Practice asked to pay half a million in service charges for 'non-existent' services
Exclusive A GP practice has been asked by NHS Property Services (NHSPS) to pay £500,000 in service charges for 'non-existent' services, Pulse has learned.
Solicitors and surveyors told Pulse that practices located in NHS-owned properties are still being faced with significant premises bills, often with a lack of clarification on what the charges relate to, or charges for services they do not use.
This is the latest in a long-running dispute over premises charges since Pulse reported in 2016 that several practices saw their fees hiked by up to 400%, while more recently a practice's annual service charge increased from £14,000 to £48,870.
As part of reforms made under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, NHSPS – a government-owned company – took over the management of NHS properties and facilities from PCTs in 2013.
But since the takeover, GP tenants have experienced a series of issues such as significant hikes in service charges, potentially resulting in layoffs and salary cuts.
Rosemary Jones, a partner at Invicta Surveyors, said she worked on a case where a GP practice received a bill worth £500,000 for a part of the building they owned as well as services they were not using.
She said: 'There's one very good example where NHSPS, just before Christmas a year before last, sent a final demand to a practice for over half a million pounds for service charge costs when they were previously paying about £20,000 a year. We've recently - and that shows you how long it's taken to this point - agreed a service charge and it's probably coming down to £20,000-30,000.
The reason for the hike, according to Ms Jones, was that: 'NHSPS were including a part of the property they didn't actually own, there's a separate lease on these promises that the GP occupies so they were trying to build service charges on a part of a property which wasn't theirs. There were also several types of costs they were trying to impose and that were non existent, things like photocopying and postage the GP didn't use.'
Ms Jones said she is currently looking at 10-15 cases, the majority being in Kent where there are about 30 ongoing cases.
She said: 'There are several examples which are ongoing. That's the first one really where we’ve managed to conclude any negotiation because it’s just taken so long for NHSPS to deal with these issues. NHSPS still continue to send demands for costs which the practice doesn't incur. They're trying to charge for fire alarm maintenance when the fire alarm hasn't worked on this particular site for use, they've tried to charge for a caretaker when there's no caretaker on the site.
'The catalogue of errors goes on and even when we get to the point where we're satisfied about the nature of costs which NHSPS can charge the big problem is that they cannot justify the costs they are charging.'
Simlarly, Edwina Farrell, partner and property advisor to GPs at Weightmans, has worked on cases where practices were asked to pay charges for services that did not exist.
She said: 'It's fair to say that not all PCTs have ever charged GPs in their buildings in a consistent way so the real shocker to practices was that sometimes they did not pay anything and then without any explanation and background information they were suddenly sent very large invoices, when NHSPS took over the property portfolio.
'We know of one old matter in London where NHSPS did talk to GPs very aggressively and insisted on an immediate payment of tens of thousands of costs. I recently spoke to a practice who has been a long-time client of mine and the practice manager there said “we're still getting asked for items on our invoices for services we don't have”.
She continued: 'A recent client was being asked to pay for an element of the building they already owned - not a property that belongs to NHSPS - so there are still some confusion. I think NHSPS have advanced significantly in the type of information they're providing but there are still discrepancies appearing regularly.'
A spokesperson for NHSPS said: 'In 2015/16, the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England agreed NHSPS should charge customers the actual running costs associated with their buildings. In some cases this led to a change in the level of funding GPs could claim for, from their commissioner.'
The BMA had previously urged practices not to sign leases unless they fully understand the terms and liabilities.
Last month, the National Audit Office found that the NHSPS's approach to collecting lease fees does not work 'effectively', highlighting that the outstanding debst owed by tenants - including GPs - had almost tripled in five years.