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Service charge

Filename of a service charge bill.
Filename of a service charge bill.

We all have bills. Periodically there is a requirement to review, comment on or contest them. Little regard is paid to the practices that produce these bills and the assemblage of technologies, people and materials they emerge from. The following narrative pays attention to practices mediated, influenced, coerced or constructed by Lambeth Councils Housing Asset and repairs management System (HARMD) in the context of Cressingham Gardens Estate (CGE).

A group reading

In early January a group of 8 leaseholders and a (volunteer) quantity surveyor met at my home on CGE. This was organized via an Estate email mailing list. We read through recent service charge bills which had been posted through our letter boxes. Over a cup of tea and slice of home made chocolate cake, we discussed how repairs were managed and highlighted over £40,000 worth of contested repairs items. While the main motivation to meet was to reduce our service charge bills, and indeed we did, the exercise performed a number of roles:

  • Helped to collate a list of contestable repairs items. Empirical evidence that could be submitted to Council repairs and finance departments.
  • Highlighted evidence of mismanagement by Council repairs services which could be usefully deployed in future disputes related to the regeneration process.
  • Provided a platform to share and evolve strategies to resist demolition of our homes.
  • Transformed a tedious administrative task into an enjoyable social occasion, where we got to know each other in a relaxed environment.
  • Enabled the group to reflect and critique repairs practices and technologies enacted by Council repairs staff.
Service Charge Meetup. Feb 2016
Service Charge Meetup. Feb 2016

While waiting for people to turn up, we discussed how the service charge statement was structured, this revealed aspects of the database permissions structure which specifies who is permitted to view what data. The statement is spit into two sections ‘block repairs’ and ‘estate wide repairs’. Homeowners are permitted to view repairs data for their own block and not other blocks on the Estate. All homeowners can view all ‘estate wide repairs’ data which details repairs made to public spaces. Only Council staff and repairs contractors are able to view detailed repairs information for all blocks across the estate. It is also possible to access repairs data via other means such as freedom of information requests1 and subject access requests2 though these adhere to same permissions structure as service charge statements. Via this route you cannot access more detailed information though you can access different information as they permit a kind of 20 day ‘slow-query’ of the HARMD, a timescale defined by Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation (UK Government 2000).

Block repairs items.
Block repairs items.

As we discussed our lists of repairs we identified some strategies to approach the statement with. We decided to question any item which did not provide location information as it could not be physically verified. We scrutinised and questioned similar repairs listed within a few days of one another, as a resident had discovered that these tended to be the same repair charged twice. For each item where a location was given, we decided to physically check if the repair had been satisfactorily completed, if at all. Out of 69 repairs were listed for my block we 63 contested items where we did not think it reasonable to pay for these items unless they were further explained by Lambeth’s repairs team. Of the contested items, the issues could grouped around a few themes:

  • Repeated jobs, particularly related to the clearance of drains.
  • Repairs not completed or poorly executed
  • No location specified next to repairs so residents are unable to check if they have been completed.
  • A huge number of jet cleaning to drains and repeat drain jobs.

As we began to tire, after all there is only so much excitement a group of 8 people can get from a service charge bill, we decided to break what we had left to do into individual tasks and re-convene via email once we had produced:

  1. A spreadsheet of all repairs items
  2. A physical check had been made of repairs.
  3. Further information had been obtained from council staff.

A technical reading

Close reading of code (Harwood 2013)

To produce a written response to Council repairs and finance teams would take a substantial amount of time, as each job reference number, amount, date and short descriptions would need to be copied by hand from a paper document. So as to avoid this tedious task, I emailed a request for a digital copies of my statements, ideally in a spreadsheet or as .csv (comma separated value) file. In addition I made a request for full access to repairs data for the entire estate for the past six years, so we could review repairs issues as a group.

I was subsequently informed that in order to gain access to a full list of repairs I would need to get the consent from a homeowner representative within each block on the Estate. This pointed to an intriguing possibility; all repairs data for the entire estate could be accessed if a homeowner within each block gave their permission. Though unfortunately, this data would not be accessible within an easily manipulated .csv file as I would only be supplied as .pdf (portable document format) service charge statements as exact copies of the paper statements we received through the post.

