I beg to move,
That this House
notes the commitment by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in January 2023 to abolish the feudal leasehold system which he has acknowledged is an unfair form of property ownership;
calls on him to keep his promise to the millions of people living in leasehold properties by ending the sale of new private leasehold houses, introducing a workable system to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold and enacting the Law Commission’s recommendations on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage in full;
and further calls on the Secretary of State to make an oral statement to this House by
It is always nice to see the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Lee Rowley in his place, but there was a time when the Secretary of State, Michael Gove could not resist a housing debate. His appearances in this Chamber are fast becoming rarer than the sight of a Tory councillor in the north of England. I worry that he may be in danger of becoming extinct.
Nothing, as the Minister knows and we know, matters more than a home. Security in your own home, the right to make it your own and the right to live somewhere fit for human habitation are non-negotiable. Housing may be a market, but it is not just a market—it is a fundamental human right. But for so many people in our country, what they thought would be the reward of years of hard work and the realisation of their dreams of home ownership are shattered by the reality of what it means to be a leaseholder.
As my hon. Friend will know, in the north-west of England and north Wales, leasehold houses were sold for many years. People who were told at the time that they would be able to buy the freehold for perhaps a few thousand pounds, are now being asked for £20,000 or £30,000, which they cannot afford. They are finding that selling their house is becoming very difficult. Linked with that are often very high management fees. This is really affecting them and their lives. People tell me that they do not feel that they actually own their house anymore.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has been a tireless campaigner for his constituents affected by this issue, but I fear we will hear so much more of that from all parties in the House today. We have heard it for years that people’s homes have become a prison. The shocking lack of information—or in the case he cites, misinformation—just compounds the injustice that is felt by many. So many leaseholders face the daily reality of appalling charges and uncertainty. This issue affects millions of people up and down the country. There are nearly 5 million leasehold homes in England: the majority of flats in the private sector and 8% of all houses in England.
My constituent has been charged £80,000, on top of really expensive mortgage payments which have gone up since last autumn’s disastrous budget. She is in tears and her mental health has collapsed. She is saying, “MP, what should I do?”
The reality is that for so many of us—including myself as a constituency MP—there are few options available to people who find themselves in this situation. My own constituency had the 17th highest number of transactions for leasehold houses in the country last year. We are not just failing to solve the problem for people trapped in the situation; we are compounding it and making it worse, because more people are being sucked into this exploitative system.
As well as concerns for leaseholders, many people who own their homes have problems with management companies, which claim they are charging money for the upkeep of communal areas but increase the charges time after time. No one is regulating those companies; they are accountable to no one. Even as Members of Parliament it is difficult to hold them to account for their bad practice. Does my hon. Friend agree that the use of those appalling companies could be the next big housing scandal?
It is already a scandal happening in plain sight. For that reason, I hope that we will hear from the Minister when he responds that the Government will commit to implementing the Lord Best working group recommendations as quickly as possible.
This is a huge problem, but it is almost uniquely ours. Virtually every country in the world apart from England and Wales has either reformed or ended this archaic feudal model. We stand as an outlier. The good news is that we know the answer. It has been clear since we received the Law Commission proposals in 2020 that we need new legislation to end the sale of new private leasehold houses, effective immediately after Royal Assent is given. We need new legislation to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold. Lots of promises have been made to that effect, but there has been little in the way of action.
I recently became aware of a situation in my constituency of a freeholder trying to do a lucrative deal to use the block to accommodate people seeking asylum. It tried to evict leaseholders under the pretence of a fire safety eviction plan. The residents rightly say that their sense of security has been fundamentally shaken. What does my hon. Friend think this Government should do to ensure that my constituents and millions of others are not denied the security of their tenures?
I agree; if we could just do what we have been promising for a long time, the reality for my hon. Friend’s constituents would be transformed from one of insecurity and anxiety to one of security and the foundation of a decent life. They are lucky to have her as their Member of Parliament to fight on their behalf.
It was in 2002 that the Labour Government introduced commonhold. There were voices even then—some of them in the Chamber today—who urged us to go further and end the injustice altogether. In the decades since, there has been growing recognition on all sides of the House that action is long overdue. In 2017, the Government said that they would legislate to prohibit the creation of new residential long leases on houses, whether newly built or existing freehold houses, other than in exceptional circumstances. That commitment was repeated in the 2019 manifesto and by the former Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, yet leaseholders were left waiting.
We have had a further commitment from the Government along similar lines. In response to a Select Committee report in 2019, the Government said:
“The Government agrees with the Committee that, other than in exceptional circumstances, there is no good reason for houses to be sold on a leasehold basis.”
Four years later, thousands more properties have been sold on an unacceptable basis, and the tenants, effectively, of those properties who have been left to pay exceptional costs are not able to get out of the lease without very high charges.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that his Committee has done on this issue over a long period of time. As he said, there is no reason that this should continue except for a lack of political will to do what we have all acknowledged is the right thing.
Into this absurd scenario steps the current Secretary of State. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has the right intentions—indeed, his record has been clear. On
“it is absolutely right that we end the absurd, feudal system of leasehold, which restricts people’s rights in a way that is indefensible in the 21st century.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 715, c. 978.]
“Finally, the hon. Lady asked if we will maintain our commitment to abolish the feudal system of leasehold. We absolutely will. We will bring forward legislation shortly.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 727, c. 49.]
Now, we are told that the Secretary of State was being too maximalist. We have had grumbling from Government Back Benchers that the Secretary of State is being too socialist. Downing Street has stepped in, plans are being rowed back and he is not even able to set foot in the Chamber today. It is a bit of a mess, isn’t it?
In just a few months, the Government’s whole housing policy has completely unravelled. As my hon. Friend Catherine West said, they crashed the economy and sent mortgages through the roof. They caved in to their own Back Benchers and, in one stroke, ensured that their own housing targets were not worth the paper they were written on. That led to dozens of councils reducing or halting altogether their house building plans, and a collapse in the projected number of houses built in coming years, in the middle of a housing crisis. The Home Builders Federation warned earlier this year that new housing supply in England would soon fall to its lowest level since the second world war.
While the Government are locked in internal battles on making basic improvements for renters, their Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill—their flagship legislation that was supposed to reform an archaic planning system—is stuck in the House of Lords, where it is commonly referred to as the Christmas tree Bill, as it has so many amendments attached to it. It does make us wonder what is actually the point of this Government.
The Secretary of State was clear that he would abolish leasehold. No one thought that it would be done overnight. The Law Commission report sets out a clear road map on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage. The major leasehold groups have always recognised that it would take some time to phase out this archaic system, and so have we, but there is no excuse for inaction on the manifesto commitment to end the sale of new private leasehold houses, or for delaying the start of the process of phasing out existing leasehold and making commonhold the default of the future, as my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook has often said.
My hon. Friend is setting out a compelling case for why leasehold needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. It is not just the feudal system that needs to go but the sharp practices that go along with it. I have constituents who live in their own home. They do not own the land it is built on—they rent it—but they are not able to make even the most basic alterations to their house without getting the permission of the landowner, who then charges extortionate fees. That is just wrong, isn’t it?
My hon. Friend is right. People who have bought their own home should have the right to change their doorbells and make basic alterations without seeking the permission of someone they have never met and will never meet. In many cases, they do not even know who that is. I pay tribute to him for his campaigning on this issue and for standing up for his constituents.
I ask Ministers to take this issue back to the Secretary of State when they next see him. He will know that the delay is a significant setback for leaseholders, who have been left waiting for far too long, and for all of those who have campaigned so hard and for so long and thought they could finally see the light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. Let me place on record our thanks to Katie Kendrick at the National Leasehold Campaign and Commonhold Now for all they continue to do. Tireless advocates in this place include my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), and the father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley.
I hope that the Minister will be keen to talk about legislation that we are told will be forthcoming in the autumn. The Labour party strongly believes that it is a no-brainer to crack down on unfair fees and contract terms, to require transparency on service charges and to give leaseholders the right to challenge rip-off fees and conditions or poor performance, along the lines we have heard about from many Members present.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. I have met many people, particularly first-time buyers, who purchased a leasehold property and were offered a discount by the developer selling the house for using its lawyer for the transaction. Surprise, surprise—the fact that it was leasehold and the pitfalls were never pointed out to them. That seems to be a common practice.
That story illustrates so well that that form of tenure—that feudal, archaic system—has become home for sharp practice all over the place. We have heard that from hon. Members over and over on both sides of the House, and it is about time we stopped it. We can take important steps forward on ground rent and extending leases that will make life easier for many, but after all that has been promised, leaseholders have the right to expect their Government to go further. Will the Minister give us a cast iron guarantee that the Bill they have promised will bring to an end the sale of new private leasehold houses at the point the Bill comes into force, ensure those provisions are applied retrospectively to December 2017, a promise that has been made repeatedly by this Government, and bring in a workable system to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold?
Back in May 2021, the Government launched the Commonhold Council, an advisory panel of leasehold groups and industry experts to inform the Government on the future of this type of home ownership. Can the Minister update the House on when the Commonhold Council last met and what its recommendations are for bringing in a commonhold system? As he will know, commonhold has been in force since 2004 but has failed to take off for two main reasons: first, conversion from leasehold to commonhold requires unanimity from everyone with an interest in the block, which has proved difficult to achieve, and, secondly, developers have not been persuaded to build new commonhold developments.
Members on both sides of the House are acutely aware of how complex an issue this is to get right, but complexity is not an excuse for inaction. Credit must be given to the three Law Commission reports that represent a detailed, thoughtful road map, which Labour has committed to implement in full. It is only by implementing those proposals in full that the commonhold system will sufficiently improve, so that leaseholders can easily convert to commonhold, gain greater control over their properties and have a greater say in how the costs of running their commonholds are met.
