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Land Maintenance Companies

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): It is a great honour and a privilege to be an elected MP, but with that privilege come responsibilities and rights. One of those responsibilities is that we should be measured in our contributions when we are talking about constituency issues or companies that are causing concern. I shall talk about Greenbelt Group Ltd, which is a discreditable building company whose performance and behaviour has been a disgrace.

As you are aware, Mrs. Anderson, as part of the planning process, developers must provide open spaces on new estates and show that plans are in place for the long-term care of those estates. In the past, open spaces were managed by local authorities, but in recent years the onus for maintaining such areas has fallen on developers. They have tended to offload that responsibility in one of two ways. They have transferred ownership of the land and responsibility for maintaining it either to the local authority, a democratically elected body, or to the home owners. Home owners have been obliged to appoint a factor; if the factor failed, they could be fired and another company could be appointed. Both arrangements gave home owners control, but a worrying new trend is emerging, and urgent action is needed to avert a crisis that could affect tens of thousands of home owners throughout the UK.

I found out this week that some of my constituents in Loanhead are having similar problems. Will my hon. Friend discuss with me after this debate how best I can help my constituents?

I shall be delighted to help my hon. Friend to deal with the company and its performance and behaviour.

Some major developers, such as Bryant Homes, Gladedale, Persimmon, and Wimpey, are transferring ownership of open spaces and the sole right to manage them to a single private provider: Greenbelt Group Ltd. Developers are awarding Greenbelt the exclusive right for all time to charge home owners for managing open spaces on new estates. Home owners are bound by conditions in the title deeds to pay the company an annual fee for maintaining open spaces on estates. In some cases, that payment is nearly £400 a year. In return, Greenbelt is obliged to look after open spaces to the standards outlined in the title deeds. However, emerging evidence shows that the company is failing to meet its obligations on many estates.

Greenbelt claims to manage various estates throughout the UK—I shall return to the number—but at least 11 are in my constituency, and constituents on every one of those estates are reporting problems. They tell me that Greenbelt continually fails to carry out maintenance work to the standard outlined in the title deeds. Greenbelt is extremely difficult to engage with, and complaints have been dismissed or ignored. The company’s management practices are poor.

Earlier this week, my office was contacted by a company purporting to represent Greenbelt following my inquiries to determine whether Greenbelt had any contracts in my constituency. Although I did not take the call personally, I got the impression from my staff member that the company representing Greenbelt accepted that its communication standards had fallen woefully short in the past, but said that it was taking steps to address the problem. Is that the experience of my hon. Friend and his constituents?

That is a helpful contribution. When we are in court, I hope that I can use my hon. Friend as a witness.

The possibility of ending up in court is intriguing. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members may be aware that until this week I had two issues with Greenbelt in my constituency, and through my hon. Friend’s actions I understand that I now have three. In association with what he has just said, does he agree that there is no clear and solid working relationship between Greenbelt and residents? Residents are often confused, irrespective of what the title deeds say. Who looks at title deeds every week or every year? Residents are confused about who is responsible for green spaces, and in some instances, the local authority is also confused.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, and I want to develop that argument. Part of Greenbelt’s success has been in getting away without being highlighted. People have not been sure who is in control of and provides the factoring for open spaces.

In my constituency, play parks are badly maintained, with dangerous objects such as broken glass, litter, large fallen trees, unfenced drainage ponds and so on in areas used by children. Many people in my constituency are withholding payment for non-delivery, and they have received threatening letters. I shall return to that, because it could be part of a court case. The company is systematically attempting to extract payment for services not rendered, and there are serious questions to answer about its practices and how much money it has obtained in that way.

Far and away the biggest complaint from home owners is that they cannot escape from that failing provider. The act of buying a home is locking people inescapably into a monopoly contract with a company, which contradicts the principles of competition and contractual and consumer law in this country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I also have difficulties with the company in Bridge of Weir in my constituency where my constituents have suffered that sort of harassment. The fundamental problem is the company’s lack of accountability, and the way in which prices are negotiated. People are happy to pay for the service if they can see what it is and what the charge is. As I understand it, the charges are non-negotiable.

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. People are prepared to pay for the service, but they are paying up to £400 and not receiving a service. It is striking that one of his constituents on one of Greenbelt’s estates received a letter on 12 July stating that they will not have to pay because of the disrepair of the estate, but that on 13 July another resident on the same estate was told that they must pay up. The company does not seem to know what it is doing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that companies such as Greenbelt should be obliged by legislation to provide an annual report to individual estates stating what it has done this year and what it is planning to do next year, so that residents have an idea of where the money is being spent, if indeed it is being spent?

