Mid Wales council at centre of estate agent shake-up


It was news that appears to have passed most of us by. From next month, Powys County Council will take over the Office of Fair Trading's role regulating estate agents.

Or, as The Spectator's political editor puts it: Powys County Council reaches dizzy new heights. James Forsyth writes: "When I was first told this, I assumed it was a joke. Powys County Council might have many strengths but one struggles to see how they are qualified to be the lead enforcement agency for estate agents in London or Birmingham or, frankly, anywhere other than Powys.

"So, if you have a complaint about your estate agent and regardless of where you live in the UK, you'll have to take it up with Powys County Council."

Except it isn't a joke and it's not correct to say that if you have a complaint about your estate agent you'll have to take it up with Powys County Council.

I've been talking to the council and the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) department in Westminster to find out what's occurin'. Here's one of those helpful Q and A things.

Q: What's happening?

A: The Office for Fair Trading is being abolished and its powers divided among different bodies. From April 1, Powys County Council will take over the OFT's role in regulating estate agents. It will have the power to issue warning and prohibition orders against estate agents who have acted dishonestly or breached the Estate Agents Act 1979. Powys will be able ultimately to prohibit persons it considers unfit from carrying out estate agency work. Estate agent registration will be transferred to HMRC.

Q: How will this UK-wide role work in practice?

A: It does NOT mean that someone in Inverness who has a problem with their local estate agent has to complain directly to Powys. The Inverness home-buyer would firstly contact his or her local council's trading standards department as present. Powys will take over the OFT's existing role - working "under the oversight of the National Trading Standards Board". Powys will effectively be hosting the current small team based at the OFT.

Q: How did Powys County Council get the gig?

A: Powys says a joint proposal between it and Anglesey Council was successful in a competitive tender. The role was confirmed by a vote in an obscure secondary legislation committee of MPs on February 20. It's possible the passing of the Draft Public Bodies (Abolition of the National Consumer Council and Transfer of the Office of Fair Trading's Functions in relation to Estate Agents etc) Order 2014 may have passed you by.

Q: Is it an empire-building, cash-fuelled jobs bonanza for mid Wales?

A: A council spokesman said: "The council will be paid £170,000 a year for three years from central government to deliver this service, which has created three jobs."

Q: What does the UK government say?

A: Consumer Affairs Minister Jenny Willott said: "Under the oversight of the National Trading Standards Board, a lead trading standards authority-Powys County Council - will make use of the network of national, regional and local intelligence to provide an effective, intelligence-led, value-for-money service. The new system will also benefit from the traditionally close relationship between trading standards and business, which allows for effective oversight and enforcement of the industry.

"The role of Powys county council will be the same as that of the OFT currently. The property ombudsman will still be able to act in alternative dispute resolution matters and so on, and Powys county council will approve future redress scheme applications in the same way as the OFT does now. The service will not be delivered differently, it will just be delivered by a different body."

Q: What's the official line?

A: A BIS spokesman said: "This type of enforcement, with a council hosting a team, is already carried out very effectively in areas like tackling illegal money lending so is not unusual. Through a competitive bidding process, Powys were able to demonstrate that they were the best placed to take on this work.

"Trading Standards officers will carry on the enforcement work of the OFT and the budget for this work is ring-fenced, while they will continue report to BIS. Consumers are still going to be protected from rogue traders under the changes. This will not undermine their protections."

Q: Is everyone happy with the new deal?

A: No. Labour consumer affairs spokeswoman Stella Creasy said in the Commons last week: "Powys has had three different cabinets in as many months and had to be threatened with intervention by the Welsh government before they could agree a budget yesterday.

"Given that they can't seem to get their own house in order, with practices like double charging and mortgages by tender being put forward by estate agents, why do you think they are the right people to get house sales in order?"

Q: Where can I read more?

A: Follow the exchanges on the Draft Public Bodies (Abolition of the National Consumer Council and Transfer of the Office of Fair Trading's Functions in relation to Estate Agents etc) Order 2014 here.

The issue also cropped up during last week's questions to BIS ministers in the Commons.

David Cornock Article written by David Cornock David Cornock Parliamentary correspondent, Wales

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