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Chamber and committees

Plenary, 06 Sep 2007

Meeting date: Thursday, September 6, 2007

Agenda: Scottish Parliament Thursday 6 September 2007, Foot-and-mouth Disease, Drugs Misuse, Question Time, First Minister's Question Time, Question Time, Crichton University Campus, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Common Land (Housing Estates)


Common Land (Housing Estates)

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-347, in the name of Trish Godman, on the maintenance of common land on Scottish housing estates. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned about the many complaints voiced by people throughout Scotland over the neglect of common land on their housing estates, such as Gryffe Castle in Bridge of Weir and Inch Meadows/Roseland Brae in Erskine, even although some residents pay upwards of £400 per annum for the maintenance of such areas of land adjacent to their homes; notes that many of these complainers accuse the Greenbelt Group, in particular, of failing to honour its obligations to householders in relation to the company's maintenance of local common land; is of the view that this company and others engaged in this service should aim for the very best standards of performance, which is a legitimate demand made by householders, and, in addition to the enhancement of these maintenance standards, firmly believes in the examination of alternative management procedures and practices, such as the common hold system, which would enable the community of householders to be given more control of the common land surrounding or adjacent to their homes.

Trish Godman (West Renfrewshire) (Lab):

Sometimes I ask myself why I do this job—there is nothing but criticism, and everyone can do the job better than me. That is probably fair enough. However, once in a while, we have the opportunity to bring to public notice a problem that many experience and which can be fixed. In another place, Jim Devine MP has taken up the cudgels of the problem that I will describe and I am pleased to see him here this evening. He instigated a good debate in the House of Commons.

I will take a minute to explain the planning process and how the situation has developed. Developers must provide open spaces around new housing estates, which is quite right. They must also show that they have put in place arrangements for maintenance. Most transfer the maintenance to the local authority, which is a good idea because it gives public accountability. Sometimes responsibility for maintenance goes to the home owners, which is also a good idea because if the factor fails then the home owners still have control. However, recently some developers have been using only one provider to maintain the open spaces—the Greenbelt Group. Exclusive rights for all time belong to that group. There is no way that the householders can get rid of that group if it is not doing the work and—believe me—in many cases it is not doing the work.

I have a significant caseload of complaints about the Greenbelt Group. The company makes promises and then does a wee bit here and there to keep people quiet. Paula Hoogerbrugge—I am sure that other members will speak about her this evening—has set up a website that has led to a campaign to unite the 43 estates that are having problems. Patricia Ferguson, the member for Maryhill, who apologises because she cannot be here tonight, has already had problems getting the Greenbelt Group to maintain landscaping. I have had many e-mails, from people who are here tonight and from others who could not make it, all saying the same things.

What can be done? If someone incurs extra charges and is late in paying them, they will be in trouble. There is no argument if a resident is late in paying; they get a letter immediately. The work costs up to £300 per householder per year. However, I have to be careful here because I have received an e-mail from one of the directors of the Greenbelt Group stating that my motion is incorrect. He tells me that only 0.7 per cent of residents contribute more than £300 per year and that the average is £102 per year plus VAT. The e-mail also stated that the company has been listening to residents:

"Communications could improve from being quite officious to perhaps being more consumer friendly."

It also says that the group will have more regular meetings with residents.

If a resident holds back payment in protest, the Greenbelt Group threatens to send their details to a credit reference agency. If someone really takes the company to task, they might get a lawyer's letter. That does not sound like good customer relations.

Who is the Greenbelt Group? It was set up in 1992 as a not-for-profit organisation to take care of the land around housing estates that is not fit for development. However, that land does not belong to the householders, so why are they paying for work to be done on land that they do not own when they cannot change the maintenance contract if that work is not done? It makes no sense to me, but it is written into residents' title deeds.

According to the Greenbelt Group's website, the company manages 600 sites and has 36,000 customers. It has three directors, one of whom is Tony Burton OBE. When I was at school, that meant "order of the British empire"; it certainly does not mean "obligated to a better environment". Mr Burton is also a director of "Which?", the consumer rights organisation. That sounds odd to me. It is interesting to check the company on the internet because it shows a web of interconnected companies that share directors.