The proposals would go further still to support those on low incomes and those who have found themselves trapped in leasehold by improving mortgage lenders’ confidence in commonhold to increase the choice of financing available for homebuyers. They would allow shared ownership leases to be included within commonhold and enable commonhold to be used for larger, mixed-use developments that accommodate not only residential properties, but shops, restaurants and leisure facilities.
We have debated these issues in this Chamber so many times since the appalling tragedy at Grenfell, when a group of people were rendered invisible to decision makers only a few miles away, with the most appalling and tragic consequences. Clearly, the burdens that homeowners have long laboured under, because of the disfunction of the property agent market and the inherent flaws of the leasehold system, have become more acute over recent years as a result of the building safety crisis and surging inflation.
That combination has already pushed many hard-pressed leaseholders to the brink of financial ruin. How can we accept that these rip-off companies, on behalf of owners we often do not even know—we do not have the right to find out who they are—are allowed to tell people whether they can even change the doorbell on their own home, as my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne said, or make minor changes that would make all the difference to their lives? Who can doubt that a person’s home is, in most cases, the biggest investment they will make? So it is simply unacceptable for so many homes to be built on an exploitative and unjust business model.
Levelling up, which is included in the name of the Department, was supposed to answer a clamour for more control and agency, and give people who have a stake in the outcome and skin in the game a greater ability to make decisions about their own lives. As I have said in this place before, that is the legacy that we should seek to build, and we should do so in tribute to the tireless campaigners and in honour of those who lost their lives in Grenfell. We must build a fairer, more just system that is fit for the 21st century.
Everybody, everywhere in the United Kingdom, regardless of the type of tenure that they happen to hold, has the right to a decent, secure, safe home—full stop. We could end these arcane rules and give power back to people over their own homes, lives and communities. Politics is about choices and Labour is clear—we choose to bring this injustice to an end. Change is coming and the Government now have to decide: will they enable that change, or seek to block it? Whose side are they on?
A fair housing market that works for everyone is at the heart of this Government’s central mission to level up opportunity, prosperity and pride throughout the United Kingdom.
At the end of her speech, Lisa Nandy said that “politics is about choices.” She is absolutely right. That is why this Government are committed to ensuring safe, decent and secure homes are available to everybody, regardless of tenure, whether through a better deal for tenants in the social and private rented sectors, or through our unashamed support for home ownership, because of the security and freedom it affords to people to make their homes truly their own and to shape their futures.
This Government believe in the moral aim of people owning their own homes and in allowing them to build up capital for themselves, their families and their future. That security and freedom should allow people to make decisions about their own home, including over changes, repairs and improvements that are made or costs that are paid. In reality, the time-limited nature of residential leasehold and the sharing of control with the landlord means a significant imbalance in power. Someone who may not live in the same building or share the same priorities or motivations, as the hon. Member for Wigan outlined, may make decisions affecting someone’s home and everyday life.
What does the Minister say to leaseholders living in a cost of living crisis, with an increase in service charge that is through the roof, yet, for example, they live in a six-storey building with only one lift that is approaching its eighth week out of service? All hon. Members will have heard similar stories. There is no redress, and the Government are not taking responsibility or pushing the owners to do anything. Does the Minister agree that the situation is now out of control?
I do not know the detail about the particular situation that the hon. Lady outlined, but I would encourage the leaseholders to use all available avenues. There is redress, although I accept it works in some instances and not in others, but I would say to those residents: change is coming.
We have said that too often leaseholders are being charged exploitative and multiplying ground rents, in exchange for no, few or inadequate services; high charges are being levied in order to respond to simple requests; unaffordable costs to buy out the freeholder or extend the leasehold are being applied; upgrades, such as electrical charging points, to blocks are frustrated by rigid leases; or, as Catherine West indicated, urgent repairs to buildings are being neglected. That does not meet the definition of home ownership by anyone, in this Chamber or beyond.
I will give way in a moment, but will make a bit of progress first. There is broad agreement across the House, and beyond, that the situation needs to change to make home ownership fairer, easier and cheaper. That is why the Government have already taken significant steps to better protect leaseholders from unreasonable costs, and why we are committed to going further and bringing forward further leasehold reforms to strengthen transparency and accountability.
I am pleased that the Government have good intentions, but the Select Committee’s 2019 report had 52 recommendations. The Government accepted many of them completely and said they wanted to move towards accepting others and work out how that could be done. Since 2019, which was before the last general election, what have the Government actually done? Would the Minister confirm that all they have done in practice is to bring in measures to ensure that peppercorn ground rents are charged on new leasehold houses? That is the only thing they have done, out of all the recommendations they agreed to accept four years ago.
I am grateful to my neighbour, Mr Betts. He pre-empts a part of my speech that I will come to in a moment.
The hon. Member for Wigan indicated that we have debated the subject many times in this Chamber. That is true and there will be lots of opportunities to do that again, because we have committed to make it easier and cheaper for leaseholders to extend their lease or to buy their freehold. We will bring forward legislation to ban new residential long leases on houses. While there are still issues, I am pleased to see that the market has already responded, with only 1.4% of houses in England now being built as leasehold, compared with nearly 15% previously.
The Minister will have heard my intervention earlier. I accept he is talking about leasehold reform, but will he elaborate on management companies, where people own their properties but are charged a management fee for communal areas? Such fees can be increased every year, there are no rules about the extent they can reach, and there is no oversight or regulation of them. Are there any plans for the Government to look at the regulation of such management companies, as some of them—not all—are exploiting people?
The hon. Lady makes a strong point and I will come to that in a moment. We have shared concerns about specifics, which we have all experienced as constituency MPs—Coppen Estates in North East Derbyshire, I am looking at you—and about the general principle and the broader point, which I will come to in a moment.
We have already taken action. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East has highlighted that we have ended ground rents for most new residential leases. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 came into force last June and prevents landlords under new residential long leases from requiring a leaseholder to pay a financial ground rent. That will ensure that people buying most new leases will not face problems associated with ground rents. However, we remain concerned about the cost of ground rents and, in 2019, we asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate abuses in the leasehold sector. Since then, the CMA has secured commitments benefiting over 20,000 leaseholders, including commitments to remove a doubling of ground rent terms and to revert charges to original rates.
We know that there is more to do to tackle unfair practices, however. We know that many leaseholders find the process for extending their lease or buying their freehold prohibitively expensive or complex or lacking transparency. Equally, we understand that many right-to-manage applications fail on technicalities that may be attributed to an over-detailed procedure, and we are committed to improving this by making the process simpler, quicker, more flexible and more effective. That is why, as the hon. Member for Wigan said, we asked the Law Commission to look at the issue, and we are carefully considering the reports that it has since produced on enfranchisement, valuation and the right to manage.
As I mentioned earlier, when many of these leasehold houses were sold, the purchasers were promised that they could purchase the freehold, only to find that that was not an option, the freehold was sold on immediately and freeholds were packaged up; they are financial products. I have spoken to people who get a letter every couple of months informing them that the freehold has been sold on to somebody else. This is their life, this is their property, but they feel that they do not own it because it is being bought and sold on a regular basis.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the importance of reform. This is one of the reasons that we have committed to reform and I hope that we will be able to provide that in the months ahead in the remainder of this Parliament.
We are committed to tackling problems such as these at the root, so we will abolish issues such as marriage value and we will cap ground rents in enfranchisement calculations so that leaseholders who currently pay onerous ground rents do not also have to pay an onerous premium. To make this process simpler and more transparent, we will introduce an online calculator to help leaseholders to understand what they will pay to extend their lease or to buy it out. These changes should, and will, generate substantial savings for some leaseholders, particularly those with fewer than 80 years left on their lease, and also ensure that landlords are sufficiently compensated in line with their interest. These changes are therefore fair for all concerned.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of time and respect, but it seems to me that he is talking about tinkering at the edges and improving a fundamentally unfair system. I would gently remind him of an exchange I had with the Secretary of State on
“We hope, in the forthcoming King’s Speech, to introduce legislation to fundamentally reform the system. Leaseholders, not just in this case but in so many other cases, are held to ransom by freeholders. We need to end this feudal form of tenure and ensure individuals have the right to enjoy their own property fully.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 728, c. 3.]
Do I detect a basic shift away from this position? I earnestly hope not.
My right hon. Friend highlights the importance of reform in this area and the cross-party nature of the support for it. I would not read anything into my comments other than that we are committing to reform, we have said we will bring it forward and we will bring it forward. It will happen in the remainder of this Parliament.
Part of that reform will involve reforming unreasonable and excessive service charges. Many landlords and managing agents already demonstrate good practice and provide significant and relevant information to leaseholders, but too many are failing to meet that standard and failing to provide sufficient information or sufficient clarity. We recognise that existing statutory requirements do not go far enough to enable leaseholders to identify and challenge unfair costs. We will therefore act to improve this through better communication around these charges, and a clearer route to challenge or seek redress if things go wrong. That will ensure that leaseholders better understand what they are paying for and can more effectively challenge their landlord if fees are unreasonable, and make it harder for landlords to hide unreasonable or unfair charges.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for asking this question in this debate, but I wonder whether he might include in the legislation reforms relating to park homes. Many of the issues that he has mentioned are also faced by park homes across the country, including unfair prices and utility prices at very high levels, all of which are totally unacceptable. It is like the wild west for those people.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have hundreds of park homes in my constituency, and I know how important it has been for residents to see progress on those issues over the past decade. I was pleased, as I know my hon. Friend will have been, to see the changes brought forward in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope to reform pitch fees from RPI to CPI. That has been welcomed across the park homes sector and I know that the Government will continue to look at what reforms are possible for the sector.
