Consumer rights: Badly managed London hotel ruined my family's Easter break

Plus VAT with American clients and a neighbour with an unsightly extension


Q. Our Easter holiday was a disaster. We took our two young children to London for our first break since they were born.

I booked a family room in a hotel but when we arrived they didn't have one available. They offered a double for us and a single with a baby's cot for the children on a different floor and at the other end of the hotel. Our children are far too young to be that far away from us so we asked them to find us suitable accommodation in another hotel. Being Easter weekend there wasn't anywhere so we had to stay put. Everything else about the place was awful. We certainly didn't get value for money, but they just didn't care. Despite my demands they wouldn't give us a discount on the bill. I paid it just to get out of there but I feel we should have some compensation. Where do we stand?

PJ

Manchester

A. Employees on the desk often don't care much and don't have any power to give you discounts or take reasonable steps to sort out customer complaints. I hope you took photographs and have all the booking details and receipts. Think very carefully about what would make you feel better about this and put it behind you. Be reasonable. You aren't going to get a full refund but I suspect the offer of a free romantic weekend break there would make you feel queasy. Once you know what you want, write your story down. Stay calm and polite.

If the hotel is part of a chain, call head office and find out to whom you should send your complaint by letter or email. If it's a small private hotel, make sure you get to the manager or the owner. Keep copies. If you get nowhere, find out if the hotel is a member of any of the trade or ratings associations. If you are calm, polite, consistent and persistent you may well win the day. If you don't get anywhere, your only option is to make a claim through the small claims process in the county court. It's not expensive, you can do it yourself and it's down to the court to decide whether you are entitled to some money back. Only you can decide if it's worth the effort.

Q. I've been doing occasional after-dinner speaking engagements abroad and in the past have invoiced for VAT and paid VAT in the UK. However, I've been booked to speak at an event in Scotland in July by an American company. I always invoice in two parts, one before the event and one after, but when I sent them my first half invoice they refused to pay VAT saying the rules have changed. I've tried to find out what the changes mean but am confused. Can you help?

SK

London

A. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs changed the "Place of Supply" rules for international services in 2010. Since January 2011 the new rules have also applied to cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific, educational or entertainment services. Your after-dinner speeches fall into that category.

If the customer is a business, these services are now treated as supplied where the customer belongs and not where they are performed. In your case, the contract for your speech is with a US company so it will be treated as supplied in the US and subject to VAT in the US, not in the UK, even though you will be speaking in Britain.

However, if the customer is a private person the rules are different. If a friend books you to speak at a private dinner in France, for example, that speech would be treated as made in France and not subject to UK VAT but to French VAT. Always check with HMRC when you accept a booking – just to be on the safe side.

Q. Last summer, I and some neighbours noticed a loft extension being built on a house nearby. People extend rather than move around here so we didn't think much about it. But when the scaffolding came down we realised the new extension isn't remotely in keeping with the surrounding Edwardian architecture. It's more Eastern bloc. We asked the owners to discuss it but they refused. The property didn't require planning permission but we wrote to the council requesting that the structure be clad in tiles to comply with the planning guidelines introduced in 2008.

The upshot of that is that the owners have agreed to "save up" to have the extension pebble-dashed (not tile clad as is the norm in the locality) – though when even this grudging concession might take place is anybody's guess. We'd like to know if the guidelines can be enforced. The finish in its current state doesn't comply with the guidelines but the council is loath to pursue the matter, stating that there is little chance of success in any legal action. We're asking what is the point of having guidelines if they cannot be applied? Can we take private civil action to force the homeowners to comply or can we insist that the council take up this case and run with it?

KK

London

A. I've spoken to several planning experts who all say they can't advise without seeing the loft conversion for themselves. My understanding from talking to them is that if the loft doesn't require planning permission, the council would have no powers and that's the end of the matter.

The design guidelines referred to are relevant only if the development requires planning consent in the first place. You could talk to your local councillors and try to enlist their support. If that gets you nowhere, submit a formal complaint to the council setting out why you believe it has failed to act properly in this case. You can get details of the complaints procedure from your local council offices or online. The matter should be investigated and you should get a reply. Normally the complaints procedures have more than one stage, and if you're still unhappy you may be able to ask for a further investigation. This should flush out any irregularities in the extension or force the council to act if there is anything it can do. If you still feel the council has failed to discharge its legal responsibilities, and you've exhausted the council's complaints procedures, you could refer the matter to the ombudsman. You can find details at lgo.org.uk/making-a-complaint.

You could contract a planning consultant to look at the loft, or take advice from a solicitor with expertise in this area of law, but you'll have to pay and that could turn out to be a waste of money.

www.moneyagonyaunt.com

Do you have a consumer complaint?

Write to Julian Knight at The Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF

j.knight@independent.co.uk

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