The householders' title deeds contain a detailed set of standards that the Greenbelt Group should be delivering. I have an example from the Gryffe Castle estate at Bridge of Weir, which has a woodland management plan. An article appeared in a national newspaper with a photograph of one of my constituents standing behind rows of very tall willowherb, which is a weed. The land had been like that for several years—the residents had complained but nothing had been done. Lo and behold, the week following the newspaper article, the Greenbelt Group came and chopped all the weeds down, doing a wee bit here and there to keep the residents quiet.

As soon as my constituents arrange a meeting with the local trading standards office or a hold a residents' meeting, up pops the Greenbelt Group to do a little bit of work. For those householders who decide not to pay for partial or non-delivery of services, there can be serious consequences. The company might take individuals to court to recover payments, it can claim outstanding money when the house is sold and, as I have said, it can refer people's details to a credit reference agency.

The principal concern is that the householders do not have the right to change their land management contractors. The Greenbelt Group is a good example of how such a lack of rights can be abused. It is clear that the law needs to be changed. There should at least be a medium-term solution whereby a regulatory framework for the industry is introduced. There should be immediate intervention to prevent homeowners from signing title deeds that contain seemingly illegal monopoly land-management clauses, and a specific solution to help people whose title deeds contain such clauses.

Greenbelt has only itself to blame. If it was doing the work, we would not be complaining. If the company is having trouble with subcontractors—it has made that excuse—householders would understand. However, the company's approach is to fail to communicate, threaten legal action, write—in Jim Devine's case—to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and write letters to people's places of work. That is no way to conduct business and it is no way to treat people.

We need a review of householders' title deeds. Why should someone be responsible for ground that they do not own? Is that fair? If work is subcontracted, proper checks are needed and the contract should be no different from other service contracts. The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 redress the balance in cases in which a product is faulty. We should ascertain whether the regulations can be used in the cases that I have described. Something needs to be done. We are the legislators, so let us do something.

Angela Constance (Livingston) (SNP):

I congratulate Mrs Godman on securing the debate. My postbag, like those of other members, has been burgeoning with complaints about the land-maintenance company the Greenbelt Group.

There are 11 private housing estates in Livingston, and 47 throughout the United Kingdom, whose residents are, in accordance with their title deeds, legally obliged to pay several hundred pounds per annum to Greenbelt for the upkeep of communal ground. My constituents' title deeds lock them into a monopoly, and no account is taken of consumer choice and customer satisfaction—or dissatisfaction, in the case of Greenbelt customers. Like it or lump it, Greenbelt owns and maintains—for a fee—communal land in perpetuity. The problem will not go away—quite the reverse. West Lothian has the second fastest growing population in the UK, and the proportion of home owners in Scotland is more than 60 per cent and rising.

The issue is surprisingly complex and involves legal, planning, environmental, trading standards, advertising, house building and consumer issues. It cuts across all levels of Government, although it is primarily a devolved issue. As with an onion, the more layers we peel away, the more we find—and the stronger the stink, according to some of my constituents. My constituents, people the length and breadth of Scotland and the Minister for Community Safety are well aware of the nature and degree of the problem. We need to find the best way forward and we need a solution. In short, we need action.

The minister is actively considering an accreditation scheme for property managers, and it is anticipated that Scottish planning policy 2, which will be published later this year, will strengthen the message that proper, detailed consideration must be given to the management and maintenance of communal land and property.

Mrs Godman's motion suggests that the common-hold system, which operates in England and Wales, is a potential solution. I make additional suggestions. In some factoring arrangements, residents' title deeds contain a clause that allows them to form a residents association and, by majority, appoint or change the factor whom they pay to maintain common ground. My constituents and others have no such choice; they are subject to an enforced monopoly. Not one resident disputes their responsibility to pay for the upkeep of land; they are in dispute simply about the level of service that they receive and to whom they must pay their money. Legal opinion has been sought and it may be that, under the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003, a monopoly in such circumstances is illegal.

Across Scotland, residents are calling for regulation. I support the introduction of regulation that is on a par with that which is proposed in Ireland. I know that the minister is considering a national accreditation scheme for property managers, which I will support if land-maintenance providers are included and grave consideration is given to the necessity of having a compulsory scheme.

Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con):

I also thank Trish Godman for bringing the debate to the chamber and add my thanks to Jim Devine for the work that he has done on the issue.