Returning to the specific questions that have been put forward, we are committed to ensuring that when leaseholders challenge their landlord, they are not subject to unjustified legal costs and that they can claim their own legal costs from their landlord. Currently, if permitted by the lease, leaseholders may be liable to pay the legal costs of their landlord regardless of the outcome of the dispute, even if they win their case. The circumstances in which a leaseholder can claim their own legal costs from the landlord are limited. This can lead to leaseholders facing bills that are higher than the charges being challenged in the first place, which can deter leaseholders from taking their concerns to a tribunal. We will act on this and ensure that leaseholders are genuinely free to seek justice and to benefit when their case is proved.
Crucially, we also want to see more leaseholders benefiting from freehold ownership, as set out in the levelling up White Paper, and we recognise that reinvigorating commonhold has a significant part to play in this as a genuine alternative to leaseholds for flats. Some of the failings of the existing leasehold system have been all too evident in the past when seeking to ensure that those responsible for constructing dangerous buildings should be the first to pay for putting them right.
The Building Safety Act 2022, in addition to the existing enforcement powers available through the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the Housing Act 2004, empowers leaseholders and regulators to compel building owners and landlords to fix—and to pay to fix—their unsafe buildings through remediation orders and remediation contribution orders. The effect of the Building Safety Act is intended to be that building owners and landlords who build defective buildings, or who are associated with those responsible, pay for the remedying of all historical safety defects, both cladding and non-cladding. Landlords who are not associated with developers but can afford to pay are also unable to pass such costs on to qualifying leaseholders.
Similarly, on insurance costs, the Financial Conduct Authority’s latest report into broker insurance revealed that, on average, the premiums paid by leaseholders living in buildings with combustible cladding had tripled. That is unacceptable. Commissions on insurance policies also drive up prices, and in 70% of cases commissions are shared with property managing agents and freeholders by insurance brokers. This is an unfair burden that leaseholders should be relieved of, which is why we have committed to replacing commission pass-throughs from insurance brokers to managing agents, landlords or freeholders with more transparent fees and fair insurance handling costs. We have been clear that this unreasonable practice must end as a matter of urgency, and I regularly meet the relevant trade associations to make progress on this matter.
We have also made progress with a number of banks in recent months on ensuring that the market in leasehold properties affected by cladding starts to become more voluminous, by separating the building safety issues from people’s ability to live their lives.
Whether we are talking about safety or the security and freedom that people rightly expect when they buy a home, this Government are on the side of leaseholders. We are protecting and empowering them to challenge unreasonable charges, making it easier and cheaper for them to extend their lease or buy their freehold, and boosting commonhold as a flexible alternative to take the housing market into the 21st century. Millions will benefit from these reforms, not just in the thousands of pounds saved but in knowing that the homes they have worked so hard to secure are truly their own.
Eighteen Members are trying to catch my eye, so please keep to seven minutes or so. I want to start the wind-ups no later than 4.10 pm, with 10 minutes each for the Front Benchers.
The Minister has spoken of a lot of support and commitment to doing something at some stage in the future. Why is it taking so long? The Select Committee was pleased with the Government’s response to our 2019 report. We do not always get a positive response to our reports from the Government, so we welcomed their commitment to doing so many things, without caveat, including their commitment to consider further reforms in due course.
I give credit to the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform. The Father of the House—Sir Peter Bottomley—and my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) have done a lot of work to build on that over the years, as has the Select Committee.
Why is leasehold reform taking so long? Yes, it is complicated to legislate on this issue, but in the meantime it is extremely complicated for leaseholders who face so many obstacles, particularly in buying the freehold of their property. Not only is it complicated; it is also expensive. Look at what could have been done. We could have banned leasehold for new houses. That legislation would not have been complicated, and the Government committed to doing it in response to the Select Committee’s report. Four years later, why are we still waiting?
The Select Committee also got Government agreement on further restrictions on ground rents for new properties, which was done, but why do we not have simple legislation on service charges, onerous permission rights and other conditions? The Law Commission, the APPG, the Select Committee and others have done enough work to inform the Government on how to go about this. Why has there been no progress on any of these issues?
Enfranchisement is a frustration for so many leaseholders who are trying to buy their property. The Minister mentioned Coppen Estates, which is in my constituency too. I cannot get a response from the company on behalf of my constituents until I write at least two recorded-delivery letters to a post box in a grotty property somewhere—that is how it operates. Coppen Estates does not respond, because it keeps receiving the ground rents in the meantime. Why have such companies not been legislated against so that people can buy their freehold without having to wait months, or in some cases years? I am currently dealing with dozens of constituents on the Flockton estate, none of whom has had any response from their freeholder. This is simply unacceptable, and it could have been dealt with.
Concerns have been raised with the Select Committee about the European convention on human rights and the right to private property. Very experienced counsel came before the Committee to explain how this could be done in the public interest. I do not believe the complications are so difficult that the Government cannot fix them. Why have they not legislated to give the leaseholders of houses the same right of first refusal as leaseholders of flats? That would be simple legislation. Four years later, why has it not happened? Numerous leaseholders have come to me to say they did not know that their freehold had been sold to another company—it was sold without their knowledge. Why does that happen? Legislation on a right of first refusal could have been introduced very easily.
I accept that flats are more complicated, and that the agreement of current leaseholders would be needed if we wanted to move towards a commonhold system, but the process should be simplified. The process, and commonhold itself, should be made easier. The Government have accepted the need to do that, but they have made no progress at all on commonhold in the past four years. Some cases, such as retirement properties and mixed-use properties, may be more challenging, but commonhold should be the default tenure for new properties. Why have the Government not legislated on that?
In response to our report, the Government accepted that service charges for flats should be regularised. Why do we not have legislation in place on the right to challenge onerous permission rights and other charges? We suggested the idea of a housing court, and the Government suggested bringing in a new homes ombudsman, which they are doing. A housing court could have enabled leaseholders to simply challenge any unfair practices. The current arrangements are far too complicated and expensive for people to undertake themselves.
The Select Committee also suggested a housing court for the Government’s private rented sector reforms, but the Government are loth to do this. There are an awful lot of housing problems that need to be addressed by a specialist and simplified procedure, which has not been introduced either. Such a procedure would mean easy redress where things are still going wrong.
I am disappointed. The argument is not about whether we abolish leasehold, although it will be some time before leasehold disappears completely, if it ever does. What the Government could have done in the four years since the last general election, rather than waiting until after the next general election, is take steps to make sure that leasehold is completely abolished for new homes, to protect current leaseholders from unfair service charges and permission rights, and to give leaseholders the right to enfranchise themselves through a simple and reasonably cheap process. Why have the Government simply failed to do any of these things over the past four years?
I am glad that the official Opposition have raised this issue, but if they force this to a non-binding vote, it will show the party politics. That is no criticism of a political party.
The key issue is how soon life can be made better for those who deserve a better life in their own home, and how soon those who are screwing them can be unscrewed.
S. J. McCarthy and others secured an extension for ground rents on retirement homes. I have written to him at Ringwood in Hampshire, asking how many properties the company has sold since
The days when leasehold charges were low and landlords were decent people went years ago. Governments of all parties should have noticed and acted earlier when house builders in the north-west were building a third of their properties as leasehold.
Those who know the chronology will know that, 12 years ago, a Housing Minister asked people to provide evidence of malpractice and unfairness in the leasehold sector, which apparently was not known to people in Government. It is now 21 years since Parliament and Government thought they had made commonhold viable. The Government did not notice it was not viable because commonhold came under what became the Ministry of Justice, which had no resources. When we told the Government, “Put commonhold and leasehold together under the Department with responsibility for housing”—now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—the Department said, “Only if you transfer the resources so we can look after it.” There were no resources, so for three or four years the Government did not do it. That is the sort of thing we would expect “Yes Minister” to come back and have a look at.
So where are we now? If we look at the sales of properties in many London constituencies, we find that 80% to 90% are of leasehold properties. Some constituencies have their figure down at less than 10%, whereas mine is at about 30%.
It is well known, although I will say it again, that I own a leasehold flat in my constituency, where I have never had a problem. We had a decent managing agent and a decent landlord. When the landlord wanted to retire, he offered the freehold to the leaseholders and we bought it. I have also since bought a leasehold property in London, where probably half the flats are owned by people overseas. How on earth, under existing regulations, will there ever be a majority for, let alone unanimity on, making a change to the management or ownership arrangements in that situation? I put it to the Minister that the Government ought to say that anybody not resident in this country does not have a vote on enfranchisement, on taking over control or on an extension. They should be assumed to agree with those who are resident and have an interest while living there or being a small landlord.
The Opposition spokesman, Lisa Nandy, referred to Commonhold Now as the first group in her list, perhaps because it is the most recent. One of the people mentioned as being in Commonhold Now claims the credit for the “People’s Pledge” campaign, set up in 2011, for a vote on whether we remained in European Union. The organisation folded in 2016 when we had the referendum—well, they did well, didn’t they?
We ought to say to Commonhold Now, “Try to work with the people who have been campaigning for a long time on this, and do not start looking as though the new people on the block are going to be the experts.” Oddly, it has not approached me during its months of existence, and when it put out a press notice the BBC took it as though it was gospel and the Secretary of State had promised to abolish all existing leaseholds in double-quick time. He had not, and no one believed that he had.
If the BBC had had a housing editor for the past 15 or 20 years, we would be further forward and it would not have misled its viewers and listeners with the idea that anyone had suggested it would be possible to transform all leasehold agreements into commonhold ones quickly. However, it needs doing.
