Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Conservatives' Housing Policy - will it help?

One of the big issues of our society is how to house people. But there are conflicting issues:
  1. A basic shortage of accommodation, leading to high housing costs, particularly in areas of the country with high employment;
  2. Popular resentment and opposition to new development, particularly on greenfield sites, and where back gardens or other "empty" space is used up;
  3. Pressure on parking infrastructure;
  4. A need to replace old housing stock with new in order to raise standards and save energy;
  5. An opposition to losing older property where this raises density.
The Conservatives plan to change planning rules to as "prevent the bulldozing of homes with gardens" and so as allow the market to build "new homes with parking spaces and gardens". But where? But how? This is not explained.

The Conservatives will abolish stamp duty land tax on properties selling for less than £250,000, so that "nine out of ten pay nothing". This will cost a great deal of money of course, and lead to the current "dead zone" between £250,000 and £260,000 being extended by £10,000.

It is hard to conclude that these measures will assist anyone.

The Labour Party appears to promise little of any use, with a pathetic promise of 5,500 new rented homes over the next 18 months. In the 1930s, around 300,000 new homes were built each year, with a recession deeper than we can imagine now. Around 130,000 private homes are built each year; half of the level 75 years ago.

The only way to deal with the housing crisis is to use land efficiently. If this means pulling down bungalows and replacing them with terrace-houses; if it means high density development with limited provision for car parking, then this is a price which our descendants will be glad we paid. If the same approach to housing need as we have now had obtained for a century rather than a quarter of that time, we would have shanty towns outside every city. It is time we grew up.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Will the Tories get rid of HIPs?

They say they will, of course, but will they, and will it be a good idea? Will there be mourners, and will we, like the people in the picture standing waiting for a glimpse of Stalin's coffin, both delight in the end of a pointless tyranny and yet miss the passing of opportunities for improvement?

Everyone hates HIPs of course. Sellers resent paying out £350 or so. Buyers dislike being told by their Solicitors that personal searches are unreliable and out of date. Only lawyers read them, and they don't understand the Energy Performance Certificates; or maybe they do but don't want to.

Estate agents keep them hidden and bring them out only when offers have been accepted if they can't avoid it. They don't understand them and fear that in the right hands they might contain inconvenient truths. The potential for using them as a selling aid is vast but unexplored.

Documents are often missing or useless. If a lease has been extended, you'll only get the document which extends the original lease and none of the terms to which is subject. Off title documents, such as restrictive covenants, are never included unless care has been taken in preparing a HIP, which excludes any done by HIP "specialists".

So why should anyone complain at their disappearance? Well, the HIP firms will. They lobbied hard for them to be introduced, and it is hard to believe that Ruth Kelly and Yvette Cooper, who were the architects of this fiaco, were not touched to the very heart by their entreaties. Will their successors be prepared to write off this useless sector of our economy, and the considerable investment that they have foolishly underwritten? Maybe not.

Also it is fair to say that the legal profession, with its customary adaptability, has taken on board the HIP project and uses them, grumbling away, to the best advantage available. More change we don't want either.

So the alternative is to fix them. This could be done:

  1. Ensure that the Searches used are official searches only unless the local authority in question cannot supply these within 21 days.
  2. Provide for a cheap "Official Search update" to allow Buyers to update an Official Local Search within a year for a modest fee - perhaps 25% or 33% of the original fee.
  3. Get rid of the useless and misleading Property Questionnaire.
  4. Ensure that off title documents and other documents which are necessary are included.
  5. Provide for public access to HIPs once done, or at least to EPCs; no more hiding them away.
But what are the chances of this happening?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom is drawing to its inevitable close with elections expected next May. It seems very likely that our bizarre electoral system will result in a substantial majority of seats for the Conservative Party, led by Mr David Cameron, who if they are fortunate, may poll around two fifths of the votes. This may be regarded as a suitable punishment for 12 years of increasingly lacklustre and arrogant rule by the Labour Party, who have in elections since 1997 been able to command majorities in the House of Commons yet without getting anywhere near plurality of the votes.

