Storm over sheltered flats: Pensioners are complaining about high service charges. Andrew Bibby reports

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KEN MAYNARD, unusually for a Conservative county councillor, is helping lead what amounts to a rent strike at the sheltered housing development where he lives.

Mr Maynard and the other residents of the 38 flats in the complex near Runcorn are owner-occupiers, most having purchased leaseholds from the builder that completed the development in 1989. They pay a regular service charge to a management company chosen by the developer, in this case MIH, the large Merseyside housing association.

For the past two years, Mr Maynard and most of the other residents have refused to pay the full service charge demanded by MIH, now approximately pounds 77 a month and are instead paying the 1991 rate of pounds 65.02.

'We have asked for clarification of the budget, but answers haven't been forthcoming. We're not prepared to discuss this year's charges until we have seen last year's accounts,' Mr Maynard said.

Service charge increases have proved controversial in a number of sheltered housing developments, particularly as residents are usually retired and on fixed incomes. Typically, the levy represents the shared costs of employing a warden, insurance, maintenance, cleaning, gardening and administrative costs.

Mr Maynard's objections concern a catalogue of episodes - including a pounds 108 bill for replacing a faulty smoke alarm - where he feels residents could have been saved money.

Hugh Evans, deputy chief executive of MIH, rejects the criticism. 'The bill looks OK. It was from a perfectly reputable company for an integral part of a complicated fire alarm system.'

Mr Maynard's primary concern is not with his own situation but with the principles of sheltered housing management. 'The problem is that this is the only provision for the elderly that is not subject to regulation or supervision,' he said.

Hamid Kamkar shares these concerns. A research scientist, he has for the past four years been trying to extricate his parents from what he describes as a 'retirement nightmare'.

His parents bought three properties in a new sheltered housing development near Bristol in 1988. They planned to use one themselves, install Dr Kamkar's grandmother in another, and his brother and sister-in-law in the third. But family illness intervened and Dr Kamkar's parents are now looking after his grandmother abroad.

One property has been sold, but a second remains on the market. It cannot be bought by anyone under 55 and in the meantime the Kamkars must pay the service charge. They are also legally restrained from taking on tenants.

Dr Kamkar is unhappy that the management company, Retirement Care Group, has continued to levy charges in full. 'To date my family has paid more than pounds 5,000 in service charges for the empty properties, and pounds 2,600 is due in poll-tax payments. This is their pension money, which is dwindling,' he said.

Disputes between residents and management committees have, since 1990, been referable to the Sheltered Housing Advisory and Conciliation Service (Shacs), headed by David Hobman, a former director of Age Concern.

However, an attempt by Mr Hobman to resolve the Kamkars' dispute failed, after Retirement Care declined to permit a tenant to move in to the empty property. 'I cannot permit a breach in the terms of the lease,' said Ann Mainwaring, Retirement Care's estates director. 'Other residents do not want him to sub- let, he wants to sub-let. I'm piggy in the middle.'

An added complication in an increasingly bitter dispute is that Dr Kamkar's brother and sister-in-law (who have been living in the third house) are below the permitted age of 55.

(Photograph omitted)