Just when you believe you have mapped all the different ways in which social housing tenants and residents are fleeced, along comes news of yet another scandal.
SHAC has interviewed members of a London campaign whose activists have won thousands of pounds in refunds for water charges illegally levied by councils and housing associations.
But campaigners believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg, barely touching what is actually owed.
Tenants of Southwark Council, Metropolitan Thames Valley housing association, and other social landlords won a landmark case in June 2021 after proving that their landlords had illegally charged for water on their St Martin’s Estate in Brixton.
The overpayment arose because the landlords negotiated discounted rates with the water company, but failed to pass on the discount to tenants and residents, unlawfully profiting from the water supply. The tenants are being compensated by Southwark and Metropolitan, but other landlords have yet to settle.
Optivo, Notting Hill Genesis, L&Q, Wandle and Peabody could also be affected, amid claims their residents also paid for their water by the same method.
The victory of the St Martin’s estate campaigners was reported in London News Online in June 2021.
Burden of Proof
As Dennis Jones explains, any tenant, anywhere in the UK who paid water charges as part of their rent or service charge, could be eligible for a refund, even if they later switched to paying the water company direct.
The true scale of the problem is as yet unclear because councils and housing associations are refusing to be proactive in seeking out and refunding those who have been overcharged.
Instead, they say that tenants must make a claim, either individually or collectively as part of a Tenants and Residents Association (TRA). Meanwhile, these landlords profit from an unquantified windfall achieved through an unlawful overcharge.
Placing the burden on tenants to make claims works to the landlord’s benefit in two ways. Firstly, tenants and residents may not realise that they have been overcharged.
Secondly, not all tenants have the skills and experience needed to navigate the bureaucratic processes involved in pursuing a claim. Some do not even have access to the internet.
Making a Claim
Tenants and residents who believe that they might have been overcharged should write to their landlord asking for confirmation whether the housing association had acted as a water ‘agent’ rather than ‘reseller’ at any time during their tenancy. If the answer is yes, tenants should be able to pursue a claim.
If you wish to set up a TRA, you can find guidance and template documents on our Resources page.
The tenants involved in exposing the illegal charges subsequently launched the Justice for Housing Association Tenants campaign and have set up a website.
A Collective Demand
SHAC is supporting the Justice campaign and will use its powers to campaign so that the burden of responsibility for refunding tenants is placed firmly on landlords, and so that they are required to proactively pursue repayment.
At the heart of yet another financial scandal involving social housing landlords, lies the lack of unaccountability highlighted many times by SHAC. Such scandals will only be prevented by a fundamental restructuring of the model for delivering housing in Britain that gives real power to tenants and residents.
15 December 2021
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.