One issue that has not been raised yet arises in my constituency. I am grateful to my constituent Francine Stephenson for contacting me to ask whether
“there are any Government Grants or similar for having Solar Panels fitted on our property. We live in a block of flats and are planning to have a new roof fitted next year (money permitting) and wonder if it would be profitable to have Solar Panels fitted at the same time. Due to the expense….we wonder if the Government has or may have any suitable schemes to assist us?”
We know that most leasehold properties are in blocks of flats and that roofs need changing every 25 to 50 years. Why are we not getting on now with a way of making it possible for those involved, with or without unanimity, to have solar panels put on new roofs when they are brought up to a given thermal efficiency?
What are we going to do about decarbonising the heating smaller blocks? The larger ones do not have gas, but the smaller ones may, so what are we going to do about getting that changed so we have a thermally efficient building with a carbon-free system of heating? Had I been writing today’s motion, those are the sorts of issues I would have been adding in, rather than making it appear a bit more about party politics than about real concern for leaseholders.
I do know that people in the Opposition are deeply concerned about this issue, and I pay tribute to Jim Fitzpatrick, the former Member for Poplar and Limehouse, for his remarkable work. I also pay tribute to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, for previously co-chairing the all-party group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and Justin Madders for all that he is doing.
The key point is that if we had been listening to those who first started campaigning for justice, we would be further ahead—I think there is all-party agreement on that. When Sebastian O’Kelly, the former property editor of the Daily Mail, and Martin Boyd, who had experience at Charter Quay in Richmond, Surrey, took up these issues, they thought it might be possible to achieve results fast—that did not happen. When Gavin Barwell, now Lord Barwell, became the Housing Minister, he said that the Government’s Leasehold Advisory Service would be unequivocally on the side of leaseholders. As far as I know, that organisation never once advised Ministers or their officials of the scandals that people rang it up about every day. That was the failure of the succession of chairs of that organisation—the chief executive could have done better as well.
I have found that there are a number of crooks in this business, one of whom is Martin Paine—he adds an “e” to the hurt he does. He would take leases that were about to run out and give informal extensions, not resetting the ground rent to zero, but saying that he was doubling ground rent from the time the lease was first given out. Nothing much has happened about this.
Without going through a list of all the other scandals, I ask the Minister: why not have a way of funding some test cases so that the courts can rule that this kind of crookery and thievery ends? We have done it with human rights and with the Equal Opportunities Commission in the past. A few test cases, with substantial resources behind them, would overturn many of these practices. Some of them are criminal and some are just civil, but all need challenging on behalf of the small person.
Let us look at the post-Grenfell consequences on fire safety. Our Fire Safety Act 2021 and Building Safety Act 2022 are imperfect. They have excluded too many small landlords unnecessarily and too many low buildings unnecessarily. That should be reviewed and changed.
So should the scandalous statutory instrument 2020 No. 632, the Town and Country Planning (Permitted Development and Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. It relates to permitted development rights and building up. Under emergency covid regulations, freeholders have the right in certain properties to stick one or two more floors on top of the building so that those who thought that they had the top-floor flat will find it is a building site for five years. The person who owns the building and tries to use those rights does not even have to inform the leaseholders that they are going to do so. Apparently, local councils have little power to block them.
I declare an interest, as both a leaseholder and the owner of one buy-to-let flat. I have the direct experience of having had a top-floor flat and having had another floor and a roof garden built above it. After all the faults came about, many of which still persist, guess who had to pay, in one case more than £200,000, for remedying them? It was the leaseholders, not the freeholder.
The point is well made. I am sorry to go on for slightly longer than I ought, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I have been fighting on this subject for a long time and there are rare opportunities to get some of these things on the record.
The Minister has rightly talked about the commissions and loadings on insurance and the Competition and Markets Authority has looked at some of the insurance rates. The fact is that post Grenfell, the number of fires has gone down dramatically and it will go on reducing. It is not the high-rise properties that had most fires in any case, but the lower-level ones. We need to make sure that we watch all these issues and that the Government have people whose voices they listen to giving them advice on where action is needed.
We have to look at the Law Commission proposals. I hope that the Government will say in the King’s Speech say that they will get those through. When we were waiting for the King to come to Westminster Hall on the Tuesday before the coronation, I happened to be standing with the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. I said to the Prime Minister, “We need this legislation. It is going to be complicated in drafting but simple in politics.” I said in front of the Leader of the Opposition, “If you bring forward a Bill, it will not take a long time in this House. There will be detailed discussion but it won’t take a long time. No one will try to filibuster. It will have all-party support and we can get it through and change the lives of millions and millions of people.”
Only eight years ago, the Government thought the number of leasehold properties was about 2.5 million, but we now know it is about 6 million. We know that this is the fastest-growing element of the housing market.
The hon. Gentleman is an authority on this subject. Is he saying that the reason there is no urgency on this is that the developers are making colossal profits out of it, and that there is a true correlation between their excessive profits and the expansion in leasehold?
To a certain extent, I agree with that, but perhaps we can take it up another time or the hon. Gentleman could make his own speech later on if he so chooses.
I was going to make a point about retirement homes and end-of-life homes. We ought to have three times as many as we do. We need to attract people into decent homes, which are probably smaller and more thermally efficient, rather than them living in a cold, draughty place with many rooms that are not needed. I have an uncle who told me that his home in Taunton is so thermally efficient that he has not had to turn the heating on once in the four years that he has lived there.
If we can attract people into those homes with confidence, that will free up many more homes that will go to younger families, who will do up those homes with carbon-free heating, better insulation and all the kinds of things that we went through when we were young in the life cycle of housing, so we will all gain. That will not happen until we have housing providers who can be trusted. Again, I say to Mr McCarthy at Churchill, “I wish I could trust you. Why don’t you engage with us and show us that our doubts can be answered and that if your practices are unworthy you will have better ones?”
We had the same thing in the past with McCarthy and Stone—the McCarthys were obviously involved in that as well. Some of the managing agents there—this was when the Tchenguiz interests were involved—were involved in the scandal over call systems. They ran a cartel that saw leaseholders either unnecessarily paying out millions and millions of pounds to replace a system, or being overcharged. When the police came to investigate them, they declared themselves as having a cartel, which meant that they got let off completely free. That should not have happened. The first time that we lay complaints against these people, there should be action. The police need to be involved in these things as well.
I hope to have another opportunity in this Parliament to raise more of these issues. The key point is, why cannot we have action now on the scandals? Why cannot we frighten people?
On the overall costs of the defects in fire safety—not just cladding, but many others—why do the Government not get in the insurance companies, which covered the liabilities of the developers, the architects, the builders, the sub-contractors and everybody else, and say, “We want to have a few billion pounds from you as well, so that nobody is left in a home that is either unsafe or unsellable”?
We want people to have the confidence to live in their homes. I look forward to seeing what the Government do, and I am grateful to the Opposition for raising the motion, although I shall look down on them with less respect if they force it to a vote.
For most people, buying a house is the single largest investment that they make in their lives. Not only does it provide a home for them and their family, but it is also probably the biggest financial commitment that they have to meet each month. Anyone who has bought a new home knows how stressful and bewildering the process can be, particularly for first-time buyers. The mixture of stress and excitement of owning a new home means that many rely on advice from an array of advisors, including estate agents, lawyers, high-pressure salesmen and developers.
Often, when people are buying a house, they do not look at the issue of freehold and leasehold. They think that leasehold is cheaper, so they think that they will put that all off until the day they can afford to buy the lease. Many are not aware of the feudal nature of the property system in this country. Not only is the system outdated and unfair, but it has been made worse in recent years by the pure greed—it is greed, frankly—of certain house builders and property developers. The number of houses sold as leasehold has more than doubled between 1995 and 2015. The Minister mentioned that the figure has recently gone down. I wonder whether that is because of the scandal to which the Father of the House has just referred.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making a number of very good points. In the light of what he has just said, does he agree that it is essential that anyone taking on an estate in land, whether it be a leasehold or freehold, receives the best possible legal advice before they sign on the dotted line, so that they know precisely what commitments they are taking on? Are not some of these problems related to the fact that that advice is not particularly good?
I will cover that in more detail later, but it was a point that was raised by my right hon. Friend Mark Tami. The right hon. Gentleman is right: the one thing that needs outlawing is a developer or an estate agent being able to refer a person to a solicitor who is supposed to be “acting in their best interests”. That should not happen. The legal advice should be completely independent. There is an unhealthy relationship between those people. It is okay saying that we should blame the individual buying the property, but they are often first-time buyers who do not understand the process.
The issue of flats has already been raised. I accept that we deal with flats in a particular way, but there is a perfectly simple system that is not leasehold. What we have seen over the past few years is houses being sold under leasehold arrangements. That is because certain developers have seen it as a way of maximising their profits. They do it in two ways. The first is by passing the charges on to the owners, when traditionally they should have been paid by the developer—I will come on to examples of that in my own constituency in a minute. The second, which was referred to earlier, is the monetarisation of the actual leases, which are not only being sold to individual companies, but, in some case, being put into baskets of leases. It can be bewildering for a person to find out who owns their lease from year to year.
The other scandal, which was raised by my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, is around minor alterations. We are not talking about the wholesale redevelopment of a property, but, perhaps, a porch being moved or even a Sky dish being added, which have to be charged. It is no wonder that investors have got on to this. They know that the way that these leases have been constructed can mean a profitable business for them. They are not buying out of altruism; they are buying because they know that they can make money, and the people who are suffering are those who bought the leases.