For the record the figures cast for Labour were:

1997 43.2%
2001 40.7%
2005 35.3%

The last time a winning party polled a majority of the votes cast in a UK election was in 1931. The Labour landslide in 1945 resulted from their polling 49.71%; and the Conservative high point was in 1955 (49.7%).

So how is that the "Mother of Parliaments" is elected in this ramshackle fashion? The answer is of course that because the threshold of absolute power is set so low it is tempting for those in power to think that they can scrape through next time just by doing a bit better than the party which comes second.

This is quite correct of course. In 1945, the defeated Conservatives polled a higher percentage of the vote than the winning Labour party did in 2005 - winning 197 seats in 1945; and with Labour winning 356 seats in 2005.

The reason for this is the gradual decline of the two party system. From the mid 1970s, the Liberal Party, in its various guises, started to poll between 15% and 20% of the vote, figures not seen since the 1920s. In Scotland and Wales nationalist parties started winning seats. Consistuency fights were no longer two horse races; in some cases any one of four parties might be in with a chance.

The "first past the post" system is therefore no longer fit for purpose, and the truth is that a Government elected by it lacks legitimacy. Respect for politicians is at an all time low, and maybe these two things are connected. We have knee jerk policy making because no party can be seen to be ignoring the "public opinion" (expressed by newspapers of course(!)) that the electoral system does not take into account.

With that in mind, we can expect no more rationality from the Conservatives than we have seen from the Labour Party.

I hope to explore some of the likely legislative initiatives of the next Government over the next few months.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Taking the High Road out of Scotland

The release of the convicted terrorist Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds has sparked a great deal of controversy. Mr al-Megrahi was, at the time of the Lockerbie bombing, in 1988, a Libyan intelligence officer, and if he was guilty of planting the device which destroyed Pan Am Flight 103, then it is almost certain that he was acting under the instructions of his employers, the Libyan Government.

Whilst this does not absolve him of responsibility in any way, the bombing by the United States of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, which killed around 15 civilians including the adopted 15 month old daughter of Muammar al-Gaddafi; which was itself a reaction to a terrorist attack in West Berlin which appears to have been masterminded by Libyan intelligence and was itself a reaction to various US-Libyan aerial and naval engagements in the Gulf of Sidra, appears to have been the catalyst for the planting of a bomb in Pan Am Flight 103.

The Libyan Government surrendered Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and also Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah both of whom were tried by a Scottish Court sitting in the Netherlands. Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah was acquitted and Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi convicted.

Others who presumably are both nameless and unpunished share his guilt.

Since 1988 the world has moved on. The political divisions in Europe which allowed Muammar al-Gaddafi to pursue his strange brand of revolutionary politics which in many ways mirrors the fascist regime in which he grew up in an unrestrained manner have changed. Libya's militancy and status as a rogue state has diminished, at least in theory, and one of the consequences of this sort of rapprochement has to be a degree of forgiveness, at least at state level, for outrages of the past. That this is a successful strategy is demonstrated by the current state of Northern Ireland and of course the relations which now exist between the former Comecon states and the rest of Europe. Muammar al-Gaddafi has made some financial reparation for both the Berlin and the Pan Am 103 bombings.

All this would point towards the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi in the near future even if he had not been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

As it is, there is a power to release on compassionate grounds, and this appears to have been exercised by the Scottish Justice Minister strictly in accordance with Scottish Law. There was nothing to be gained by keeping a sick man in prison whilst he died, and those whose relatives died in this outrage should consider that retribution should have its limits.

It was a cycle of action and reaction which created the circumstances in which the bombing took place and was presumably approved by those high up in the Libyan Government.

The important message of his conviction was that terrorist outrages deserve to be treated as crimes and be subject to the rule of law rather than excused as an incident of conflict, declared or not. In a way that message has been perverted by the United States over the past few years in that terrorism has been used as an excuse for ignoring the Geneva Convention and even the most basic standards of human rights.

