Around 1,500 GP practices in England currently operate from premises owned and managed by NHS Property Services (NHSPS). Many of these surgeries have now been contacted by NHSPS about entering into a new lease and are also facing demands for a highly inflated service charge.
The proposed service charge increases can be substantial, with charges reaching up to six figures in certain cases. So, it’s little surprise that we have been contacted by many practices who are extremely concerned about the impact the increased costs will have on their business.
The first point to bear in mind is that unless you have signed a lease and agreed to these charges, you shouldn’t feel immediately pressured and you may be within your rights to challenge them. There are also practical steps you can take that may help you negotiate with NHSPS and agree on a more manageable figure going forward.
Breaking down the costs
The invoices themselves are sometimes not very clear, as they simply lump all costs together. Begin by checking the backing sheet to break down the cost, so you’re clear on exactly what you are being charged for.
In accordance with the Premises Cost Directions, certain expenses are classed as ‘reimbursement costs’ and should sit outside the service charge. They are:
- Clinical waste
Other elements may also be reimbursed in part, depending on what they include. Such as:
- External repairs and maintenance for which the tenant has responsibility
- Buildings insurance
The repair costs may not be recovered in full, as they depend on the District Valuer looking at the Current Market Rent figure. This will usually include an ‘uplift’ of a small percentage (usually around 5%) which includes reimbursement for these items but in practice may not cover the whole cost. That is why it is important to control service charges; as they often not fully recovered.
All remaining items will form part of the service charge, which will typically include landscaping, litter picking, gritting and the cleaning and lighting of common areas.
Action you can take
1. If you have a lease - Check what it says about your obligations in regard to payment, as the terms of the lease will ultimately prevail. If you have signed a lease and agreed to them, then you are legally obliged to pay in accordance with the lease terms. Check what the lease says about which services the landlord must provide, how the service charge costs are worked out and what the optional services are. Ideally, your lease may have a cap beyond which the landlord cannot charge.
2. If you don’t have a lease
- Continue to pay what you have historically paid. Paying any more could set a new precedent and that’s something to be avoided as it may harm your negotiations if you decide to enter into a formal lease later. If you’ve been in occupation for a long period of time without a formal lease, then you may have a periodic tenancy that secures your rights. This could also be helpful when negotiating a service charge cap.
- Consider starting a maintenance fund - Begin putting some money aside regularly, so you have built up a contingency pot should things get difficult in the future.
- Negotiate – The final step is to try and negotiate an amount you can afford to pay and a service charge cap in your new lease. The advantage of having a cap will be the certainty it provides, but it does have the drawback that charges are likely to end up at that amount, so think about what you can afford going forward. If a cap cannot be agreed, the services and method of charging should be carefully reviewed – for example, any additional services should only be provided with your consent to the proposed costs.
In this situation, there is no ‘one solution fits all’. While there has been some talk of a national resolution, nothing has yet materialised. It is difficult to imagine how a single solution can suit all practices, since this kind of approach is likely to generate winners and losers.
If you don’t have a lease in place, our advice is not to feel pressured to pay the inflated charge. Follow the steps we have outlined above and try to negotiate a more acceptable amount. Resist the temptation not to pay anything, however. The safest course of action will usually be to keep paying the amount you have historically paid, and get assistance to negotiate revised terms. Be careful not to sign or commit to anything until you have professional advice!
Also, be wary of time sensitive incentives, such as offers to pay legal fees or stamp duty land tax. Whilst these are nice to have, a one-off payment is unlikely to offset the impact of a large recurring annual service charge, so make sure you understand the cost/benefit.
For more information about NHSPS leases, or any other related issues, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 511555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org