The naming convention used for service charge .pdfs pointed to the possibility of ‘parsing’ large numbers of residents .pdf documents for repairs data. The filename of my 2014-2015 service charge bill is “LBLFA2015_RC602_616971028.pdf”. This naming convention can be broken down (see fig 1) as follows:

  • “LBL” London Borough of Lambeth.
  • “FA” It is not known what this refers to.
  • “2015” The date of issue.
  • “RC602” It is not known what this refers to, though it may reference a sequence of service charge statements.
  • “616971028” Is my unique service charge reference number.

The data from these documents could then be programmatically inserted into an alternative database or platform enabling it to be directly queried. This alt-database would be a reconstruction or re-enactment of Lambeths HARMD. My experience as a programmer provided a methodology and skill set to search for conventions used to layout data within these .pdf files. These conventions could be exploited to systematically and programmatically extract data. As an initial experiment I wrote the following script to automatically convert the .pdf into a more easily read repairs dataset:

# Convert .pdf to to plain text
mkdir tmp
pdftohtml LBLFA2015_RC602_616971028.pdf tmp/out.xml > /dev/null

# Find line where Block repairs start
A=$(grep -n "Block Def:" tmp/out.xmls.html | head -1 | cut -d":" -f1)
A=`expr $A + 2`

# Find line where Estate repairs start
B=$(grep -n "Estate Def:" tmp/out.xmls.html | head -1 | cut -d":" -f1)
B=`expr $B - 1`

# Grab list of Block repairs
sed -n "$A,$B p" tmp/out.xmls.html > block.txt

# Delete all html characters and make layout consistent
sed 's/<[^>]\+>//g' block.txt > block2.txt
sed 's/&#160;&#160;/\n/g' block2.txt > block3.txt
sed 's/&#160;/\n/g' block3.txt > block4.txt
sed 's/Job Number:/\nJob Number:/g' block4.txt > block5.txt

# Print out block repairs info
echo -e "\n\nBlock repairs lines: $A TO $B"
cat block5.txt

# Remove temporarily created files
rm -R block* tmp

The script produces an output in the following format:

Job Number: 1464131/1
Issue Date: 24/07/14
Work Order Type: BLK REP
Total Cost: 93.52
Completed: 29/07/14
Job Details: llh,roof is leaking into L/H airing cupboard - Flat 45 Rechargeable Cost: 93.52
Date Paid: 26/09/14

Reflections on the exercise

The activity of reading service charges illustrates practices or performances the database. This practice enables us to follow the asset management database as a technical object as it is “enacted in practice” (Mol 2002, 152). As a group we were searching for empirical evidence. We wanted proof that information presented in service charge statements related to real ‘world events’. However, the practice of contesting repairs items brings forth new layers of previously unseen data which describe alternative readings of specific events. The service charge bill is political object which can be creatively exploited to generate new objects and sites of politics (Barry 2001). What affordances might a collaboratively devised repairs dataset generate?

Reflections on flows of power. A service charge statement is a legally binding document. The repairs database produces statements as a call for action to transfer money from a private to public purse. Accounting law dictates that records of repairs are maintained for a period of 6 years. This ledger can then be scrutinised by homeowners to reveal all repairs data for an entire estate where Local authorities must prove that a reasonable request is being made for payment. The possibility of reviewing an entire dataset opens potential for wider groups to view detailed data and reflect on repairs practices. As a particular skillset is required to effectively interrogate this information, inevitable points of control are produced, where individuals become gate keepers to information. Both in terms of how repair systems are navigated, and how data is interpreted.

Further research

  • Can tenants view block and/or estate wide repairs data?
  • When repairs data is initially recorded, it isn’t assigned to an individual. Within Lambeths repairs team, This is known coequally as ‘raw data’ and as such may not be restricted under the data protection act until the moment it is assigned. This provides a small window of opportunity to view additional data.

Barry, Andrew. 2001. Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society. A&C Black.

Harwood, Graham. 2013. “Database Machinery as Cultural Object, Art as Enquiry.”

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Duke University Press.

UK Government. 2000. “Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

  1. Local Government Transparency Code 2015 states the (4.0) In principle all data held and managed by local authorities should be made available to local people unless there are specific reasons not to. This includes (2.0) Factual data, on which policy decisions are based. (4.0) All spending transactions over £500. (6.0) All Government Procurement Card spending and contracts valued over £5,000.

  2. The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 98) gives you the right to access personal information (information about yourself) held by organisations.