Home buyers face delays over property searches

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Wealden District Council has seen a “significant increase” in the pressure to issue searches as part of property transactions, councillors have heard today.

At a meeting of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Head of Planning Stacey Robins told councillors the land charges department “can’t keep up” with the amount of work coming to it.

Mr Robins attributed the pressure to the combination of the pandemic and increased demand as a result of the stamp duty holiday.

Speaking at the meeting, Mr Robins said:

The land charges department prides itself on the speed of responding. The time pre-pandemic was around a week, so only a week to return those queries.

With the stamp duty holiday and the rush for people to purchase and move house, that waiting time has significantly increased.

It’s gone up to as much as six or seven weeks and actually the council has been blamed for a longer period of time.

We have added additional resources into that team two full-time equivalent posts and in fact there is an additional post we are about to recruit over a shorter period of time.

But in short, chairman, we can’t keep up with the work. There is a real pressure on the team, who are doing overtime. It is an issue we are alive to, but nonetheless we can’t keep up with the amount of work that is coming into that team.

Wealden District Council Head of Planning Stacey Robins

According to the Council, the department had seen a record number of searches between August and December 2020, with a figure “well in excess of searches lodged to neighbouring councils.”

Mr Robins said the department had been accused of delays of up to 10 weeks in some instances, but attributed this to ‘onward delays’ rather than the department itself.

On this point, Cllr Ann Newton Planning and Development Portfolio Holder (Con, Framfield & Cross-in-Hand) said:

The department will do everything they feasibly can to do this work, but Stacey is quite right in that I’m afraid some legal representation will just set a timescale for their clients.

So even when, perhaps, the information we’ve provided lands on their desks, they may well then not send it straight on to their clients.

The clients must sit on their legal representation to make sure they get the information they need when it arrives, and we will do our best from this end.

Cllr Ann Newton, Vice Leader, and portfolio holder for Planning and Development

The spike in new requests for searches is likely to subside somewhat once the stamp duty holiday comes to an end in March.

However, Mr Robins said there had been some “chatter” around extending the scheme, but the Council has not yet had any word of this directly from Government.

If the scheme is not extended, the Council says it cannot guarantee that searches received after 21st January will make the March 2021 cut off.

This saw concerns raised by Cllr Phillip Lunn (Con, Crowborough South East), who felt it would unfairly impact on those affected by the delays.

Cllr Lunn said:

It is a bit like a game of Mastermind, when somebody says ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish.

It just seems punitive to me that if the process is ongoing just because the search doesn’t get back to the conveyancer or the solicitor, then the potential buyer could be out of the stamp duty holiday equation.

To me the logic would be, if the process is ongoing and the searches have been applied for and the transaction is proceeding smoothly, then it seems rather brutal to cut it dead at the end of March.

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