Twelve years ago, I bought a new-build home in Inshes Park in Inverness. Today, the residents still face problems with the ground-maintenance contract. I set up a residents association and a community council in Inverness south to try to resolve the issues.

As Trish Godman said, in the past, the local authority would adopt new roads and open spaces and maintain them for ever. When we bought our homes, the residents, including me, thought that that was what would happen. Over the years, we have asked the local council for help. In its latest response, the council said that it would take on the land for a fee that was 18 times our current annual ground-maintenance charge. That was a non-starter.

Many residents, again including me, were not told by their lawyers that we would have to pay an annual ground-maintenance charge. Indeed, the clause in the deed of conditions is so vague that many lawyers either did not pick it up or did not interpret it as an annual payment. In our case, many residents are refusing to pay. The situation has become so bad that, three months ago, the residents association newsletter named and shamed the non-payers, which was not exactly good for neighbour relations. If those residents continue to refuse to pay, the association will be faced with using residents' payments to pursue debt recovery and sheriff officer interventions.

Will the member give way?

Mary Scanlon:

I am sorry, but I am very short of time.

I am pleased to say that we now have an excellent factor and contractor. However, my neighbours from Milton of Leys, who I am pleased to see in the gallery tonight, have had no such resolution. Many people have travelled from Inverness to the Parliament for the debate, and I know that the Minister for Community Safety, Fergus Ewing, is familiar with the issue in Inverness.

The members of the Milton of Leys residents association were the first property owners in the United Kingdom to instigate proceedings under trading standards legislation against the Greenbelt Group for its failure to undertake its legal obligations to provide land-maintenance services. Residents are locked into paying for such services as a result of unfair contracts of sale from building developers, who have shown no interest in the matter. The owners of more than 500 properties at Milton of Leys are locked into dealing with the Greenbelt Group—they have no escape route. The problem is further complicated because developers have passed ownership of the land concerned to Greenbelt. Residents face the added worry that that land could be developed in future.

At Milton of Leys, there are yet further complications. The housing there has been built by Tulloch, Barratt Homes, Scotia Homes and Cameron and Paterson Homes. Each developer has a separate agreement with individual house purchasers and with Greenbelt. The Inverness trading standards officer—Mr MacKenzie, I believe—has been very helpful, but even he has stated that he is hampered by inadequate consumer protection legislation.

Since Barrie Haycock and the Milton of Leys residents commenced their action against Greenbelt, similar problems with the company have been identified at more than 40 other sites in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, all involving major builders. The residents are looking for action from this and other Governments. The whole business is a complete mess. Current planning law stipulates only the putting in place of a maintenance agreement; it does not stipulate that the contracted company must be fit for purpose or competent to undertake its obligations.

We need to protect consumers from such unfair contracts of sale, enable consumers to change to an alternative provider, and force maintenance providers to comply with the terms and conditions of their agreements with individual property owners.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP):

I congratulate Trish Godman whole-heartedly on securing this evening's debate.

As with other members, the issue has a direct impact on my constituency. The concerns that have been brought to me, to local councillors and to the local member of Parliament relate primarily to the developer of the 114 houses on the Noddsdale Meadow estate in Largs—Mactaggart and Mickel Limited—which is in negotiation to transfer the estate to the Greenbelt Group without even a modicum of community consultation. The residents wish to put on hold the current negotiations between those two bodies for that land transaction. Why do they wish to do that? Why is there is such hostility to Greenbelt?

As other members have explained in some detail, Greenbelt quite simply has a history of charging home owners whose estates it manages an excessive amount for carrying out its duties. Indeed, my constituents allege that those duties are not always carried out to the proper standard. The accusations that my constituents have made against Greenbelt include: that it refuses to reply to communications by telephone or letter; that it is quick to invoice for work that has either not been done or has not been carried out to a suitable standard; that open spaces have been left in a shocking state; and that fences and woodland have been left in a state of disrepair.

Companies such as Greenbelt can end up with an almost feudal grip on estates. Home owners are locked into open-space maintenance contracts with no opportunity to revisit the management of their property and no legal recourse under their title deeds if they are unhappy with either the services with which they are provided or the fees that they are charged.

Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD):

Would not the solution be for the Government to make it illegal for a developer of residential homes to transfer the communal land to a third party? Making that illegal would bring the matter into the remit of the law so that people could get rid of their current factor and employ another one. That would be a simple and straightforward solution.