I have already mentioned the issue of legal advice. Clearly, it is an issue that needs to be looked at. In many cases, if a person goes to some major housing developers, they will be told, “These are our recommended solicitors.” I am sorry, but that should be outlawed. The solicitor should be there to represent the buyer’s best interests. As Sir Greg Knight has just said, the solicitor should be there saying, “No, don’t sign that, because it is not in your best interests.”
I know that Members will cite many examples in this debate, but I wish to raise just three in my own constituency. Members will not be surprised to hear that they involve a notorious company, Persimmon Homes, which is terrible at dealing with customers. It has made more than £1 billion of profit every year for the past five years, mainly funded by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme. The Government have done nothing to stop Persimmon’s sharp practices. Between 2012 and 2020, Persimmon built Roseberry Park in my constituency. Traditionally, when an estate is finished, the verges and common areas are passed over to the council, once they have been brought up to adoptable standards. But, lo and behold, on this site, they have not. Those areas are part of the lease, which means that the leaseholders have to take responsibility for the maintenance charges, which then go up and up. If buyers are asked whether they knew about this, they say, no, they did not, which gets back to the point about legal advice made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire—should they have signed this when they are taking on open-ended commitments. The site was finished in 2020, but the roads have still not been brought up to adoptable standards. It is anything to save money for Persimmon.
The other case involves Urpeth Grange. It is a small development site of 47 houses on a larger estate. Developers refused to pay the 15 years’ maintenance on an area of land and a play area and have passed it on to a management company, which is then owned by the leaseholders. Part of the planning permission was to have a play area. Well, if it is a play area, it should have been brought up to standard and passed on to the local authority, but, no, that did not happen. Even though everyone can use this play area, it is still the responsibility of the leaseholders. These sharp practices by Persimmon have been used to make more profit, and they are funded by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority investigated the practices of Persimmon Homes and reached a settlement with the company. However, it seems to me, and I think he is saying the same, that there are still so many issues that are outstanding with house builders such as Persimmon Homes that either the CMA should go back in there and address those issues, or we should have some form of housing court where we can get those issues resolved, so that individual homeowners are not footing the bill in areas where they should not be.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I agreed with the Select Committee’s recommendations on those homes.
Murray Park is another development, built in 2011 by Bowey Homes, which went into administration. In 2015, the freeholds were sold to a company called Adriatic Land 3 Ltd, which started charging ground rent. It came to light later that, due to a conveyancing error, Adriatic Land 3 had not bought 11 of the leases on the properties, and with Bowey Homes having gone bust, they were passed to the Duchy of Lancaster.
I would like the Minister’s help here, because the way the Duchy is dealing with the situation is frankly scandalous. Despite the error coming to light in 2011 and people wanting to buy the leases, they are being told that they have to pay £1,000 individually for valuations. Moreover, because there are only 80 years left on the leases, the marriage value applies. They are left unable to sell their property and, for some of them, their mortgage providers are questioning the situation.
The Duchy is being legalistic and obstructive in the way it wants to solve the problem. Those individuals found themselves in this position through no fault of their own, and when they got the valuation to try to get the cost of the leases, the comparisons used were in Leeds and York. I must say there is a big difference between York and Leeds, and Stanley in my constituency. If the Government could give any help in making representations to the Duchy, I would appreciate it.
As has been said, reform was promised. I do not know why the delays are ongoing, because this situation is blighting many people’s lives. They are hard-working, decent people who in many cases have saved and worked very hard to own their own house, who are proud of what they have achieved, but who have basically been left, in some cases, with assets they cannot sell or the fear that somehow the asset will never be there to be passed on to their loved ones.
I urge the Government to act quickly on leasehold reform. They cannot make the excuse that there is no Government time, because we have had very little business over the last few months. If it is not in the next King’s Speech, it will be one of the top priorities for a Labour Government to deliver in their first term.
I think for many years, many of us thought leasehold was an issue affecting London and other cities across the country, where there are big blocks of flats, mansions and apartments, but that is not the case. In the past 30 or 40 years, many properties have been built on a leasehold basis. In fact, in 2020-21 there were an estimated 4.86 million leasehold dwellings in England, equating to 20% of the English housing stock. Of those 4.86 million, 2.82 million, or 58%, were in the owner-occupied sector and 1.79 million, or 37%, were privately owned and let in the private rented sector. The remainder were owned by social landlords.
That gives an indication of the size of the sector and the number of constituents who could be affected. My office undertook research and found that in the west midlands, 5.7% of houses and 56.4% of flats—or the equivalent of 14.4% of the total dwellings in our region—are leasehold. In my constituency we have many residents and homeowners who have contacted me to raise this issue. One of the things that concerns them most is the uncertainty about what is happening and when. They need some clarity and they need it soon.
I have casework relating to a number of leasehold properties, both apartments and houses. I am sure Ministers will have seen some of my casework of late; I must admit that I regularly put in parliamentary questions asking for an update on the leasehold reform Bill and I will continue to do so. I can see the Ministers on the Front Bench nodding, and I know they take the matter seriously.
In our manifesto, we included a pledge that we would continue our work on reforms to leasehold, including implementing our ban on the sale of new leasehold homes, restricting ground rents to a peppercorn and providing necessary mechanisms of redress for tenants. I welcome the progress to date, particularly the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022, which put an end to ground rent for most new long residential leasehold properties, but we must keep it going.
My reason for speaking in this debate is to highlight the cases in my constituency, not only so that my constituents know that I am raising those issues in this place, as they would expect me to, but to nudge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to continue to take this issue seriously. We know that the formal process of extending a lease must be made easier and cheaper. I suppose I must declare an interest here, Mr Deputy Speaker, because before coming into this place, I went through the really painful process of trying to extend the leasehold on our apartment. It is not something I would want to go through again in a hurry.
Why do we need to speed up progress? Doing so would help to remove the uncertainty that constituents such as mine face, especially since the problem becomes more and more apparent with every year that goes by. For every extra year that reform takes, more people will face the dilemma: “Should I extend or should I not? Should I wait for action or should I take action now? Will it cost more now or will it cost more later down the track?”
As a lease reduces, there is a question of the impact on sales and mortgages. That is another question I am regularly asked, because the shorter the lease, the more difficult it is to get a mortgage and the more difficult it can be to sell a property. Most lenders will not lend on properties with a lease under 70 years and will want the lease to be extended for at least 40 years after the end of the mortgage term.
As I mentioned earlier, the process of negotiating a leasehold extension and working through the whole process of marriage value is anathema to most people. I had no clue about it until I started going down that track, but people have to engage two sets of solicitors and pay for both of them, and it can be difficult and stressful. Obviously, when they have gone through it, they have the benefit of having extended their lease, but it is time that we continued to make some progress on this issue.
On the broader point, as we have heard from others today, there are questions to be addressed about the need to ensure the independence of legal advice. That is something else that constituents have raised with me, because there are developers who suggest using a certain, supposedly independent, legal adviser. That cannot be right at all.
In short, for too long leaseholders have really felt that they are being held to ransom by freeholders. They are being left to pay unjustifiably high ground rents, exorbitantly high costs for leasehold extensions and management charges that go up and up, and they have very little control over or input into them.
My request in this debate is simple. Can the Minister in her winding-up speech confirm—I believe it is true, but I would like to hear it from the Dispatch Box today—that the Government remain committed to making the leasehold reform changes that constituents such as mine in Aldridge-Brownhills and right across the country so badly need and deserve? Can we get a move on with it, and see some progress this year?
Promised, delayed, watered down or undelivered—this seems to be the journey of many of the Government’s promised policies, including much-needed reform of the broken leasehold system. Reform is nowhere to be seen. As we see, this is a cross-party issue. Members across the House constantly express the concerns of their constituents, yet despite a 2019 manifesto commitment and promises by successive Housing Secretaries, the Government still will not tackle leasehold.
While the Government drag their feet, people’s lives are being seriously adversely affected. The delay and failure to bring forward the reforms the Government promised mean that the prospects of leaseholders selling their properties are blighted, and the value of these properties is going down. It is estimated that there are millions of leasehold homes in England—millions of households—stuck in a system that denies people power, control or even a say over things as fundamental as the safety, security and future of their own homes and communities.
I commend the National Leasehold Campaign and the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership for their brilliant work to keep a spotlight on this issue. Their tenacity is phenomenal. Every single day, the National Leasehold Campaign receives horror stories from desperate leaseholders who do not know where to turn or what to do for the best. Their dream of home ownership is shattered when they realise that this is not true ownership after all and find themselves entangled in the dark web of leasehold.
The history of leasehold reform over the past 150 years has been one that repeats itself in what can only be described as a feudal groundhog day. I am new to this House, but I can plainly see that across the entire House, there is agreement that we must act to protect people, yet here we are with zero legislation passed to protect existing leaseholders.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that the majority of Members across the House will know exactly what we are talking about. Just like the campaign groups, we have been seeing leaseholders’ concerns land in our inboxes. One constituent in Chester is dismayed that their ground rent has been increased by more than 130%—they will now pay in excess of £800 for ground rent. That is shameful and a serious burden and worry for people, particularly in the midst of the current cost of living crisis. We simply cannot overestimate the impact that the leasehold scandal is having on people’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as their economic security.
I am pleased that Labour has a plan, is taking this issue seriously and has called today’s debate. Leaseholders are getting fed up of hearing us stand here and say the same thing without changing anything for them. They remain in limbo, paralysed until this Government bring forward meaningful legislation. No one knows what will be brought forward, and we have not even seen a draft Bill. So many remain trapped in a state of uncertainty, unable to move on with their lives, unable to sell their properties and still faced with escalating charges over which they have little or no control. We need urgent, meaningful change, and Government must not delay.
