By Harry Scoffin
Bad advice on the effectiveness of sprinkler systems in the years running up to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy and a failure at government level to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem for the sharing and accumulation of even basic information concerning the country’s blocks of flats have culminated in the “utter chaos” that we see in today’s leasehold flats market, where sales have plummeted 60 per cent in just three years, was the message of LKP chair Martin Boyd in a speech to the Open Data Institute last month.
Mr Boyd called for better data and spoke about a little-known survey from New Providence Wharf, the Ballymore cladding site near London Docklands that played host to a major fire in May, which found that the costly interim measure of waking watch patrols did not work in notifying occupiers to leave their apartments during the blaze, with only one person out of the 224 asked saying that the fire wardens played any role in their evacuation.
The poll of New Providence Wharf residents calls into question the need for waking watches which cost £331 per month per household to run on average in England, with the typical London flat leaseholder having to pay approximately £499 each month. In September 2021, it was confirmed that 1,053 buildings in the capital have “simultaneous evacuation strategy” in place which can involve paying for the 24/7 wandering high-vis workers.
In December 2019, as part of the same ODI Fridays lunchtime lectures series, Mr Boyd showed how good quality data has been essential in raising awareness of the leasehold scandal and incentivising government action, with policymakers vastly underestimating the size of the sector until LKP convinced officials in 2014 to change the methodology and improve the data on the number of leasehold dwellings which, four years later, was already 51 per cent lower than what it should be, at 6.5 million flats and leasehold houses in England and Wales.
The Government is accidentally underestimating the extent of the leasehold problem because official figures exclude millions of homes, according to new research. Many leasehold properties require expensive and unfair payments to be made to the freeholder. These can include a yearly ground rent that rises over time, leaving properties unsellable, as well as other high charges.
Speaking via video link before the ODI last month, evidencing another instance of housing data helping Scrooge freeholders instead of leaseholder Bob Cratchits in the cladding and building safety crisis, Mr Boyd noted that in the monthly releases by government on the progress of remediating private sector blocks with Grenfell-style ACM cladding, a distinction is not being made between developer and freehold investor, information which should be very easy to make public.
This omission, deliberate or otherwise, is unhelpful as disaggregating “developers or freeholders” would reveal that almost all cladding sites where someone other than the taxpayer has covered the works have had remediation either paid for by the original developer or sorted by them with the warranty provider.
It would raise awkward questions of the ground rent funds or third-party freeholders who, despite being exhorted by numerous housing ministers to “do the right thing” and “pay up” in recent years and claiming to be “professional” landlords to thwart leasehold and commonhold reforms, are primarily interested in the legally enforceable income streams of an apartment building and, as LKP chief executive Sebastian O’Kelly said in his introduction, are often anonymous and offshore.
So, “why on earth would they do something as unremunerative as that, as litigating on behalf of the tenants in the building” or put their hands into their own pockets?
Showing the failure of these so-called long-term custodians, including those from private equity, in failing to pay to make safe their own property for residents through making such data publicly accessible would only further discredit leasehold as a system of organising flats, unique in the world to England and Wales.
Martin Boyd’s talk from last month is now available on YouTube here: