Anyone who thought that last week’s annual conference of Leasehold Advisory Service, a quango paid for out of taxpayers’ money, would be a gathering of ordinary leaseholders, swapping ideas and experiences of managing their apartment blocks, would have been sadly deluded.
It was, in fact, a very expensive trade show filled with representatives from RICS, ARMA, large-scale managing agents, landlords, solicitors and barristers who have twigged that payola is to be had in this unglamorous backwater of the law.
The event took place at the Millennium Hotel in Grovesnor Square on May 15 and cost £310 a head, so with 200 attendees that was a handsome £62,000 (although there were discounts for group bookings, and some were admitted at no charge).
Perhaps it was reasonable enough for an ordinary leaseholder to listen to Alan Collett, RICS president elect, talk up his trade body and hear him emphasise again and again the need for high ethical standards. The result of this barrage was the irrepressible thought that high ethical standards are perhaps not in over-abundant supply in the leasehold property world.
Similarly, leaseholders would have enjoyed listening to Emma Bulmer, a civil servant of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, outline the Green Deal which is supposed to be introduced in the autumn. It is a ruinous example of government eco-micro-management that will make the handouts for solar panels and wind turbines seem sensible.
Andy Belton, of Notting Hill Housing, gave an overview of his esteemable organisation, and Bob Smytherman, of the Federation of Private Residents’ Associations, gave “an ordinary leaseholder’s perspective”.
What was lacking was any hint that the world of leasehold is in angry ferment: that many of the prime London riverside developments are seething over stealth charges, fiddled inter-company contracts, loaded commissions etc and that millions have had to be paid out.
The London Assembly was concerned enough to bring out its report Highly Charged in March; the CentreForum think tank brings out its leasehold report later this month; the House of Lords, prompted by LKP, debated the issue in April; in Nottingham leaseholders have won two payouts topping £700,000; and LVT actions are stacking up as those who bought flats during the boom fight their landlords and managing agents over service charges.
For the most part, the Leasehold Advisory Service conference was a lawyers’ knees-up, with presentations from Anthony Radevsky, of Falcon Chambers, who has appeared for a landlord at the House of Lords for a ruling on the meaning of the word “house”, and from the youthful Philip Rainey, QC, of Tanfield Chambers, whose fees at LVT are reputedly £5,000 a day.
James Driscoll, a solicitor, veteran LVT chairman and professor of law at Essex, opined that it was probably time to revisit leasehold law, although he was not that impressed by the London Assembly’s report.
He believed commonhold had not taken off in the market, although he accepted that there is some evidence of consumers preferring it if they are familiar with other jurisdictions.
Right at the end, a real moment of pathos was introduced when Julian Shersby, 49, a leaseholder who had fought and lost at LVT made an emotional intervention, which is reported below.
Shersby had gone to LVTs – the supposedly simplified, easily accessible leaseholder tribunals – and had his life turned upside down as a result.
After picking up his landlord’s legal bill, he was down £44,000 – all for attempting to sort out what should have been minor squabbles about the house where he lived.
Unfortunately, Shersby is far from alone. Leaseholders may well go into LVTs armed with little more than a reasonable argument and a touching faith in British justice. Indeed, they have taken LVTs at face value as the low-cost, accessible tribunals that they were supposed to be.
But if they come off worse, there are the legal bills of the landlord to pay. And the Radevskys and Raineys of this world don’t come cheap.