I agree with what the Minister said about the Government’s plans. It is good that we have cross-party consensus on the need to radically reform leasehold. I recognise and agree with the points that have been made by Members on both sides of the House. It is a feudal system that ultimately needs to be abolished, in ways that I will come on to describe.
There is a danger, perhaps, that we leap straight from one extreme to another: we Conservatives have a bit of a fetish for property ownership, and there is a small danger of our making a cult of freehold and the principle of owning one’s house outright. I understand why we do this—we all want to own our homes, and we believe that a free market will help to grow the supply of new homes that we urgently need—but there is a limit on the supply of new house building, and that limit is land. It is possible to release more land into the market, and we need to do that, but there do need to be limits; I hope that even the most extreme libertarians on the Conservative Benches will recognise that there must be limits to the release of land for house building.
The free market must have some limitations, because without limits, or with limits that companies with deep pockets can game at the expense of local communities, it is not a free market at all; it is a speculator’s charter. We need a system that is both better than the feudalism of leasehold and better than the perversion of capitalism that we sometimes see in our communities.
We need to grow supply, and I recognise that we need more freehold and more traditional ownership, but as I say, land is finite, and the price of a house, which we all worry about, is really the price of the land underneath the house. There are two effects of this. The first is that the building—the bricks and mortar—hardly matters to the house builders. We see the way they knock up buildings without beauty, without quality and without much innovation. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend Mr Bacon has done on self-build and the opportunities for far better innovation, beauty and quality in house building if we recognise that the quality of the structure matters more than the land it is built on.
The second effect of the system we have at the moment, whereby the price of the land is the real factor, is that the overall price of housing rises. We now have the highest house prices in history. That has a reinforcing effect, because it privileges the volume house builders—the speculators in land—who can afford to bid at these auctions and who bet on rising prices, hoard sites and hold back land from development; they game the development system. I mention in passing the egregious five-year land supply rule, which is such a gift to developers, who ride roughshod over local plans and the wishes of local communities. There are a number of cases in my Wiltshire constituency where that is a problem.
May I add one point, which I hope my hon. Friend will not regard as discordant? People ought to know the sums that public affairs companies and lobbyists get paid by the developers, those involved in exploiting leaseholders and those who buy freeholds, for lobbying the Prime Minister’s office, the Treasury, the Department and the media. If equal resources could be given to the National Leasehold Campaign, the cladding groups and the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, we would have equality of arms.
My hon. Friend is right: the way these companies operate is shameful.
The price of land is the issue. There is a way to get through this, and it is along the lines of what we are debating today: not leasehold and not pure freehold, but a form of commonhold. I want to end by mentioning a particular form of commonhold that I would like to see much more of and that we see a little of around the country. My hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley mentioned the need for housing providers that can be trusted. They do exist, and they exist using leasehold: it is the community land trust model. Community land trusts act as long-term stewards of community housing, and they often use ground rents as a way to finance their work, with the consent of leaseholders.
We need to worry about scrapping leasehold without replacing it; that would be bad. We need to replace it with something along the lines of commonhold. Around the country, we see brilliant innovations of community land trusts in pockets of rural and urban areas. The Government have indicated in previous debates that any ban on leasehold would include an exemption for community-led housing, and I hope that consideration will be given to ensuring that community-led housing is also protected under any changes to leasehold and any replacement with commonhold.
I pay tribute to the Community Land Trust Network. The Secretary of State came to an event that I hosted in Parliament a few months ago. A number of really inspiring CLT groups came to talk about their experience. I encourage the Government to listen to the Community Land Trust Network and to use the ongoing consultation on the national planning policy framework to make real changes, such as reopening and extending the community housing fund and, crucially, helping local CLT groups and community groups to buy land. At the moment, they find it so difficult to outbid the speculative developers, because they intend to make a large proportion of the housing affordable, and they simply cannot make the numbers add up in the way the speculators can.
We need to find ways to give more land to CLTs, and my suggestion is quite simple: we need to transfer public land quite deliberately to community land trusts. At the moment, legislation states that public landowners who want to divest themselves of those assets need to seek “best consideration”, which local authorities or other public landowners often interpret as simply seeking the highest price. We need to specify that “best consideration” means the objects set out by the Secretary of State, which I suggest should include affordability and community ownership. We also need to enable CLTs to buy private land at agricultural prices, not speculative prices.
I welcome the cross-party consensus on reforming leasehold—I think that is absolutely right. I hope consideration will be given to ensuring that these community-led housing models will also be protected in the new plans and will be able to thrive. I welcome the debate, and I give thanks to the shadow Secretary of State, Lisa Nandy, and to Members on the Opposition Benches who are campaigning alongside Government Members for these sorts of reforms. I also share my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West’s wish that we do not push this rather partisan motion to a vote.
Tomorrow, I will meet my constituent Luke Thomas, who is attending a drop-in in Parliament to raise awareness about the skin cancer melanoma. Luke first contacted me in 2020. He has stage 4 skin cancer, diagnosed after he had bought his first home, a shared ownership leasehold flat in my constituency. Knowing that his cancer is now incurable, Luke decided that he wanted to move back to Wales, to be able to enjoy more precious time with family and friends and to draw on their support when he needed it.
However, Luke is one of many, many leaseholders to spend years effectively trapped by a system, the deficiencies of which were further compounded by the cladding scandal following the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. Luke’s flat has been effectively unsellable, and he faced the dreadful and unacceptable situation of precious, limited time slipping away, unable to move forward with his life. Two and a half years later, Luke’s housing association has finally agreed to an exceptional buyback, but that is not a system, and Luke should never have been placed in that situation.
Luke’s story is heartrending, but it is not unique. I have many constituents who are still living with the consequences of the interaction between the feudal leasehold system and the scandal of building safety exposed by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. Many have been trapped by the inability of their freeholder to undertake intrusive surveys and fire safety works in order to secure an EWS1 certificate, without which their home is effectively worthless. Some constituents, such as Luke, need to move for compassionate reasons; others, because their job has changed. I have constituents who have had a family and are now overcrowded in their leasehold homes, who have been unable to move for many years because of the lack of an EWS1 certificate or the completion of fire safety works. What started as the fulfilment of a dream—the security and stability of their own home, and the first rung on the property ladder—has become a living nightmare.
The Government’s delay in bringing forward leasehold reform is inexcusable. I was on the then Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee in 2019 when we published the report referred to by my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Committee’s Chair. On a cross-party basis and on the basis of the evidence, that report set out recommendations, including that Government should make commonhold the predominant form of tenure for flats, ban the most egregious practices and introduce some protections against catastrophic costs for leaseholders.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, and she speaks passionately about her constituent Luke wanting to move back to Wales. My constituents have faced similarly terrible experiences as a result of the leasehold system. The Welsh Government have taken some important steps in Wales, virtually eliminating new leasehold for houses and reducing ground rents on new leases to a peppercorn, but does my hon. Friend agree that we need to see ambitious reform from the UK Government on an England and Wales basis so that all our constituents can get out of these terrible situations?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is unfathomable that the Government, when faced with the urgency and magnitude of this crisis—affecting not just a few people but thousands across the country—have failed to act with urgency. It is very welcome that the Welsh Government have stepped up to the scale of the challenge.
The Committee’s report also included practical measures, such as introducing a standard form for presenting charges for leaseholders so that that information is easy to understand. This is about not just the major, catastrophic problems that leaseholders face, but the day-to-day complexity of a system that is difficult to understand and administer. However, the Government have taken next to no action on those recommendations. I received an email last week from a constituent who has saved for years to buy her first flat in an area that she loves, but has been told by multiple solicitors that they are unable to act in relation to the conveyancing because of the uncertainty created by the Building Safety Act 2022. As such, I specifically ask the Minister to look urgently at that issue and whether there is a need for further guidance to conveyancing solicitors, because new legislation designed to make building safer should not have the unintended consequence of preventing sales moving forward.
Finally, I want to raise the plight of leaseholders living in flats that have district heating systems. Such leaseholders are liable for a proportion of the costs of the heating of their whole block. They have very little control over the consumption of energy, which is influenced by the age of the communal boiler; the temperature that other residents choose to maintain in their homes; the hot water consumption of their neighbours; and the date on which their landlord chooses to switch the heating on and off each year. Because gas for district heating systems is often purchased in bulk in advance, those leaseholders are only now seeing the sharp increases in bills that other customers experienced last year. Inexplicably, there is no Government support at all for customers of district heating systems, and so many of them are now facing completely unaffordable heating bills in addition to the other, often extortionate costs associated with being a leaseholder. This problem is pushing leaseholders into poverty.
There are many thousands of leaseholders across the country—thousands of families facing the uncertainty and anxiety of extortionate and unpredictable costs, building safety defects and sharp practices. The Government’s failure to act with urgency to help them is a complete dereliction of duty. It is time that they stepped aside for a Labour Government who will deliver the reform that leaseholders so desperately need.
With regard to leasehold reform, I will speak briefly, if I may, on how many of the leaseholds in my constituency came about. As many people will know—including the Opposition spokesman, Lisa Nandy—Leigh was a mining town and a mill town that grew quite large in the 19th century. The terraced houses in the centre of Leigh, which I think are responsible for most of the leaseholds in the town, were originally built mostly on land owned by either the Anglican Church or other Churches and on Lord Lilford’s estate.
At the time that that was done, it was quite sensible. The meaning of Leigh is literally “meadow”; the land in what is now the centre of Leigh was in a bit of a depression, so it tended to be quite boggy and was not very good for agriculture. As the coal was found and the cotton came in from Liverpool, all the mills and the terraced houses surrounding them grew up in the town. I think the original intention—although we cannot know, because of course no one from that era is around—was that, while those rents would now be viewed as peppercorns, so many of them were under the same landowner that they were perhaps a replacement for the revenue lost from the somewhat marginal agricultural land that the terraced houses were built on.