That is an interesting point. I shall refer to the publicity on Greenbelt’s website and its annual report later, when I shall return to my hon. Friend’s point.

I, too, have problems with Greenbelt in my constituency, which has many new housing estates. I have been trying to deal with Greenbelt on a case-by-case basis and to get it to live up to its promises. Throughout, I have heard many commitments about communication which have never been followed through.

Today, I had a report from one of the estates saying that two children have been injured during the past week by a faulty piece of equipment that had been poorly maintained by Greenbelt. Does the hon. Gentleman think that councils should be encouraged to take back responsibility for the management of such estates, as well as new estates?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who will be very helpful when we get to court, because Greenbelt is denying that any problems exist.

I want to speak about Greenbelt’s chief executive. At two public meetings in my constituency recently, two directors of the company turned up—Alex Middleton and Richard Taylor. Alex Middleton was an interesting character. He did not like the fact that I described his company publicly as “Farepak for home owners”, and he said that it was unacceptable for me to speak in the media or to raise the issue in this place. I had to explain to him that that was part of my job as a Member of Parliament.

I have had the privilege of working with my hon. Friend for a number of years and have always felt that he acted in an honourable manner, but I have received correspondence from Greenbelt which questions his balance. It says clearly that the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend contains a number of gross inaccuracies—for example, he said that Greenbelt serves 50,000 homes when it serves just over 18,000; he said that it holds 750 developments when it has only 241; he said that the cost for each property is about £180 when it is only £100. Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that Greenbelt says that he is giving inaccurate information not only to his constituents but to the Members of this House who supported his early-day motion?

Coincidentally, I just happen to have Greenbelt’s annual report. On the back are the statistics:

“Currently managing open space on behalf of 20,000 homeowners…A further 30,000 are contracted”.

At the school that I went to, 20,000 and 30,000 made 50,000. Greenbelt goes on to say that it is

“responsible for approximately 750 development sites throughout the UK”.

What is going on is a bullying strategy, which I will describe if hon. Members let me continue.

Alex Middleton made various comments telling me what I could and could not do. That is serious. At a public meeting, he said that the company had had problems with its subcontractors. In fact, this week’s Scotland on Sunday reported that one of the company’s directors said that there had been problems

“on some estates and that some subcontractors hired to carry out work had ‘not been up to scratch’.”

One might think that that is perfectly fair and reasonable—until one looks at the directorships held by Greenbelt directors. Alex Middleton holds 15, in Greenbelt Group Ltd, Greenbelt Energy Ltd and other companies. Greenbelt’s main subcontractor is MG Contracting Ltd. Guess who the director of MG Contracting Ltd is? [Hon. Members: “Alex Middleton.”] Quite correct.

The other director of Greenbelt is Anthony Burton. He holds 21 directorships, including various Greenbelt directorships. What do we find among them? MG Contracting Ltd. He is a director—a Greenbelt company is subcontracting to a company in which its directors hold shares. Mr. Richard Taylor holds 19 directorships—again, Greenbelt this and Greenbelt that. Guess what is among them? MG Contracting. The company clearly is Farepak for home owners.

I should like to address the serious bullying. One of my constituents, Paula Hoogerbrugge, set up a support group to help people affected by Greenbelt. She has now been in touch with more than 30 estates throughout the United Kingdom, from Inverness—the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) wished to be here but, sadly, could not owing to other commitments—right down to Leeds. It is exactly the same story articulated by other hon. Members—money charged and service not given, threatening letters sent and the like.

What did Greenbelt do in response? First, it had its solicitors write to me:

“We are writing to you at this stage to draw these matters to your attention. You will no doubt give careful consideration to any comments which are made in relation to our clients and ensure that they are properly founded in fact.”

That was on 11 July. They also wrote to Paula. I e-mailed them back and told them to withdraw their bullying letter to my constituent or I would raise the matter in the House of Commons. I mentioned the company during business questions on 12 July. Greenbelt then wrote to the Mr. Speaker in a clear attempt to silence me.

As they say in my part of the country, I am big and ugly enough to take on that sort of threat. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Unanimous applause. But it is totally unacceptable to write a similar letter to my constituent. The letter is addressed to Paula and others—I am clearly one of the others—and complains about her press release. I place on record that not only did I see the press release in advance, but I amended it. I will address each of the allegations that Greenbelt made about Paula.