Kenneth Gibson:

I have considerable sympathy with that view, but in the first instance we should perhaps require that people be given an opportunity to be consulted on who their factor should be. If a third party is to be brought in as factor, surely the residents of an estate should be given the opportunity to discuss that.

The allegation has been made to me that 55 per cent of the bill that Greenbelt submits is merely for Greenbelt being the factor. Allegedly, only 45 per cent is allocated to cover work that has actually been done. In the estate in the constituency that I represent, people are concerned that the developers have still not done a considerable amount of work that needs to be done prior to the proposed transfer. Householders are extremely nervous that they will be hit with very high bills as a result. There is no control over such charges. When people work hard and save to buy a home, they do not want to have such concerns hanging over them.

Members of the Noddsdale Meadow residents association fully understand that they have agreed to pay for a factoring arrangement to maintain common land. That is not the issue; the issue is that the factor that has been chosen without their consultation is causing immense concern. As has been mentioned, the issue has been brought to the attention of members of both the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament.

There is collective frustration in estates throughout Scotland, so I urge the minister to consider solutions that will ameliorate the situation so that, both now and in the future, residents of estates will no longer have to go through the heartache that many of our constituents are currently going through.

Jim Tolson (Dunfermline West) (LD):

I asked to speak in this evening's debate not just because one or two constituents have contacted me with concerns since I was elected to the Parliament but because I received many such complaints in my preceding 15 years as a councillor in Dunfermline.

When a new estate was built in part of my council ward in the mid-1990s, the developer decided to appoint a factoring company to maintain the public areas that were jointly owned by the home owners on the estate. There was a public outcry when people started to receive bills from the factoring company without any prior knowledge that that would happen.

I remember being virtually summoned to a public meeting by residents to face accusations about the failure of the council to maintain their land. After I explained to them what had happened, their anger was aimed less at me or the council and more at the developer, who had omitted to mention the arrangement to them when they bought their new houses. It was in the small print of the title deeds, but what person excited about a new house for their family would look at that? Anger was also directed at their lawyers for not bringing the matter to their attention—no doubt the lawyers did not want to lose their fees, which would have happened if their clients had withdrawn from sales—and at the factors, who, it seemed, had the right to charge whatever sum they liked. The quality of the maintenance was often extremely poor, to boot.

Since then, it seems that the builders of every new development in Dunfermline—of which there have been plenty, including those at Admiral Heights, Caley Muir and Masterton Hall in my constituency—and of developments throughout Scotland have jumped on the bandwagon of undercutting their competitors by avoiding the up-front payment to councils of the adoption fee and passing the issue over to factors instead. That may not be illegal, but it is certainly underhand.

Now, more than a decade later, the factoring of land in new housing estates has become the norm, with the result that no developer has any significant edge over their competitors and none of them wants to pay the adoption fee to the council, as to do so would put them at a disadvantage with their competitors. However, a growing army of angry house owners is demanding action.

There is light at the end of the tunnel—there is a solution to the problem for a growing number of our constituents throughout Scotland. It lies with the Parliament, the 32 local authorities in Scotland and, perhaps, the factoring companies. If we were to pass legislation that required a planning condition that made it compulsory for public open spaces in new developments to be maintained in perpetuity by the local authority or a factoring company, a great deal of public anguish could be avoided. As a condition of gaining planning permission, developers would be required to conclude a legal agreement that would result in the public open spaces in our estates being maintained to a reasonable standard all year round, every year. However, I recognise that it would be simply unfair to put that burden on local authorities or factoring companies without giving them some protection.

One minute.

Will the member give way?

Jim Tolson:

No, I do not have enough time.

I suggest that the charges associated with the maintenance of the public open spaces in new housing estates should be paid by the developers. After all, they would just pass the financial burden on to the purchasers, just as they did before they started to undercut one another in the mid-1990s. I recognise that that would mean a small increase in the cost of each house, but if we asked the customers of Greenbelt—many of whom are in the public gallery this evening—or of any of the other factoring companies whether they would have preferred that small burden over the life of their mortgages rather than suffer the great anguish and anger that they have experienced as a result of the present situation, I am sure that my suggestion would receive overwhelming approval.

Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab):

I congratulate Trish Godman on securing the debate and apologise to the Presiding Officer and other members, as I may need to leave before the end of the debate because of a prior engagement.

