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Look to Scotland for lessons on English property reform

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Roger Bodden, Regional Manager for FirstPort in Scotland

As reform of the residential sector continues to gather pace in Westminster, policymakers would do well to look north of the border for some important lessons.

In FirstPort’s own work across England, Scotland and Wales we manage homes across a range of different types and tenures. In the English system, it is freeholders who typically appoint an agent to undertake responsibilities for structural maintenance and the management of communal areas in shared developments. However, in Scotland the role of a superior freeholder doesn’t exist – with leasehold traditionally being very rare and ultimately abolished in 2015.

So, what can the English system learn from how multi-occupational blocks in Scotland are managed when it comes to responsibilities for communal areas?

Ultimately, the Scottish system is defined by flexibility and the need for practicality in tackling issues that arise. Responsibilities are set out by the title deeds of a property.  These set ‘burdens’ on property owners, which can either be positive or negative – for example the right of access over neighbouring land to maintain property, or a prohibition on parking.

Taking decisions about the development on a day-to day basis is then often left to homeowners. To support this, the provision for owners’ associations is sometimes – though not always – included within title deeds.  Deeds may also include stipulations on how decisions are taken – for example voting rights and minimum thresholds.

The challenge is that in practice, not all developments in Scotland have a constituted owners’ association. Where they exist, these are sometimes informal which can lead to difficulties over authority for decision-making.  Some deeds include very low provision for voting rights, for example – making it important for us to always seek to communicate any proposals to the whole development.

While the system is well established, we’ve welcomed the Scottish Government’s steps to strengthen it with legislation – for example with tighter rules on sinking funds to ensure maintenance of old stock such as traditional tenement blocks.

Another critical area of importance is on education and making sure that residents have clarity on the choices on offer when taking collective decisions. Here, many of the challenges often associated with English leasehold are also prevalent in the Scottish system – communal living always requires compromise and to work well it needs a certain amount of teamwork too.  We find that providing more information to homeowners, operating under deeds which are clear and straightforward and within a well-established legislative framework significantly reduces the likelihood of big disagreements taking place.

These lessons from Scotland highlight the need for stronger rules and minimum standards in residential property across the UK – including the increased regulation and improved standards of the property management sector that have been put forward by Lord Best and his working group in their report on the regulation of property agents. This is important to set a baseline standard so that residents can be assured that all the options on offer are good ones.

Across all types of tenure, the role of professional building oversight is vital in all communal developments. Not only should this ensure important functions are carried out properly, but it should also mean residents can have access to professional advice, education and guidance to help facilitate effective and informed decision making.

One thing is for certain: regardless of location or ownership structure, people want to feel involved in important decisions about the place they live, while also being confident that professional and competent support is available to them. This should be front of mind as reform of the residential sector moves forward in all parts of the UK.

Ultimately, the Scottish system is defined by flexibility and the need for practicality in tackling issues that arise.

Roger Bodden

Roger Bodden

Roger Bodden takes a look at property reform