The story of the three women who founded the National Leasehold Campaign has been turned into a play that was performed in London over the weekend.
“Fleecehold” tells how Katie Kendrick, 43, Cath Williams, 66, and Joanne Darbyshire, 53, founded the mass movement, which has staged demonstrations across the country – including two outside the Houses of Parliament – that has helped change the leasehold system – albeit with much still to be done.
Pressure brought by the National Leasehold Campaign managed to shame into oblivion developers spreading the scourge of leasehold houses across the country, highlighted the disaster of aggressive ground rents and exposed numerous dodgy income streams squirreled into leases, such as paying for permission to change your carpet or door-bell or keep a cat.
All three performances at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington were a sell-out, doubtless helped by an article in The Sunday Times by veteran leasehold reporter Martina Lees the week before:
Meet the three women who took on some of the oldest laws in the land – and whose story has now been made into an inspiring play
Saturday night was attended by Lord (Roy) Kennedy, Labour chief whip in the Lords, his wife Alicia, who also sits in the Lords for Labour as Baroness Kennedy, Susan Bright, professor of land law at Oxford University, Martin Boyd and Sebastian O’Kelly, of LKP, Liam Spender, solicitor and leasehold campaigner, and an audience of around 80 appreciative leaseholders, including long standing activists in the sector.
There was even the head of legal for Pier management, doubtless there to report back on the play’s unwelcome message to his employers (Peter Edward Gould and Nicholas Charles Gould, who own the Regis group).
After the performance, Katie, Cath and Joanne took to the stage for a Q&A session with the audience.
The play was a remarkably accomplished piece of work by writer Michele Sheldon, carried out in part as a lockdown project. She was well served by a cast of three women and three men, who had to deliver complex lines explaining the flaws and revenue potential in residential leases – which is not obviously dramatic material.
“Who would have thought it was possible to produce a play about a subject as boring as leasehold?” said Katie Kendrick, paying fulsome praise to Michelle and the cast.
The NLC founders were represented by actors Lucille Ferguson, playing Katie Kendrick, Cath Burton as Cath Williams and Sarah Ravencroft as Joanne Darbyshire.
The male actors – Philip Honeywell, Rowland Hill and Tim Knightly – played an assortment of loathsome figures, from craven, developer-recommended solicitors dumping their “clients” into disadvantageous leases – “they are virtually freehold” – monetising spivs among the housebuilders dreaming up leasehold income streams and hugely rich and entitled freehold owners, who buy up the freeholds and milk them.
Two male characters in the play to be sympathetically portrayed were Sebastian O’Kelly, of LKP, and Louie Burns, an enfranchisement practitioner and brilliant campaigner who held meetings for leaseholders around the country. Louie, who was also an LKP trustee, died in June 2020 aged 54, so it was moving to see him recalled to life in the play, complete with his talismanic shoulder satchel.
A scene where the housebuilders sales team cobble together permission fees to rip off their own customers – assisted in these disastrous purchases by taxpayers’ money – was brilliantly well done and the comic highpoint.
From what one hears from sources among the housebuilders, this section might as well have been documentary reportage of how leasehold incomes were racked up to impossible levels by some of their dodgier colleagues. The scamps responsible have long since been moved on.
Landlords here were depicted in broad-brushstrokes, playing on the entrenched privileges of grotesquely entitled aristocrats.
As it happens, gameplayers in the leasehold sector do include some rather posh individuals – perhaps the business model is easily comprehensible – but there are plenty of others, too.
It is a sad truth that the leasehold game in England and Wales – with its legally enforceable income streams – has attracted investors who are some of the richest people on the planet. Of course, most are carefully hidden and often based offshore, but they are the anonymous owners of assets in funds such as those run by Long Harbour, Wallace Estates and E&J Estates and similar.
Another aspect – not explored in the play – is how the British public, or at least the property owners in it, became complicit in the seemingly endless ramping up of residential property values over the past 25 years (which I was deprecating as a journalist from around 2002).
Somehow or other we turned boring old British houses into a worldwide investment asset, and the result is misery for younger generations – as well as utterly pointless, wasted investment that should be going into productive areas of the economy.
The leasehold system, as the play made clear, is a perfect means by which the already propertied become more affluent at the expense of the disempowered. Other countries look at this arrangement with astonishment, as was expressed by foreign nationals in the audience.