It is therefore no surprise that law officers of the United States are complaining loudest about what was at all stages a matter for the Scottish legal system. The decision cannot be reversed, and it is to be hoped that the Scottish Government will support the proper application of a legal system which has few equals in the world. It is a matter of regret that the British Government, which ought to share the same values, cannot bring itself to speak out in favour of what was clearly a correct decision.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Fun with spam

We recently received this:

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Hillyard []
Sent: 24 July 2009 10:14
Subject: Enquiry

Good morning,

Please excuse the informal use of email for this enquiry.

Can you please confirm who would be responsible for reducing the cost of your stationery purchases, within your office please ?

Also could you advise me of their mailing address.

Many thanks


Jeff Hillyard

Harper Office

Unit 6 Ashton Gate

Harold Hill


Essex RM3 8UF

We felt he required a response:

Dear Mr Hillyard:

It’s a long story, I am afraid, but one filled with hope for us all.

We used to have someone who was specifically responsible for this task. His name was Cornelius Dagblatt. We sent him on a fact finding mission across the seas to source raw materials so we could make our own supplies of paper, staples and writing materials. Wood, steel, porcupine quills and that sort of thing. He set sail from Gravesend on 24 October 1998; a day we remember well. Our staff went to see him off, tears of parting joy rolling down our cheeks and grubby handkerchiefs waving in the sullen grizzle of that autumnal day.

Little did we know what trials and tribulations he would face as he chirpily walked up the gangway to the neat three masted schooner which would carry him away, together with his case of Land Registry forms and pencils, sharpened to clinically perfect points, to the tropics and beyond.

Three years later, the postman delivered a tatty envelope with postage stamps from the Estados Unidos do Brasil. In it was a letter, folded twice, and inscribed in familiar copperplate on the most beautiful paper we had ever seen. As light as the finest India paper, but retaining a sheen redolent of the soft first dew of the day; blocked with gold leaf; and cut to A5 size with a precision beyond that of machine, or man, or beast.

The letter told of Mr Dagblatt’s landing in the delta of the Orinoco, in the Republic of Venezuela and his hiring of a native canoe wherewith he paddled up that River for hundreds of miles. It told of the sad loss of one of his thumbs to piranha fish and how he struggled with his load of forms across the highlands of Tapirapeco, plagued with poisonous spiders and vengeful armadillos, to the upper reaches of the Rio Negro, and how, in a forest clearing, where the light from the sky penetrated down between the high trees like a shaft of golden rain, he came across the Lost Papermakers of St Ationery, whose remote ancestors had originally settled with the Jesuit Missionaries of Nuestra Señora de Loreto and who, after the forcible dissolution of those Missions, had come northwards to find peace and simple satisfaction in the making of paper and other items of stationery.

They had had no contact with the rest of the world since 1780, when they came across a blind Prussian engineer wandering in the jungle and adopted him into their ragged but determined group. He taught them the arts of office administration and independently invented the typewriter, the dictation machine, and carbon paper. His daughter, Magdalena Schwarzwurzel, carried on the family tradition of innovatory excellence and by 1832, when she died, the small settlement in Northern Brazil, then of course an Empire under the rumbustious Emperor Pedro II, of which they knew nothing, had an efficient network of computers with LCD monitors and attached colour printers. Paper production was standardised and the metric system of paper sizes adopted quite by chance in the 1920s.

The stapler came quite late to them; with monkey’s teeth being used to keep papers together right up to the 1960s, but a source of iron ore was available for the manufacture of staples of an extraordinary purity.

Having found the settlement, Mr Dagblatt stayed for a year and a month, coming to a natural understanding with the processes of paper making and pencil sharpening which he had never encountered in his years as a stationery clerk. His experiences had transformed him and he felt unable to return to what he described as the “humdrum and sordid life of shame and loathing of people trying to sell you things” which he had been part of in Streatham. His letter, posted from a post-office in the state of Amazonas, ends with a paragraph which we have now had ten years to come to terms with: “Although I hold my position of stationery clerk at your firm in the highest esteem, I now feel that my life belongs with the simple people of St Ationery. I ask that you use the arrears of salary I am owed by you to benefit those who are injured by paper cuts or accidentally disfigured by office guillotines, but not those whose hands are pierced by staples as they should know better. I bid you adieu.”

