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Sovereign Housing taken to tribunal over management practices at Newbury property

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Representatives from Sovereign Housing association were taken to tribunal last Thursday, in a hearing that cast light on maintenance and organisational issues at a property managed by the firm in Newbury.

A group of residents from the Martingale Chase development sought the reimbursement of fees charged for a number of services, including grounds maintenance, estate works, repairs and management charges.

Among those taking Sovereign to task was Natalie Melton, who owns her own apartment within the Sovereign-managed complex.

Credit: Sovereign Housing.
Credit: Sovereign Housing.

Mrs Melton alleged that contractors assigned to manage the grounds had repeatedly failed to deliver an adequate service, with shrubbery left to flow out over parking spaces.

She said there were no visits by grounds workers for months at a time, and that the service – when eventually delivered – was minimal.

The issues became particularly noticeable through the pandemic period, with few problems reported prior to 2020.

Sovereign has already offered the Martingale Chase residents a 50 per cent discount on grounds maintenance charges, but Mrs Melton believes even this is too much for the quality of service rendered.

The situation got so dire that she says she eventually had to pay for maintenance out of her own pocket, to the tune of hundreds of pounds.

Contract manager Steven Copas disputed some of Mrs Melton's claims, asserting that maintenance staff made 21 visits per year to Martingale Chase – and that these had been logged, with photographic evidence.

However, the evidence itself was called into question, as the 'before' and 'after' images presented – taken by contractors – often appeared to show different areas of the site.

Other photographs seemed to have been taken months apart, offering little clarity as to the extent of the work done.

Mrs Melton asked Sovereign representatives: "How is that you're justifying 50 per cent worth of work when you've seen the before and after, and it's quite clear no-one has been here for months?"

Mr Copas also stated that the Wildlife Act prevented workers from trimming the shrubs, but this claim was disputed by tribunal member Gerard Smith, who said this restriction only applied to bushes with nesting birds.

Senior property manager Hannah Gillen – from Sovereign – acknowledged that there had been shortcomings with grounds maintenance, and argued that a discount was appropriate in the circumstances.

Mrs Gillen said of the maintenance: "It's not been carried out to the level it should be, I think we want to acknowledge that.

"We feel that a 50 per cent reduction is reasonable in those circumstances."

Other claims by the aggrieved tenants were called into question by Sovereign representatives.

The outdoor communal area at Martingale Chase has been used as a dumping ground, and photos of discarded drug paraphernalia at the location were produced for the tribunal.

Mrs Melton disputed Sovereign's practice of charging all tenants for the clean-up, emphasising that residents of her own block did not use the communal area, despite being impacted by the mess and anti-social behaviour.

She also proposed that CCTV be installed to identify perpetrators of fly-tipping.

Mrs Gillen defended Sovereign's conduct in this regard, arguing that, where offenders could not be found, it is appropriate to levy clean-up charges on all tenants.

Moreover, she questioned whether CCTV could even be effective: "Where we have installed CCTV at other sites, to try and prevent fly-tipping, we found that, actually, it doesn't necessarily result in being able to identify a perpetrator," she said.

Similar concerns were raised by Ms Melton over the quality of interior cleaning and management services.

Between April and July 2020, for instance, she claimed there were no visits by cleaners to her block – but she was still charged for cleaning costs.

Commercial manager Nicola Payne disputed this assertion, insisting that, as far as Sovereign was aware, there had been no disruption to normal cleaning schedules.

A ledger showing cleaners had visited in the relevant period was provided, but Mrs Melton argued that this was not material evidence services were being delivered specifically in her block.

Rounding off proceedings, Mr Smith noted a lack of clarity regarding management of Martingale Chase, which had exacerbated the situation.

He said: "I can understand why there is frustration, because it does, sometimes – I can feel there's a run around the houses.

"There are elements here whereby there isn't somebody who's got an overall grasp, or who hasn't for a while."

Mrs Melton emphasised that her problem was not the fees, per se, but the alleged lack of service: "We're happy to pay charges, we just want to receive the services.

"If we had effective management, we wouldn't be here today – I'm more than happy to pay for effective management."

A decision on the issue is due over the coming months.

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