature of the works’, I have already given you details in previous letters and have no idea what further details you could possibly require. However, may I suggest that you pursue whatever enquiries you deem necessary via Ms Parris and/or the council technician who inspected my flat and its roof at 1.30pm on 10th May 2006, given that it was the technician who noted the need for the repair and Ms Parris who said that my builders should carry out the repair.

Obviously, this suggestion is based on the assumption that Ms Parris, despite having lost all documents, plans, certificates and letters relating to my property (remarkably, even before she had had the opportunity to respond to them), is not suffering from amnesia in addition to her fragile grasp on paperwork.

I note that I sent you a further copy of the invoice for repointing on 28th October, i.e. three months ago, and I originally sent this invoice to Ms Parris on 20th September 2006, i.e. well over two years ago. This letter is the ninth time I have requested this refund and I have reached what is popularly known as the end of my tether.

Therefore, I hereby give you formal notice that if I do not receive the 50% refund owing for the roof ridge repointing, i.e. the sum of £125, within 14 days of the date of this letter, I will initiate legal proceedings against L.B. of Wandsworth to recover this money. My claim will include the usual court fees and, in addition, a charge for time spent pursuing the debt.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 23 January 2009

Me -v- Wandsworth Council: The Backstory

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I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, in a two-bedroom Victorian flat I bought in early 2006. Unfortunately, the freeholder happens to be Wandsworth Council. 

This is my story.

The Council, the Freeholder and Landlord of the Victorian leasehold property known as 'my flat'
Ms Parris, Estate Manager in the Housing Department responsible for leasehold matters
Mr Crawley, Senior Estate Manager of the Housing Department and Ms Parris's superior
Trufax, Me, Leaseholder and miserable pawn in the shenanigans
The Council Technician, a mysterious Council employee who only appeared once, yet plays an important role as The One Who Wanted The Repointing Done
The Chief Executive, head honcho of Wandsworth Council and the last stage on the labyrinthine complaints procedure so beloved of local government

* * * * *

It all began just after I bought the flat. It came with planning permission for a roof terrace on a flat roof at the rear. I also wanted to move the kitchen to the front of the flat to create an open-plan kitchen/sitting room, which involved removing half a (non-supporting) wall between the existing sitting room and an adjoining second bedroom.

So, in
April 2006 I contacted Ms Parris to seek Landlord’s consent. My letter included a description of the alterations, home-made plans of the new kitchen layout, and a copy of the planning permission. Ms Parris called to arrange a site visit and came round in May, had a look, said it was all fine and to send her the Building Control Approval Certificate when we were done. She'd then arrange for a letter to be attached to the lease giving Landlord's consent. Naturally, I believed her. It all seemed very straightforward. *laughs cynically*

Ms Parris was accompanied on the site visit by The Council Technician, who confirmed, when we were inspecting the site of the proposed roof terrace, that the roof ridge needed repointing. It was agreed by Ms Parris that my builders should carry out this minor work, I would pay for the work in full, send her the receipted invoice, and she would arrange for a 50% refund, as communal maintenance works are shared by my two downstairs neighbours.

In due course, I sent Ms Parris the Certificate and a copy of the invoice for £250. No response. I wrote again. And again. And again. I left phone messages (Ms Parris was never at her desk). In short, by
July 2008 – over two years after my initial request for Landlord’s consent – I had written eight letters to Ms Parris and hadn't had a single reply except for her initial phone response in April 2006, and a solitary voicemail message in the latter quarter of 2007.  

* * * * *

On 17th July 2008 I finally complained to the Director of Housing, Roy Evans, and after a target-hitting letter of acknowledgement, and one saying the matter required ‘further investigation’, Mr Crawley replied (I assumed on behalf of Mr Evans) in a letter dated 22nd August. He said there was no record of the plans, certificates, my letters, etc on file. He did not apologize for or explain their loss. Nor did he mention Ms Parris. (I assumed she’d been sacked but when I rang to check in October 2008 I discovered she is still a council employee).

Mr Crawley noted I had carried out alterations ‘
but that [I had] not obtained [Landlord’s] consent for the works’, ignoring the significant detail of my dealings with Miss Parris. He said retrospective consent for the alterations would be granted on production of copies of the following:
  • Details of the contractors that undertook the work
  • Contractors Health and Safety Statement
  • Contractors Public Liability Insurance (must be in excess of £5 million)
  • Specification of what works were carried out, illustrating how the property looked before and what it now looks like
  • Method statement explaining how the works were undertaken
Needless to say, I didn't have these documents, or a formal specification, and didn't know WTF a method statement is. The builders were a bunch of Lithuanians to whom I'd mostly paid cash and sacked in the end when they stopped showing up for the decorating part of the work, I think because they’d underquoted for the job and had more lucrative fish to fry elsewhere. We didn’t part on the best of terms.

* * * * *

In my letter dated 4th September 2008, I told Mr Crawley I was unable to provide the documents requested, given the lateness of the request, i.e. two and a half years after works commenced, that such a request was unreasonable in the circumstances, and that it was not my problem that Miss Parris had failed to keep records or request further documentation at the appropriate time.

I pointed out that I had acted throughout with due diligence, that Building Control and the Planning department had records of the works, and gave details of what Miss Parris had said on the site visit on 10th May 2006.

Mr Crawley's reply of 16th September apologized ‘if [I was] misinformed or if there was a misunderstanding’ then went on to repeat verbatim his demands for the documents listed above, adding that if I failed to comply ‘the Council may be forced to take legal action’ and I might also ‘have difficulty selling [my] property’. He also wanted a copy of the invoice for the repointing, upon receipt of which he would be ‘able to further consider the reimbursement of 50%’. 

Please note the graciousness of his consideration to reimburse me for works dictated and authorized by council employees, as well as the helpful and constructive threat of legal action.

* * * * *

I was so angry that it took me a while before I felt calm enough to resume the correspondence. Eventually, I wrote back on 28th October 2008:

Further to your letter dated 16th September, as you do not appear willing to resolve the issue of Landlord’s consent for the works undertaken, I have no alternative but to take this complaint to the Chief Executive whom I trust will take a more constructive approach than threatening me with legal action’.

I enclosed a copy of the subcontractor's invoice for the repointing and requested payment within 10 working days.

Which brings us more or less up to date. I am in possession of the latest letter (18th November) from Mr Crawley. He firstly apologized ‘if [his] request came across as threatening’, which was interesting given that the threat referred to in my letter was clearly the threat of legal action, not the request for paperwork. He then totally ignored my statement as regards taking my complaint to the Chief Executive and again listed the ‘required’ documents.

He also thanked me for sending the invoice but wanted ‘further information' about the roof repointing and ‘the nature of the works…undertaken’. 

*le sigh*

Two months have passed, and it's my turn to reply to Mr Crawley. This time, the gloves are off.