Dome flat tenants' shock at pounds 25,000 charges

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PEOPLE IN London homes with some of the best views of the Thames and the Millennium Dome are being billed for up to pounds 25,000 each to spruce up their block of flats in time for New Year's Eve 1999.

Work is due to begin this week on refurbishing a Greenwich block, just yards from the Thames, Cutty Sark and the Meridian Line, in time for the celebrations, when all eyes will be on the south-east London riverside town.

While Greenwich Council will pick up the largest bill, leaseholders who struggled to afford flats in Rockfield House on the Meridian Estate under the right-to-buy scheme have been stung for up to pounds 25,000.

Residents have reacted with shock: "When this letter arrived I just went to pieces," confessed one Rockfield House leaseholder, a 52-year-old widow with a weekly income of pounds 40. "I thought, this is the end." Her council letter said she would be liable for a charge of more than pounds 15,000, with a warning of further administrative charges. One neighbour, a single mother in her twenties, is faced with a demand for pounds 12,000.

Despite Rockfield House's stunning location, the 1930s block has been badly neglected. Its tiled walls are cracked and covered in graffiti, it has no lifts, and its central quadrangle is in poor repair. It will look particularly shabby next to the smart private marina complex being built to impress the 12 million visitors expected at the turn of the century.

Residents of Rockfield House first heard of the council's plans through glossy leaflets promising that a pounds 24m plan to transform the eight designated "Millennium estates" would not mean increased charges. But just before Christmas, leaseholders who took advantage of the Tories' right-to-buy policy were sent bills for pounds 12,000, pounds 15,000 and even pounds 25,000. Charges they received included such puzzling items as "preliminaries" and "performance bond". Even staff in the council's housing unit could not immediately explain what these terms meant.

Among proposed improvements is the installation of central heating in seven flats on the other side of the block.

Carole Parker of the Greenwich Leaseholder's Association is organising opposition, pointing out that their contracts state they must pay a "reasonable amount" towards maintenance. She said a newly widowed elderly tenant rang her at Christmas saying she did not know how to pay her pounds 12,000 charge.

Last week a council spokesman said talks would be held with the DETR about waiving charges.