Since then we have heard nothing. His mission had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, but sadly we could not reap the benefit thereof.

We have no plans to replace him as we hold his memory so dear. His chair awaits him should he change his mind, and it is cleaned using hygienic wipes every five weeks, as we are sure he would have wanted.

As such I regret that there is no person who is responsible for reducing the cost of our stationery purchases within our office.

Laurence N. Mann


Messrs A. L. Hughes & Co.


340 Streatham High Road

London SW16 6HH

Friday, 3 July 2009

Cycling on the pavement

If there is an issue which divides society in the country, it is not religion, which is generally scoffed at, nor taxes, which are mostly disliked, nor even drugs; but cycling on the pavement.

On the one hand are those that fear (often in this order) for the safety of their dogs, their neighbours' toddlers and for the elderly, who are always said to be in peril of anything moving faster than a snail. They say that cyclists pay no attention to road signs and traffic lights and riding on the pavement is a further symptom of their evil intent and reckless lifestyles. On the other are those who say it does no harm, that only a very small minority of cyclists are irresponsible, and certainly they are fewer in number than the white van men whose lives are devoted to ending those of persons perceived to be of lesser status, with cyclists their principal targets.

The law is archaic and unhelpful.

The Highway Act 1835 is the source of the present regulatory regime. It provides that:

If any person shall wilfully ride upon any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers; or shall wilfully lead or drive any horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, or cattle or carriage of any description, or any truck or sledge, upon any such footpath or causeway; or shall tether any horse, ass, mule, swine, or cattle, on any highway, so as to suffer or permit the tethered animal to be thereon...[they shall be guilty of an offence].

Just in case is any doubt, and I think there was, in 1888, Parliament, with the speed and efficiency which has always distinguished its operations, provided further, in the Local Government Act of that year that:

Bicycles, tricycles, velocipedes, and other similar machines are hereby declared to be carriages within the meaning of the Highway Acts

Now there are some interesting points arising from this legislation, enacted at a time when the fastest thing on the roads was probably the bicycle:

  1. The definition of carriage logically must include a pram or baby buggy, a wheelchair, and in particular a motorised four wheeled scooter of the sort increasingly seen in our town centres. The Surrey police, who responded to a Freedom of Information request about the status of prams cited a case from 1861 (R v Mathias) which seemed to suggest that the right of a member of the public to abate the use of a pram on a highway was related to whether or not it was a nuisance. Contrary what the Surrey Police say in their answer, this is not an authority for the proposition that the use of a pram is not a breach of the Acts: indeed it is the opposite. It is simply supports the proposition that a member of the public cannot restrain the use of the footway by a person in breach of the Highway Act unless there was a nuisance.
  2. The Highway Act does not apply to any footway which is not both next to a road and set aside for the use of pedestrians. It does not therefore apply to paths which are not next to roads such as those in shopping centres. There may be bylaws in relation to those which restrict user, but this is a separate matter. A Highways Act ticket issued for these streets is invalid.
This is most unsatisfactory. Not only does it not tie criminality into harm done, which inevitably undermines the law by leaving those who break it feel not at all guilty, just resentful; not only is it selectively enforced, with wheelchair users in particular allowed to roam our streets without sanction - not that anyone outside an asylum or perhaps parliament would suggest otherwise; but in addition, it is out of date, with the bicycle very much at the soggy end of the road traffic food chain, and its user at daily risk of serious injury or death from careless drivers. Fewer than one person a year is killed by cyclists on pavements, hundreds of cyclists die under the wheels of motor vehicles of all sorts.