Concerns about the maintenance of common land on new estates were first raised with me by residents in the Balmuir Road area of Bathgate. Over a number of years, the maintenance of the estate improved and deteriorated with depressing regularity. Matters came to a head when I was contacted by Barry Robertson from Armadale, whom I welcome to the public gallery. He told me that his estate, where houses had been built by a number of house builders—I will return to that issue—was not being maintained adequately. More worrying, a children's play park was being neglected, to the extent that it could be dangerous. Even more worrying, a sustainable urban drainage systems pond that had been created was not up to standard.

I arranged for Alex Middleton, the managing director of Greenbelt, to meet Barry Robertson and me on site to address the concerns. To his credit, we spent a number of hours walking the estate, looking at the problems, discussing solutions and speaking to residents. Following a public meeting, I hope that we are now on track to resolve the problems and that progress will continue and will not slip away once Greenbelt thinks the fuss has died down.

Will the member give way?

Mary Mulligan:

I am sorry, but we do not have much time in members' business debates. I might give way later.

Many of the points that I have made might already have been made by Trish Godman and others, but I want to widen the debate a little. We might not solve all the problems just by removing Greenbelt.

When house builders get planning permission, what conditions are they given with regard to the state that the site should be left in? The SUDS pond in Armadale was in no condition to do its job and was clearly unsafe. Greenbelt refused to take it over and, while it and the house builders argued over the issue, my constituents were left with a very dangerous area of water close to their homes and easily accessible to children. We should remove the possibility of such disputes arising by letting planners stipulate the standards under which house builders and other maintenance contractors should operate.

I also believe that house builders have a responsibility to the people to whom they sell houses. None of the glossy promotion brochures that I have seen has outlined how the common areas will be maintained. Indeed, many people are surprised to find that they are required to pay for such services. Maybe house builders should be honest about the costs that people will be required to meet.

As others have mentioned, we should also examine the role of solicitors in the house-buying process. I cannot remember anyone ever telling me that they were informed about this burden at any point of the purchasing process.

In no way do I excuse Greenbelt and others who took the money but did not do the work. That was not right and I hope that Greenbelt has learned that such a situation cannot continue, but someone has to maintain the common areas, and maintenance has to be paid for. I want a transparent system in which home owners know what they have to pay; what they can expect for their money; and that, if the work is not delivered, they can replace the contractor with someone else. There is no point in believing that the problem will be solved simply by throwing out one contractor. As we have seen elsewhere, others have taken on the responsibility of maintenance, but have never met it. We certainly need someone to take on that role, but we also need a clearer system for overseeing the process. Only through such an approach will my constituents and the very many other people about whom we have heard this evening live happily in their new homes and environments.

Dave Thompson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP):

I commend Trish Godman for raising this issue.

The issue of maintaining common land affects about 50,000 home buyers in Scotland, and the average payment for the privilege can run from £100 at the very least to, in some cases, more than £300. The fact that people are in binding contracts leaves them at a disadvantage; because of the pressure caused by the high demand for housing, they find themselves in a very poor negotiating position with house builders. That, coupled with the lack of legislation in this area, leaves them very vulnerable indeed.

I find it absolutely absurd that, at the moment, a consumer who buys a loaf of bread or a kettle has more rights than a home buyer. The situation is neither just nor responsible, and there must be a change in the law.

I was in trading standards for 34 years, and was the director of trading standards in Highland region. The problem for trading standards officers is that if they do not have the tools they cannot do the job. Accordingly, if criminal or civil laws do not exist, trading standards officers cannot enforce them. We need to address that.

I was also in charge of grounds maintenance in Highland for a number of years. We regularly received adoption fees from developers of 18 times the annual cost of maintenance, but it appears that developers have found a nice way of boosting their profits by avoiding such fees.

I want to widen the debate to consider the general issue of house buyers' rights. In that respect, I am very happy to offer my full support to the Scottish Consumer Council's call to the United Kingdom Government to bring sales of new houses by builders within the scope of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 or to introduce similar legislation. Such a proposal would offer home buyers true value for money and apply the appropriate level of duty of care on builders that at the moment is all too sadly lacking.

