Bottomley and Fitzpatrick defend LKP in Commons and insist on co-operation with Leasehold Advisory Service
Commons debate, July 11 2019
By Sebastian O’Kelly
Some of the contributions to the Commons leasehold debate on July 11 of both Sir Peter Bottomley and Jim Fitzpatrick would have been lost on almost everyone in the chamber, but not the housing minister.
Heather Wheeler would have been aware of a disastrous meeting on April 25 between Wanda Goldwag, the interim chair of the Leasehold Advisory Service, and Sir Peter, myself and Martin Boyd of LKP, and Joanne Darbyshire, of the National Leasehold Campaign.
What was supposed to be an attempt to co-operate more closely – to share tribunal case information was my hope – turned into a swearing, vituperative attack on Martin, as well as more generally on LKP.
It prompted Martin to offer to resign from LKP – declined – and a written formal complaint by me to the Secretary of State and permanent secretary at MHCLG saying an apology was due.
Meeting at Portcullis House
This was supposed to be a semi-formal meeting at Portcullis House, the MPs’ offices at Westminster, to which Joanne Darbyshire had travelled from Bolton.
Wanda Goldwag ignored the agenda to which she had contributed and instead accused Martin of:
“targeting” individual members of the LEASE staff;
said that some had become so distressed that they have cried in meetings with her;
that the modestly paid staff operate in a regime of anxiety in the belief that LKP, and / or Martin might initiate test phone calls to check on the quality of the advice they give out;
and that the distress was so bad that a counselling policy has had to be introduced.
The only evidence offered for this was a series of tweets (below), none of them going beyond criticisms of LEASE that have long been published on this website.
Alone of all participants Wanda Goldwag deployed swearing, once directly at Mr Boyd: who for many years has been the unpaid, volunteer chair of our charity, while Ms Goldwag, a former BA air miles marketing executive, is a career quangocrat with public earnings (we estimate) of around £150,000 a year.
It was an ugly scene, which shocked all who attended the meeting.
Twice I had to urge Wanda Goldwag to behave with more self-discipline, and immediately after the meeting I wrote to her suggesting she reconsider her conduct.
MPs raise the incident in the Commons
It was this unfortunate bust-up that explains why Jim Fitzpatrick asked the minister:
“when the APPG’s officers might receive a response to our request for an apology to our secretariat”.
Sir Peter told the debate on July 11:
“We have to realise that until we can get LKP to be respected by the present chair of LEASE we will only get half as far as we can, because while that sore is still there the Government cannot expect to get the full benefit that LEASE should give and that LKP is trying to give.
“I make this suggestion, which is not for the Minister to answer today. Invite—and if she will not do it, instruct—the chair of LEASE to invite the chair of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership to come to the LEASE office, and meet the LEASE staff. If there are problems, they can then be resolved quietly, and we will know that we can go on co-operating. That seems the simplest way of dealing with that problem.”
I have no idea what were the motives of Wanda Goldwag to behave in the way she did.
It has been suggested by one of those present that she may have been jealous of Martin Boyd, who is well informed and widely respected among those attempting to reform the sector.
It may have been an attempt to provoke a rift between LKP and its MP supporters. In which case it was a catastrophic misjudgement of both us and Sir Peter, who has seen off operators of more consequence than Wanda Goldwag.
The best interpretation that can be said about it was that Wanda Goldwag was speaking up for the staff of the Leasehold Advisory Service who, she felt, were being wronged by LKP’s criticisms.
This would have been more persuasive if Wanda Goldwag actually knew who they were: the name of the services’s respected senior solicitor was unknown to her.
LKP argues that the Leasehold Advisory Service should be closed
LKP accepts that it has been strongly critical of the Leasehold Advisory Service – we argue that it should be closed down and its resources better deployed among different voluntary organisations.
We do not believe that a government quango should swim in these shark infested waters.
We accept that this conclusion may be demoralising for the service’s staff.
