August 20, 2018

Should Esther Rantzen be a speaker at today’s ARHM jamboree?

Esther Rantzen is not habitually anyone’s patsy. Will she be ARHM’s?

By a pretty wide margin, Esther Rantzen has been the country’s most outstanding campaigning journalist … so why is someone with her acute antennae speaking at this summer’s ARHM annual meeting?

It is wrong to believe that the Association of Retirement Housing Managers is filled with cold-hearted cynics seeking to profit from the elderly. It must be emphasised that there are laudable operators in the sector, and very decent staff.

But ARHM has been a narrowly self-interested trade body, with no appetite to confront the many abuses in the retirement leasehold sector.

It is in large part the creature of Peverel Retirement, which manages 65,000 of the total 105,000 retirement flats looked after by ARHM’s total of 57 accredited members. It pays the lion’s share of the subs.

Indeed, Keith Edgar, the MD of Peverel Retirement, was an ARHM director for years.

Another member is the Anchor Trust, famous for paying its chief executive John Belcher a ludicrous salary of £391,000. By a long margin this was the highest salary paid to a housing association chief and his successor comfortably tops the pay league.

Anchor spent £5,000 asking lawyers whether it could keep the proceeds of the interest on the £10 million reserve funds, which it held in trust for the residents.

It was told it couldn’t, but only in April last year did it stop helping itself to a one per cent admin fee on these funds. This was reported in the Mail on Sunday in February last year.

On the other hand, the organisation also has members such as the Hanover Housing Association, which has been highly critical of the Office of Fair Trading doing so little on the issue of exit fees.

The event Esther Rantzen has been invited to attend in June is at the luxurious Walton Hall Hotel, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

After lectures on “navigating the LVT process” (ie how to make sure they win when you complain about your managing agent), “poverty among older people” and “sub-letting” it’s time for some fun in “power-turn buggies” and then a bit of mayhem with “laser clay-pigeon shooting”. Or, at least, it was last year.

A black tie dinner follows, sponsored by Peverel’s Careline and Cirrus subsidiaries, with a “casino evening” to finish off.

At some point, to a loud fanfare, a new ARHM code of practice is likely to be trumpeted, replacing the old one (which is full of weasel words, such as commissions from contractors “should” be declared to leaseholders, rather than something more robust. The word “must”, for example.)

With a bit of mugging up on the Campaign against retirement leasehold exploitation website beforehand, Esther should be able to give the ARHM membership some finger-wagging of her own.

And here are a couple of issues she may care to raise over the petit fours.

First, why is the complaints procedure so secretive? In last year’s annual report, ARHM recorded just 12 complaints, of which 10 were “closed” and two under appeal. It does not disclose if any complaints were upheld, or who they were against.

It appears to be yet another trade body complaints system aimed at covering up, rather than redress. Campaign against retirement leasehold exploitation actually wrote to ARHM in early 2011 after one of the trade body’s representatives admitted it did not have the resources to look into many complaints.

Secondly, why did ARHM fail to give any evidence to the London Assembly report on leasehold service charges, ‘Highly Charged’? The Assembly noted there were particular problems in the retirement sector, yet the trade body was silent.

This surprised the Assembly.

Oh, and if any Campaign against retirement leasehold exploitation readers would like to attend the jamboree and have a quiet word with Esther, it’s a bargain at just £546 as a non-ARHM member. As the old line has it, “That’s life!”

And what about Sally?

 

Baroness Greengross, ARHM president

ARHM president Baroness (Sally) Greengross – who has taken a lot of flak on the Campaign against retirement leasehold exploitation site for calling complaining pensioners in retirement developments “barrack-room lawyers” with too much time on their hands – has had a brilliant career in public service.

She headed Age Concern, worked on many age related issues and became the commissioner for Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2009 and is chair of the Parliamentary Corporate and Social Responsibility group.

So why is she president of a trade body, which offers a umbrella to shady practices which almost everyone in the property industry admits exist?

She talked in Parliament about the then new ARHM code as long ago as 2006,  which spoke boldly of raising standards.

So why on earth did she say in the Lords last week: “It is difficult, not least for the providers of schemes [presumably ARHM and others], who are dealing with people who are often prepared to spend 12 or more hours a day focusing on those issues and who can make amazing barrack-room lawyers.”

Apart from being rude, this was an ignorant remark.

After 15 years of building city flats and retirement properties during a booming market, the leasehold world is now huge.

It is no longer the aging professional classes having a moan in Kensington and Chelsea, as might have appeared the case in the 1990s.

The London Assembly reckons London’s 500,000 leaseholders pay half a billion a year in service charges. Industry insiders reckon between £2-3 billion a year is spent nationally on service and contingency funds.

In no other area of the economy are such vast sums gathered and spent on behalf of others so unregulated.

Ordinary tenants in short-term assured tenancies have their statutory deposit protection schemes, which is usually a month’s rent.

But the far higher sums involved in leasehold property management are protected by … a retrospective examination of the accounts when a managing agent chooses to supply them, with redress in the legal swamp of the LVT if the sums don’t add up.

The charitable assumption is that Greengross just hasn’t really looked into this.

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