We are all too aware of the housing shortages that are sweeping the country. The pressure on buyers means that they are in no position to defend themselves against unscrupulous builders. It is disturbing to find that some builders are reducing snagging periods on new houses to a matter of months. We must address the inherent lack of rights for home buyers and redress the balance to ensure that their needs are properly considered. Of course, that will include dealing with common land maintenance contracts.

It is unfortunate that value-for-money and duty-of-care provisions have not been incorporated in mandatory maintenance contracts, despite repeated assurances on that point—apparently—by the building industry's trade body, Homes for Scotland. Unfortunately, consumer complaints continue to flood in.

The notion that, at a time of housing shortages, home owners should be held to ransom for what appears to be nothing less than money-grabbing opportunism is just not acceptable. It is not as if house builders are suffering falling profits.

Although housing and justice are devolved matters, consumer protection is a reserved matter. We must therefore co-operate with the UK Parliament to try to provide the best protection for home buyers. Whether that results in Westminster legislation or in a further devolution of power is immaterial; what is important is that the matter be dealt with urgently.

Tricia Marwick (Central Fife) (SNP):

I, too, thank Trish Godman for bringing this matter to members' attention for this debate.

In 2002, I met in my office a deputation of people from Brunton Gardens in Markinch. About a year after they bought their homes, they got through their letterboxes a demand from the Greenbelt Group to pay up for maintenance. They were incensed because until that point they had not realised that there was such a maintenance contract in their title deeds. The developer never told them of it when they bought their houses and their lawyers never advised them of it. There continues to be a problem in that direction.

I met Alex Middleton, the managing director of Greenbelt, along with the residents of Brunton Gardens. I can remember to this day his mantra. He told me that his company was an honest, decent company and he used a particular phrase over and over again: his company was a

"private sector company with a public sector ethos",

and it cared. The evidence shows that Greenbelt has not cared. In fact, one of the residents of Brunton Gardens suggested to me that what was happening to them was nothing less than extortion.

I raised the matter with the then Minister for Justice, Jim Wallace, during consideration of the Title Conditions (Scotland) Bill. I asked him whether there was any way in which that bill could be amended to help people in the situation that I have described. Unfortunately, we got no result from that, but what has happened in the past few years shows that Markinch was not an isolated incident and that it is, in fact, happening all over Scotland. Frankly, house owners are being held to ransom by companies that are simply not carrying out the work that they should be doing.

I ask the minister to look at all the law in this area, whether it is consumer law, planning law or whatever. I hope that he can come back to the members who are in the chamber to scope a way forward for this Parliament, in conjunction with the UK Parliament or local authorities—I really do not care. We need to scope some way forward to ensure, for example, that legislation will be tightened up if that is necessary. We must ensure that current and future home owners in new developments have their rights protected. We must also ensure that, if they are obliged to pay for maintenance work, it is for work that is done, and not just to support a company—regardless of what kind of ethos it claims it has.

The Minister for Community Safety (Fergus Ewing):

I am extremely grateful to Trish Godman for raising this issue. The fact that so many members representing constituencies from around Scotland have taken part in the debate, making strong points on behalf of their constituents, testifies to the anger that householders around Scotland feel. I share the concerns expressed by members of all parties about people's distress, which arises from poor service and, in some cases, from the level of charges.

It might be helpful if I set out briefly the normal arrangement for managing and maintaining open spaces in housing estates, and show how that differs from cases involving Greenbelt. Normally in new housing estates, when houses are sold off by builders or developers they are conveyed to the new owners with a right of common property to the open spaces in the estate. That means that each householder owns a share in the open spaces.

The title deeds impose obligations on the owners to maintain the spaces or to pay their share of the costs of the maintenance. That is often done through the establishment of a residents association, which normally works well. If a manager who is employed by the owners does not carry out the work to their satisfaction, a new remedy is available, which the Parliament provided in 2003: a simple majority vote of all the owners in the estate can replace the manager. That law change had all-party support and I commend the Labour-Liberal Executive for introducing it.

Unfortunately, the essential difference in estates that involve Greenbelt is that the original developers conveyed the open spaces not to the owners of the houses in the estate but to Greenbelt. For developers, that is a tidy way of ensuring that they retain no interest in a development once all the houses are sold. I believe—although I need further information on this—that some developers secure payments in the region of £10,000 for the common areas that are sold to Greenbelt.

To repeat the point that I made earlier, a straightforward solution would be to prevent in law the transfer of communal areas in a housing development to a third party. Will the minister consider that?