However, here we are, a considerable amount of time later. All these rents on leases are now what we would consider peppercorn rents, and many of them have not been collected for decades—as the hon. Member for Wigan said, in some cases, we do not even know who the leaseholds are held by. Recently, a local solicitor with some concern about these issues visited my office to talk through some of them, and I have written to the Minister about the matter with a series of recommendations. I hope she has received my letter; if not, I dare say that I will chase her about it after the debate.
Several things happened far later than we expected after the original leases were put in place. As other Members on both sides of the House have alluded to, what is now happening is that, completely out of the blue, people in some of those terraced houses in Leigh are receiving a letter from a firm of solicitors on behalf of someone who has either found that they own the leasehold or purchased it off someone else. It might have been Mr Betts who said that, in some cases, these are now being treated as financial products, traded and sold.
People have seen letters arriving, saying, “For the past 50 years, your peppercorn rent has been the modern equivalent of three shillings and sixpence. However, attached to this bill for the peppercorn rent is a multi-thousand pound legal bill for all the work we have had to do to trace back the origin of the last time this peppercorn rent was paid.” What was initially put in place as a sensible arrangement when Queen Victoria was on the throne has decayed into this sort of semi-dodgy business. I understand the complexity, and we have heard from both sides of the House that certain aspects of leasehold reform are more difficult than others.
However, a sharp practice has been allowed to grow up because leases that were put in place so long ago are no longer fit for purpose. The situation has been described, quite rightly, as a semi-feudal system and, just as with all other things feudal that we have seen fall into abeyance and disappear or be reformed over the years, it is time for comprehensive leasehold reform and, in some cases, the outright abolition of the system.
A truism in this country is that an Englishman’s home is his castle. We should do as much as we can to ensure that that saying goes from a truism to a truth, and I look forward to Government proposals to address these issues. There is cross-party support for, shall we say, a maximalist position—so as much as can be done within reason on this—and I look forward to a solution that has cross-party support because we need to act. There are things that can be dealt with now, and maybe some things later, but we need to get on with this and the sooner, the better.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this extremely important debate on a topic has a real impact on our constituents. Leaseholders have been crying out for reform for years, and the Government make promises but seem unwilling to act.
It is simply wrong that the system denies people the right to decide the future of their own home. Being stuck with high service charges while faults and leaks fail to get fixed, and a lack of transparency over what leaseholders are actually paying for, is a familiar story. As mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, with the exception of England and Wales, every country in the world has repealed or reformed the archaic leasehold model. There is cross-party consensus in this place that the current system simply does not work, so why are this Government sitting on their hands while the people out there pay the price?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worse than that? The Government are not just sitting on their hands; they have raised expectations. Some of the comments from the Secretary of State in particular have led people to think that things are going to change quickly, when quite clearly they are not.
I absolutely agree. It is an outrage that these promises give people hope, yet they turn into nothing. This is yet another example of the Government not matching the ambition of the British people.
I am sorry to say that the bad news just keeps on coming for leaseholders. As much as the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 made meaningful progress in all but abolishing ground rents for leaseholders of newly purchased new builds, reform for existing leaseholders has been kicked into the long grass. The UK housing market risks becoming a two-tier system for leasehold properties. There are 4.8 million existing leasehold properties and, unless reform comes quickly for those homeowners, new build leasehold properties will be seen by prospective buyers as more desirable since they are not subject to the same ground rent charges. That may well benefit developers, but leaves existing leaseholders stuck with unsellable homes and that has an impact on the entire market. An existing leaseholder unable to sell their property is unable to go and buy another, possibly freehold, property. The entire market is stagnating.
The Government keep promising that reform is just around the corner—if leaseholders just keep supporting the Government at another general election, they will really mean it this time and sort the problem out. The reality is that they have had 13 years to clean up this feudal model of home ownership, but they show no signs of doing it soon. We are talking about people’s lives. We cannot lose sight of the real consequences for people. As the Government continue to tease reform, some leaseholders who want to extend their leases dare not because they know there is no guarantee that the Government will follow through on their promise of further reform. Every day that the Government delay acting could cost leaseholders more when they do come to extend, pushing them closer to the cliff edge of marriage value having to be paid to extend a lease.
Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis: private renting costs are out of control; the disastrous Tory mini-Budget made it harder for millions to get a mortgage; and the leasehold model is clearly broken. The Government may have run out of ideas, but Labour would not only reform the broken leasehold system, but tackle the supply side of the housing crisis, building new homes and making them more attainable for potential buyers. While this Government make promises, Labour has a plan to deliver. Polling in recent months shows the public trust Labour more than the Tory party with the economy. With this Government’s failure to act on leaseholders and Labour’s plans to reform the system and support house building, the message is clear: Labour is also the party of home ownership.
There has been consensus across the House about the need to tackle the feudal leasehold system and tackle the exploitative practices that it enables, so what is the hold-up? Why are the Government all talk and no action? Will they please just get on with it?
It is a pleasure to follow Ashley Dalton, and I am pleased to be able to speak in today’s debate because this issue is very relevant for my constituents. However, I am a little sad that this is an Opposition day debate rather than the Second Reading of a Bill that would resolve many of the issues. Lord Greenhalgh, when he was the Minister responsible, made a promising start to the process when he brought in the first stages of leasehold reform to crack down on exploitative freeholders by removing escalating ground rents. Now is the time to ensure that the next stage of reform delivers for those who are currently trapped in a leasehold system.
The north-west has some of the highest proportion of leasehold dwellings in the country. The most recent statistics from 2019-20 put the proportion built at just shy of a third of all homes—the highest outside London. Throughout my time as the Member of Parliament for Warrington South, its residents have raised issues with me regarding leasehold time and again. There are issues in Chapelford, Edgewater Park in Latchford, Chase Meadow in Lymm—I could list endless developments built over the past 20 years under the leasehold system where problems have been raised. In turn, I have raised those problems with a variety of Ministers, all of whom have said, “Reform is coming.”
I recognise that there has been some progress from Government. I particularly welcome the work to protect elderly residents by reducing ground rent to zero on all retirement properties. It is also welcome that we are restricting ground rents to zero for new leases to make the process fairer for leaseholders. That will also apply to retirement leasehold properties when homes are built specifically for older people, so purchasers of these homes have the same rights as other homeowners and are protected from uncertainties and rip-off practices, but it needs to go beyond that.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals to address the problems associated with leasehold sales, but there is growing worry among many of my constituents that the difficult situation in which they find themselves may not be completely addressed by what we have heard so far. I am afraid that bringing forward plans to give leaseholders the right to extend their leases by up to 990 years, boosting property rights and giving homeowners long-term security and peace of mind do not address all the issues. The constituents I talk to have genuine concerns about the purchases they made 20 years ago and are stuck with problems that are ever-increasing, particularly in relation to service charges, for which they receive little. I urge the Minister to go further in many of the proposals they have put forward.
Colleagues might recall that in a speech in the Christmas Adjournment debate I raised the issue of homes in the Chapelford area of my constituency. I pay tribute to the residents who live there, who first raised their concerns 13 years ago with one of my predecessors. I wrote to the Minister about it recently, and she kindly responded, for which I am grateful. Residents not only have to pay fees, but run into difficulties just trying to get hold of a freeholder. They are faced with complicated, protracted processes from which they cannot even get information about the leaseholds on their homes. They then have to spend money to get information from those leaseholders. My constituents are trapped in leasehold. It makes it difficult to sell those properties. In fact, I assisted a constituent recently because the plans drawn up in the leasehold were just not correct and the solicitors acting for the new buyer rightly would not proceed with the sale.
A number of solicitors in Warrington approached me to say that they had been asked to act for people buying leasehold properties in the Chapelford area, and they refused to do so, because they were so concerned about the details in the contracts. As a result, when purchasers returned to developers, the developers recommended solicitors who disappeared overnight when the development had finished. The process that the developers had put through to the solicitors ended up going absolutely nowhere, and there is a scandal with how solicitors behaved and disappeared once the process and the development had finished. I raised this matter in the House about six months ago, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority approached me asking for details of the solicitors. Frankly, it is impossible to trace them. They sign their names with a company, and the company dissolves and we cannot trace the individuals involved in any way. The Government need to look much more closely at how the solicitors in these cases have acted.
As I mentioned earlier, the Competition and Markets Authority looked at some of the leasehold situations for two years and made progress with several developers, but it did not resolve all the concerns, particularly in relation to properties in Chapelford. That was a missed opportunity for a deep dive into what is going on and addressing individual problems, rather than just looking at the big picture. Will the Minister ensure that the proposals that the Department brings forward in the next Session will address many of these problems? It is vital that people wanting to get out of leasehold can do so without facing extortionate fees that leave them trapped in a leasehold indefinitely or result in them being short-changed when they have to leave the leasehold system.
The hon. Member rightly talks about transparency and the difficulties with contacting freeholders. I have had that experience in my constituency too. Does he agree that there needs to be a lot more transparency and communication among freeholders, managing agents and leaseholders? Often there is not transparency over insurance charges, service charges or who to contact when things are going wrong. I have experienced many frustrations on behalf of constituents in that regard.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a recent situation with a development in Lymm, where the constituent asked me if I could contact the freeholder to go through the details of what they were actually paying for, and I have still not had a response. I am not sure the freeholder knows what services are being charged for. I am grateful for the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. Finally, I say to the Minister that this legislation is desperately needed. My constituents and I want to see a solution. I sincerely hope that the Department will take heed of the speeches being made in the House today so that we get the reform needed in the next King’s Speech.