The letter reads:

“We are instructed by Greenbelt Group Ltd. We have been given sight of a press release which bears to be prepared and presented by you entitled ‘West Lothian politicians win praise for efforts to tackle land maintenance company’. The press release contains a number of statements and notes for editors. Our clients are concerned by a number of claims... Taken individually or together, they are clearly intended to damage the reputation and goodwill”

of the company.

“It is our understanding that you have distributed this press release. The gravity of this matter should not be underestimated. It is also clear that anyone who repeats any information which is not true or defamatory will also repeat the defamation complained of and will also be liable in damages.

The following examples have been extracted from your press release, although they do not represent all of the criticisms or complaints which our clients have in relation to your press release.

You allege that our clients are ‘causing problems for thousands of landowners’.”

We know that there are problems. There are problems in Inverness, Fife and right down to Leeds. The letter continues:

“You are asked to substantiate”

the problems

“and to identify the ‘thousands of home owners’ to whom you make reference.

It is stated in terms that Fergus Ewing”,

a Scottish Executive Minister,

“is to investigate the company. That is not correct. Mr. Ewing is not carrying out an investigation into Greenbelt. This statement clearly seeks to imply some form of parliamentary or other investigation, which is not true.”

Well, I have news for them. Here we are in Parliament, and today I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to say that it should investigate the matter.

Greenbelt’s solicitors continue:

“You state that our client takes ownership”

of land. The letter says that that is not correct, but it is absolute nonsense. That is exactly what Greenbelt does.

“Your press release makes reference to what you describe as an appalling level of service. This is not correct. Our clients have a significant level of communication”.

We just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) that Greenbelt admitted to him that it had only improved it, and Greenbelt’s own director said in this week’s Scotland on Sunday that

“in the past its communications with its customers had not been ‘of the best’”,

and that improvements were now being made.

The solicitor’s letter continues:

“Your press release states that our clients are responsible for the management of 600 sites, which is factually incorrect. They manage 241 sites.”

If Greenbelt manages 241 sites, why is it economical with the truth in its own report?

“You state that these 600 sites involve 36,000 residents… They involve 20,000 residents. These are wildly misleading statements and either are made without making the most basic checks on the factual situation or are made recklessly in an attempt to support or otherwise sensationalise an ill-founded set of allegations.

The press release further states that our clients ignore the bulk of their contractual obligations.”

We have heard from hon. Members that that is exactly the problem with the company, yet it says that that is not the case. The letter goes on:

“The press release goes on to state that our clients perform the bare minimum”.

I have heard constituents say at public meetings that they have been trying to contact the company for six years and have been ignored. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) sent Greenbelt recorded delivery letters and eventually cut a bunch of weeds and went down to the head office. It is unbelievable. The letter continues:

“Furthermore, the press release goes on to state that the practices adopt by our clients are so poor”

that they pose risks to children and fire hazards. I welcomed the intervention of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), because it showed that that is true.

The letter goes on:

“Finally, you make the allegation that our clients routinely send letters to non-paying customers telling them that their name will be added to a credit blacklist.”

I have dozens of those letters here. The lawyers—I am sure that they are very good lawyers—go on to say:

“All of the above, either individually or taken together, constitute a serious and concerted attack on our clients...The gravity of this matter should not be underestimated by you. It is recommended you consult solicitors without further delay, and that you meantime desist from further utterances, whether written or spoken, where the intended effect is to further damage the reputation of those we represent.”

That is outrageous. I was involved in the press release.

Let me tell hon. Members where the company crossed the line. Paula is a single mum who works for BT. The company’s representatives contacted her employers behind her back in a clear attempt to have her either silenced or sacked. That is despicable bullying behaviour, which is why I am pleased to be here to condemn that group and its behaviour and to ensure that we consider appropriate legislation to rectify the situation.

It is totally unacceptable that a company can have a monopoly. Home owners cannot sack the company. Tomorrow, I shall write to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and to its English equivalent. I shall include in my letter the contributions from hon. Members in this debate and the file that we have on the company. I shall ask local authorities whether they really want to deal with a company that behaves in such a despicable manner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), not only on securing this debate, but on the passionate way in which he has expressed his concerns on behalf of his constituents, not only today, but in business questions, in a question to the Prime Minister and elsewhere. His constituents can be assured that, in him, they have a true fighter for their cause.