In other countries, where cyclists may use the footways unless specifically forbidden, there are no heaps of dead pedestrians at every corner, and people are of course attuned to the presence of cycles.

The obvious solution is that cyclists should be allowed to use the pavement, providing they give way to pedestrians, and providing they hold insurance. Dangerous cycling should be treated as seriously as dangerous driving, but simply cycling along a virtually empty footway should be regarded as normal.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

This is a picture of our Bank manager, Mr Tim Hastie, of HSBC. We have banked with this company and its predecessor, Midland Bank, for nearly 60 years. We lend the Bank substantial sums of money which it uses to fund its core activities, including carefully chosen and monitored investments.

Every few weeks, we receive an email from Mr Hastie, enjoining us to take advantage of the Bank's financial advice, honed up no doubt from their experience with the funds chosen by them and operated by Mr Bernie Madoff. The latest edition included some cutting edge stuff about trading with Argentina.

Mi Buenos Aires querido,
cuando yo te vuelva a ver
no habrá más pena ni olvido.

We wouldn't mind this, and have no objection to the familiar use of first names, but for some reason he is unable to spell them correctly despite their appearing on Bank Mandates, etc., and despite a number of requests, some of which have descended into sarcasm.

If you see this man, would you be kind enough to mention our difficulty, as we are unable it appears to communicate with him directly.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Poacher turned gamekeeper

Question: what does one do when a former Chief Executive of Tate & Lyle says that people are eating far too much sugar? If it doesn't make you pause just a second before that second lump, maybe you need to think about it. So when Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain's security service, says the Government is overegging the terrorist pudding to the extent that basic civil liberties are under threat should we listen? For the last seven and a half years we have been told we are at war. A war that has lasted longer than the second world war and has claimed fewer civilian casualties in the UK than the second world war did in an average day and a half. A war against an idea, with our national adversaries allegedly led by a shadowy figure who may not even be alive.

And in this "war", which has cost billions of pounds and has no end in sight, for the enemy cannot surrender and victory cannot be claimed, it has been thought necessary for our leaders to lie about risk, to conceal evidence of torture connived at by British citizens, and to promulgate a series of restrictions on the freedoms of ordinary people which were not even thought necessary when our country faced imminent invasion and daily bombardment.

The Rule of Law is an essential ingredient of a state which deserves the respect of its citizens. It is a more important value even than democracy. And yet even this has been set aside by ministers who have subverted and maligned the courts who have interpreted the complex and sometimes contradictory web of legislation enacted in order to "counter the threat of terrorists".

The vast sums of money spent to create this apparatus of intolerance and "counter-terror" has been diverted from more worthwhile projects. How many people have died and will die through lack of NHS research funds or road safety schemes? Far more than have been killed by terrorists.

In the process of this, a substantial section of the population has been alienated. Racism has been encouraged by the perpetuation of the idea that terrorists threats are ubiquitous and a constant and present danger. This racism, and the actions of Government, are the best possible incubator for the very small number of extremists who are actuated by hatred and intolerance.

The truth is that those involved in terrorism are generally amateurs, some even weak-minded, with unclear ideas about how to carry out their terrorist acts. There is a significant chance that some at least of them have been egged on by agents provocateurs. Compared with the threat posed by the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s, which did not seem to require the same clampdown on civil liberties, they are a mere bagatelle. There will always be some people who take their causes beyond the limits of acceptability. Animal Rights Activists don't always stop at placards.

The question is what to do about it. The message that we are at risk is being spread daily by the tabloid press and by officialdom. By contradicting this gloomy and distortive message and putting the small risk into perspective, we can each do a little.

About us

Streatham, London, United Kingdom
We are a small but perfectly formed firm of Solicitors in South London. Messrs A. L. Hughes & Co. Solicitors 340 Streatham High Road London SW16 6HH DX 58457 Norbury Telephone: 020 8769 7100 Fax: 020 8677 6644 A list of partners may be inspected at the above premises. We're regulated by the Solicitors' Regulation Authority.