Fergus Ewing:

I was going to turn to the member's recommendation later, but as he has raised it now, I will say that I intend to ask my officials to consider whether that is a feasible method of tackling the problem. I give the member my undertaking to do so—it will happen.

The title deeds of houses in such estates are drafted in such a way as to purport to oblige the owners of houses to pay the costs of maintenance of the open spaces to the Greenbelt Group. In that regard, house purchasers and their legal advisers should always ensure that they are content with the arrangements for the maintenance of any open spaces and common areas before they sign the missives.

That is what my speaking notes say and it is true, but, as I am a solicitor—I suppose that I should have declared that as an interest, although I hasten to add that I no longer undertake any conveyancing—I say that the choice that purchasers face is take it or leave it. The reality is that purchasers of modern houses in such estates do not have a chance to change a jot or comma of the title conditions. If, as Mary Mulligan and Mr Tolson suggested in their remarks, lawyers have not advised their clients that charges will apply, my recommendation as a lawyer is that the clients should complain to the Law Society of Scotland, because that sounds to me like unprofessional conduct, which can result in an award of compensation. I recommend that members consider giving that advice when advising their constituents.

The motion raises the question of common hold. Trish Godman's suggestion is sensible and, as members would expect, we have looked into it, but the advice that I have received is that the common hold system is an English concept that cannot be applied here. The situation in most housing estates in Scotland is that the open spaces have been conveyed to all the owners in the estate as a matter of common property. The problem arises when the Greenbelt Group owns the open spaces.

I have little time remaining so I will focus on the main points of my reply. When Angela Constance raised the matter at a question time before the summer, I undertook to convey to the Greenbelt Group the strong feelings of members from all parties. I duly did that by writing to the managing director on 24 July, drawing to his attention the parliamentary proceedings that had taken place. I have recently received a reply from the managing director in which he indicates that the company regrets that it has not always met the customer communication and service standards to which it aspires. The company says that it is committed to improving the standard of its services to house owners.

I will add a personal remark: I deprecate the sending of heavy-handed debt collection letters, especially when they come from England and there is no right to sue in Scottish courts anyway. That latter point tends not to be pointed out in the letters.

My office has arranged a meeting with the managing director of Greenbelt next week. I will meet the company, and if I sound angry about this topic it is because I am angry about it. I think that my anger reflects the anger of MSPs throughout the chamber. I will be asking the company what it proposes to do. We should not have to consider legislative change, although we will consider it if necessary.

Mr Jim Devine MP is in the gallery today, and I acknowledge that he has played a considerable role. The media have reported that Greenbelt has said that if 70 per cent of residents in an estate voted to dismiss the company as the manager of the open space, Greenbelt would accept that decision and leave. My officials have been in touch with Greenbelt and it has said that, although the report was not accurate, the company is considering providing residents with the opportunity to manage and maintain open spaces within their estates. However, that proposal is still under review by the company. I will, of course, be seeking clarification from Greenbelt when I meet the managing director next week.

You have one minute, minister.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Yes, I will.

Jeremy Purvis:

I am grateful to the minister for giving way, and I endorse his comments fully. Like other members, I have received a considerable number of representations from constituents.

The proposal that the minister referred to goes only so far. The issue is ownership. I am glad that the minister is meeting the managing director. If the minister is able to express a development of the proposal—

Quickly, please.

The development would be that ownership of the property would transfer to the residents association. That would be even more positive.

Fergus Ewing:

I am happy to consider any thought out and detailed proposal from any member who cares to write to me. Of necessity, these are complex issues.

It is abundantly clear to me that the publicity generated by the question that Angela Constance raised in the chamber has already borne fruit, as will the publicity that will be generated by this evening's debate, which Trish Godman has rightly brought before us. The publicity has already had an impact on the thinking of Greenbelt. I endorse what has been said and I congratulate all members who have taken up the issue on behalf of their constituents.

I hope that members are reassured that I am seeking a solution to this problem. In addition, I am looking into other matters, although I am not raising them today. I hope to report back to members in due course.

I shall be happy to let every interested member know of the outcome of my meeting with the managing director of Greenbelt. This new Scottish Government is determined to do everything that it can to protect our citizens from sharp practice, profiteering and unacceptable conduct whenever it occurs.

Meeting closed at 17:48.