And leasehold reform is Labour’s ‘unfinished business’
Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on securing this important debate, and thank them for their work with the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold reform. I thank the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and the House of Commons Library for the work they have done in supporting me and other Members in preparing for this debate.
The majority of people in this country aspire to own their own home, and for those lucky enough already to own a home or to be able to buy, a leasehold property often suits their needs better than a freehold house. Long leaseholders are in a landlord-tenant relationship with the freeholder. The rights and obligations of the two parties are governed by the terms of the lease agreement, which is supplemented by statutory provision. When it works, leasehold is fine—the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Worthing West spoke of their personal experiences—because there are transparent charges, well-itemised and properly justified service charges, appropriate resale values, and so on.
Homeowners want and deserve security and safety, but this debate shows that for far too many, their dreams of home ownership have turned into a nightmare. When one has worked hard to save up to buy a home, and budgeted to pay for servicing any loan and other costs that one reasonably expects, one should expect security and then to be able to plan for one’s future.
Probably all MPs represent leaseholders of one category or another. As we have heard, many MPs have examples from their casework of issues that have been brought to this debate. Too often,
“Leasehold property sells buyers short at every step.”
Those are not my words; they were in an excellent article in a paper I do not usually read—the Daily Mail—in September 2015. Leaseholders are finding problems they had not expected when they bought their home. I think that “duped” was the word used by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). These are some of the examples that we have heard about: managing agents imposing arbitrary and multiple charges; lack of transparency of service charges that are way overpriced; estate owners such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse having no right to a tribunal on charges; unexplained and unforeseen increases year on year—sadly, in my experience in Brentford, housing associations are sometimes among the worst culprits; and the cost of extending leases when they drop below the 70-year, or even 60-year, period. I was pleased to learn a bit more about hedonic regression from the hon. Member for Worthing West; I thank him for that.
We have heard about exorbitant charges for capital works on common parts, with little advice on how to pay. Too often, sadly, local authority landlords are some of the worst culprits in this regard.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)
I apologise to the House for being unable to be here for the start of the debate. May I offer my hon. Friend another example that demonstrates why the leasehold system needs reform? The residents of Platinum House, owned by Luke and Brian Comer, in my constituency have sought to secure the right to manage, yet the owners have used a whole series of tricks to delay the exercise of that right. Does she think that is a further example of the need for reform?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent additional example where the right to manage has been proved not to be as simple and straightforward as it should be. Too many people who want to manage their property collectively with their neighbours are finding it too difficult and costly with too many hurdles.
We have seen many complicated hurdles put in the way of leaseholders exercising their right to manage or the right to enfranchise. Dispute resolution procedures are complicated and costly. Lessees are having to pay the landlord’s legal costs. Resale charges are up to 20%, which then suppresses resale values. I ought to declare an interest in that this happens particularly in the retirement sector, and my mother has just bought a flat in a retirement community. There are the questionable tie-ups between freeholders and managing agents, and the solicitors they recommend, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. There is the scandal of lease forfeiture, again brought to the debate by the hon. Member for Worthing West. New homes on their own plots are being sold by volume housebuilders on 999-year leases when they could be freeholdings. Despite advice given to many first-time buyers in these instances, I must say that no, 999-year leases and freeholds are not one and the same thing.
Sir Peter Bottomley
Another illustration of this issue comes from a CBRE report of 2013 saying that some people who are developing property with leaseholds are now selling the freehold in advance so that they escape the responsibility of offering it to the leaseholders after two years.
That is yet another example of poor practice—and that would be a generous term.
We have heard about the difficulties of people who buy park homes. They often do that because they cannot afford bricks and mortar, and park homes look, on the surface, to be an affordable option. We have heard about the charges on owner-occupiers for the “privilege” of modifying their own home, even if they have planning permission. We have heard about buyers who want to purchase the freehold finding it incredibly difficult to do so; some big-name volume housebuilders such as Taylor Wimpey and Bellway have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) raised that matter.
Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, there is the scandal of what I call the ground rent scam whereby a new asset class has been created as ground rents rise and rise, and properties are being treated as a marketable commodity over the heads of the owner-occupiers. Several hon. Members have mentioned this shocking situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston described this national scandal as the PPI of the housebuilding industry.
I am looking forward to the Minister’s response. Before he thinks of saying that the examples brought here today from Members across the House are exceptions that prove the rule, I want to say that they are all too common. The APPG is a new group that has a large membership. A recent survey by LEASE, the Government’s agent, showed that 53% of leaseholders regret their purchase. If there are 4 million leaseholders in this country, and that is probably an underestimate, then 53% of 4 million represents an awful lot of people. Legislation has been changed to benefit far fewer than 2 million people.
Before the Minister thinks of talking about weighing up the relevant benefits to different parties as an excuse to delay radical change and review, I have to ask him whether it is right that people can buy and sell freehold interests and ground rents as a lucrative tradeable asset.
The Leasehold Knowledge Partnership suggests that developers alone are now earning an additional £300 million to £500 million a year from ground rent reversionary sales of their head leases and freeholds—and that does not include the buyers and sellers of ground rent funds, such as Ground Rents Income Fund plc, whose website I visited earlier today. This asset class is one of the highest-performing investments for canny investors. I think that following this debate we know why.
Yet hard-working people—those who are doing the right thing by investing their hard-earned cash into buying a home—are being ripped off left, right and centre. The Government must act urgently to stop this gross exploitation of hard-working homeowners who are finding that they cannot sell their homes. In fact, the Government must do more than that. The Labour Government introduced commonhold in the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who is here, was a key player in that. Commonhold works in the rest of the world—for example, in Ireland and in most of our ex-colonies—and it could work in the UK. Labour introduced the Act, but we accept that it is unfinished business. The Government should review it, consider amending it, and implement the necessary changes.
We call on the Government immediately to stop the scandal of exploding ground rents, which is the biggest legitimate scam in Britain. They should review how commonhold works and make it work, and also end leasehold tenure. We strongly argue that we need to update, consolidate and simplify all the legislation, not just add another Bill and yet more complexity. The Government should consider revising the law on replacing leasehold forfeiture, as the Law Commission has recommended. We ask the Government to consider proper regulation of managing agents and to simplify the right to manage, so that residents are able jointly to take control of the block in which they live.
Sir Peter Bottomley
We need to make it much easier for any individual leaseholder to have access to the contact details of every other leaseholder, not just tenants, so that they can apply for their rights. At the moment, for all sorts of bad reasons, they are blocked from being able to do that. I hope that the Government hear what the hon. Lady is saying and that they will work out practical ways to make things easy.
The Government need to look at that detailed and critical issue. We look forward to not just an acknowledgement of the issues, but a solid commitment from the Minister to look at them. To date, the Government have shown no sense of urgency, just half-hearted promises to end the problem.
Reform of leasehold law is “unfinished business”, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne. There are too many loopholes in too many pieces of legislation, and the balance of power remains with the freeholder and their agents.
A Labour Government would give leaseholders security against rip-off ground rents and end the routine use of leasehold ownership in new developments. Will this Government do that? Labour will cap ground rent charges and set out a plan to end their routine use. We need a clear commitment from the Government. We all owe that to the millions of leaseholders in this country, for now and for the future.
The full debate can be seen here at 13.19: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/fc53bd87-8abf-4986-b7ce-6a7a488b8cfc