The maintenance of open spaces and housing developments is an important issue, not only for the individual residents concerned, but for the environment. The deterioration of such open space has a detrimental effect both on the environment and on the value of individual homes.

According to my hon. Friend and to the company’s report, which is where I got my information, the Greenbelt Group is involved in some 750 developments involving around 50,000 homes in the United Kingdom. Its activities, whether positive or negative, therefore impact on a large number of people in a number of ways, not least of which is the cost to individual home owners who have to pay for the upkeep of the open spaces. As my hon. Friend pointed out, those costs might well run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. He said that some of his constituents are being asked for up to £400 to pay for such maintenance. Companies that take on such work have an important role to play in the preservation of the quality of life and the value of the assets of the home owners on the estates. Where that relationship breaks down, a serious problem occurs.

My hon. Friend described how his constituents see the Greenbelt Group charging home owners for services that it either does not provide or provides very poorly. He went on, amusingly and wittily, to show that there are several limited companies within the group, which I understand are all registered in Scotland. I do not know whether he has had time to look at the website of the Greenbelt Group, which describes the company as

“the only UK-wide company that owns and manages greenbelt land formed as part of new housing developments”,

which

“is now caring for more than 750 locations across the country. Its team of landscape professionals are experienced in managing environmental, horticultural, forestry, wildlife, drainage, play and leisure facilities. Greenbelt provides tailored plans for each location, giving customers the reassurance that their shared landscapes are managed and maintained in a way that will sustain the local environment, its attractiveness and the marketability of their area. Planning guidelines, new legislation and increasing concern to protect sensitive areas require local authorities to ensure that residential and commercial landscapes are properly planned, managed and maintained in a financially sustainable way. Greenbelt works actively with residential and commercial developers, to create landscapes that look good and suit local conditions. Greenbelt aims to grow its business and expand its range of services across the UK by working closely with customers, planners, developers and local communities.”

I appreciate that that is probably not the language that my hon. Friend or his constituents would use, but it is the language that the Greenbelt Group uses on its website. As another avenue down which he could take his campaign, he may want to consider whether that is in breach of the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority.

In response to the comments that my hon. Friend made about the lawyer’s letter to his constituent Paula, I say that those are serious allegations. His constituent is clearly a robust person, because she has been campaigning on the issue, but I can perfectly understand why she might be very concerned indeed about receiving such a letter. I suggest to him that he and his constituent take legal advice from a law centre or other such organisation to ensure that she is properly represented when responding to that level of intimidation, as he called it.

This issue clearly has particular impact in Scotland. I have been told that the Scottish Executive are looking into it, and that Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s Minister for Community Safety, is taking up the matter. I hope that that is true. If it is not, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that Mr. Ewing takes forward the issue, because it has to be dealt with within the Scottish Executive. I also gently suggest to my hon. Friend that, when he is taking up the matter with the Scottish Executive, he might suggest to them that they look to England and Wales, where a better policy has been developed.

A few months ago, I dealt with claims management during the passage of what was to become the Compensation Act 2006. In that area, Scotland’s system was better than that in England and Wales. On this issue, in a similar situation, exactly the reverse applies. In England and Wales, we now have commonhold, which is called the third way. It ensures that the community of owners on the estate owns the common parts and arranges for their maintenance. The division of ownership between home owners and the management company is therefore avoided. That system has not yet been widely adopted in England and Wales, but it represents a long-term solution to the problems of the maintenance of common facilities and open space on freehold estates. That is one of the reasons why the Government want to encourage its use.

Commonhold involves the creation of a limited company known as a commonhold association, so it might not suit some of the smaller estates. Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider whether it could be adopted in Scotland and that, if the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs decides to investigate the case, it might consider including that scheme in the recommendations that it makes.

I recommend that, if the Scottish Affairs Committee looks into the matter, it also has discussions with Scottish Building Federation contractors, who give out the contracts when houses are to be built. Massive house building is taking place throughout Scotland, including in Midlothian. One of the issues that that has raised is the need for discussions with the federation, so that it can consider other opportunities for giving out contracts.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope that the Scottish Affairs Committee takes up that suggestion.

I should briefly like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston that publicity, through TV and the media, is always a good way of bringing people to account. As well as going to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Affairs Committee, I suggest that he might use the media and some of the consumer programmes on TV—