But leaving aside the organisation’s succession of dud chairs – of her predecessors, one was not reappointed and another resigned because of his track record serving the interests of freehold investors – we have never criticised the LEASE staff nor have we identified them.
Our criticisms are forcible, but they are not out of line with the conclusions of other organisations.
Former housing minister, Select Committee, London mayor’s office and National Leasehold Campaign also critical of LEASE
The Communities Select Committee reported that leaseholders found the taxpayer-funded service “appalling” and working for the commercial interests in the sector not leaseholders. These criticisms were put to the LEASE chief executive Anthony Essien: the only witness at the Select Committee who was questioned alone.
The London mayor’s office has declared the Leasehold Advisory Service “not fit for purpose”, and has published its own advice to leaseholders.
The National Leasehold Campaign has had no dealings with LEASE at all and is also strongly critical.
The vehemence of these criticisms is easy to understand.
The Leasehold Advisory Service has done precisely nothing to bring ministers’ or the wider public’s attention to the various leasehold scandals that are now occupying the efforts of government, Opposition, Parliament and the Law Commission.
Indeed, its former chair of the organisation told the BBC that this was not its job. This is in spite of the quango receiving nearly £2 million in public money.
If there are leasehold reforms, they will most definitely not be because of any effort by LEASE.
It was the then housing minister Gavin Barwell in 2017 who had to tell the Leasehold Advisory Service that it had to be solely on the side of leaseholders.
Martin Paine trained by LEASE
He did this at LEASE’s last annual conferences, a trade show packed with lawyers, freeholders and assorted trade representatives whose incomes and private school fees are ultimately paid for by leaseholders.
One figure present at this conference was the sector game-player Martin Paine, who Sir Peter described in the Commons as a “crook turning the sleaze of leases into an art form”.
It is surely unsurprising that LKP is sharply critical of a taxpayer-funded organisation helping to train such unappetising figures to shaft leaseholders?
In the July 11 debate, Sir Peter was, as ever, generous in his praise for LKP, Martin and myself – and included LKP trustee Bob Bessell, founder of retirement housebuilder Retirement Security.
Bob believes there is no place for ground rents in modern housing, as he has never included them in his leases. In contrast, Wanda Goldwag declined to urge zero ground rents in a BBC R4 You and Yours interview, the policy now of both government and opposition:
But in an unusual departure, Sir Peter also thanked Martin’s wife, Lynn.
She is livid and indignant that her husband has had his character trashed in a meeting with Wanda Goldwag.
For years she has put up with him working ludicrous hours, unpaid, for the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership in this peculiar, not entirely rational endeavour that both he and I have set in train.
He has done so out of a sense of social duty, sharing the knowledge he has acquired steering Charter Quay – a £250 million riverside mixed-use site at Kingston, Surrey – into enfranchised self-governance.
That has been invaluable to thousands of leaseholders.
LKP has saved leaseholders millions of pounds – FirstPort collusive tendering; Taylor Wimpey’s £130m; £200m for Grenfell cladding removal: would they have happened without LKP?. We have also taken up numerous individual cases of hardship, resulting in either success or at least the avoidance of disaster, forfeiture and ruin.
The division of our labours is vague, but Martin is primarily responsible for the revived interest in commonhold.
And the two Westminster meetings – the only two anyone has bothered to organise – for leaseholders caught up in the Grenfell cladding disaster were initiated by him.
The only reward for him in all this is seeing the efforts of LKP result in public and political awareness of scandals and injustices, and legislative efforts to put things right.
My complaint to the department has not been seriously considered, and indeed the senior civil servant who responded attempted a smear in the circulated correspondence by suggesting LKP should moderate its “unfair” criticism of the Leasehold Advisory Service.
Fortunately, MPs are intending to debate the quango in Parliament in the autumn. This can only be a good thing as it requires further scrutiny and then others can decide whether this is fair or not.
Wanda Goldwag, for whatever motive, acted very badly.
She knows it, and should apologise and it should not have taken since April for her to do so.