Like many across the Chamber today, I rise to speak on behalf of my constituents in the north-west of England in Weaver Vale and the 4.86 million people trapped in this leasehold system. It is an antiquated and unjust feudal system, as pointed out by my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy from the Front Bench and by the Minister, Lee Rowley, who is not in his place at the moment. The system is unique to England and Wales. Ministers are keen to portray the Government as being outriders on a global scale, but maintaining feudalism and serfdom is surely no badge of honour and will have electoral consequences.
In 2017, I was not long elected as a Labour MP and a constituent from Northwich came along to my surgery and informed me about this strange system called leasehold, with ever-increasing ground rents, obscure service charges—also ever-increasing—incomplete unadopted roads, as Members have referred to, and strange administration charges for pets, extensions, alterations and for-sale signs. They could not sell their properties. I literally thought that she was making it up, until I had a conversation with my neighbour, my hon. Friend Justin Madders, and others. I soon came to realise that this archaic system of leasehold was allowing developers, freeholders, managing agents, solicitors and insurers to make things up and put things up on an industrial scale.
Talking of an industrial scale, I also discovered that there are solicitors in cahoots with major developers, as has been referred to, offering no real choice and mis-selling leasehold houses as freehold. There is plenty of evidence of that, to which my neighbour Andy Carter has referred.
It does not stop. On Friday just gone, my constituent Christine came to see me and put considerable evidence under my nose of the continued legalised crookery—I will use that word that the Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley used. It is an absolute fraud of a system, with unexplainable and increasing levels of service charge and insurance premiums, dodgy invoices and a plethora of commissions, seemingly for everybody.
Despite a plethora of consultations, grand promises made recently and a short piece of legislation with a narrow scope, new homes to this day are being built and sold as leasehold. The provisions on ground rent going forward are not for the many, just the new. One bad apple was picked from the tree, but the orchard still stares our constituents and residents in the face on a daily basis. The previous Secretary of State promised that legislation was a starter before “the main course”. As shadow Housing Minister at the time, I argued that it was about time to kick this issue into the history books and that leaseholders needed
“an all-you-can-eat buffet of reform”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 707, c. 796.]
They are still waiting and we are still frustrated.
We all know that it is time to put an end to this outdated practice, to usher in a new era of fairness and to protect the rights of every citizen in our great nations of England and Wales and their aspiration to genuinely own their own home. Leasehold is not home ownership. Let us kick it into the history books.
It is shocking that the Government now seem to be backtracking on their commitment to legislate effectively to put this feudal system into the history books. When I asked the Secretary of State in this very Chamber if he would legislate in the King’s Speech to remove leasehold, he replied, “Yes, that’s the plan.” It looks like that plan has caved in to vested interests. If anybody wants to look at some vested interests, go to the Electoral Commission website and look at where the donations of the governing party come from. I suggest that gives us a little bit of evidence.
This feudal leasehold, a relic of a bygone era, holds its grip on the dreams and aspirations of countless homeowners in England and Wales. It is a system that not only shackles their aspirations, but perpetuates an unjust power dynamic between freeholder landlords and leaseholders. The practice, unique to England and Wales, has no place in a society of modern values such as equality, justice and the empowerment of British citizens—or should I say, of English and Welsh citizens.
This U-turn by the Government is a complete betrayal, and they cannot escape that. Under this feudal leasehold system, homeowners find themselves trapped in a cycle of perpetual dependence, being subject to exorbitant ground rents, unreasonable service charges and ever-increasing lease extension costs. The impact of this feudal leasehold system is not, of course, limited to financial burdens alone. It breeds uncertainty and anxiety among homeowners, who live in constant fear of losing their home or facing arbitrary restrictions imposed on them by landlords. Let us not forget that, despite promises and legislation, the costs of the building safety crisis still fall on the shoulders of leaseholders, who cannot escape that injustice.
The time for change is upon us. We must collectively seize this opportunity to consign this feudal leasehold system to the history books. We have a moral duty to ensure that every citizen gets to own their own home and to control their own home, without fear or undue financial burden. To achieve this, the Government must take bold and decisive action. The Law Commission recommendations should be implemented in full. They should take heed of the Select Committee reports—the successive ones—and they must provide existing leaseholders with a clear pathway to enfranchisement, enabling them to convert their leases into freehold ownership at fair and reasonable prices. Marriage value must be scrapped, and Ministers must place restrictions and limitations on current ground rents and service charges, ensuring that they are reasonable, transparent and reflective of the services provided. As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, has mentioned, how about a housing court to deal with the several issues we have spoken about? Commonhold needs to be powered up to become the default tenure.
My esteemed colleagues across the House, it is time to end this feudal system. Let us see this piece of legislation in the King’s Speech, and if it does not come, the Government should step aside, and the Labour party will deliver with a Labour Government in charge.
Oh, it has, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been a long week—and it is only Tuesday.
It is over six years since I first spoke about the issues facing leaseholders in this House, and these issues have only got worse for so many of my constituents. They are compounded, of course, by the consequences of the fire safety scandal that the Grenfell fire exposed. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned many of the issues that provide a significant proportion of our casework and take up the time of our staff. I particularly thank the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership for the advice and support it have given us and our constituents.
Reform is needed because, for so many living in my constituency, leasehold is the only way that most first-time buyers can get a foot on the housing ladder: 50% of all residential property purchases in London in 2021 were leasehold. The huge deposit and mortgage needed for a traditional two-up, two-down house in London, particularly in my west London constituency, coupled with the spike in mortgage costs, have now made it virtually impossible for families to buy a freehold home. This means that middle-income people and even those who many would call high-income people are pushed into buying a leasehold flat. Some young people—including many NHS workers, teachers and many more—can just about afford to go into shared ownership, but in my experience that is a particularly perverse form of leasehold.
Imagine how it must feel for a young couple, who have worked hard and saved up, when they buy their first flat. They get the keys and they are filled with joy, but then the problems first appear. They notice some antisocial behaviour, and they notice the failure of the managing agent to ensure the car park is properly secure. They report it, but nothing happens. Then they get a bill for the service charge, and it has more than doubled, plus it is not itemised. They are already struggling with the cost of the weekly shop, and then they are hit with another charge. They ask why the service charge has gone up, especially when standards in their block remain so low, and they do not get an answer. Then they find out that, in six months’ time, their share of the building insurance will go up not by 10% or 50%, but by over 200%. Where are they supposed to find this money? Imagine how it would feel with this constant hammer blow after hammer blow, and the dream of home ownership rapidly turning into a nightmare.
What I have described is one example from my constituency, but the many examples show that the central thread running through the existing leasehold system is the lack of power for leaseholders—the David against Goliath nature of the battle. Just last week, I met leaseholders in Aplin Way in Isleworth, who are facing an astronomical bill to replace the lifts in their block. It is 50 years old, so the lifts do need replacing. They have asked why it is costing so much when cheaper options are available, but they have not had a clear answer from, in this case, the housing association that owns the block. Their ward councillor, Tony Louki, and I have tried to seek answers, but even we have not had replies to our correspondence. After no response had been received, suddenly last week the contractors appeared on site. The leaseholders know they will soon be forced to pay their share of the astronomical bill, and this is causing particular stress to the many pensioners who own their own home in that block.
Being a leaseholder in this country is increasingly like trying to push an ever larger boulder up an ever steeper hill. The central point of frustration is the fact that leaseholders are being ripped off. They are paying eye-watering amounts every year, yet in many cases they do not know where the money is going. There is no transparency.
One particular case is at APT Parkview in Brentford, where there is a mix of leaseholders and tenants of the building owner. Leaseholders have seen their communal services keep rising in price, but then suddenly stop after they made complaints about their bills. One day there was no concierge, the gym was closed, there was no cleaning of the common parts and no security in the car park, but then there was a sudden extra charge for air conditioning on top of their existing rising energy bills. The case of APT Parkview has also shown the lack of enforcement action available to protect leaseholders. The council could not help, the powers of the ward councillors are limited, and when I wrote letters and raised the issues on the Floor of this House, they were still not resolved. The tenants in the block sought legal advice, and it appears that they have somewhat stronger rights than the leaseholders.
Another frequent offender in my constituency, although it is an issue across the country, has been FirstPort—it has been mentioned today. It regularly hiked up building insurance and service charges while ignoring the complaints and concerns that residents had about communal areas. Often it did not carry out the services for which people were supposed to be paying. Liam Spender, a committed campaigner on leasehold reform, recently took FirstPort to tribunal and won. David beat Goliath, and FirstPort had to pay back at least £479,000 in overpaid service charges to all leaseholders in the block. As my hon. Friend Helen Hayes said, such problems have been compounded by the fallout from the Grenfell fire and the Government’s foot-dragging on that issue.
With leasehold, one never owns one’s own home but merely has the right to occupy it, and to sell that right for the remainder of the lease. It is not ideal, but historically it was a stable, normal type of home ownership that provided homes for many millions of people. Over the last no more than 20 years, we have seen the growth of what can only be called scams on the leasehold system, effectively monetising that system for profit, often offshore profit. Such scams include the extensive sale of freehold houses, extortionate service charges, the ground rent scandal, and developers selling the freehold from under leasehold flat owners, who were promised when their bought the lease that they would have the chance to buy that freehold. Then there are the close and unethical links between developers, freeholders, solicitors and managing agents. Scammers held conferences to network and share best—perhaps I should say worst—practice on how to exploit the glaring gaps in our leasehold system. We can plug some of the gaps, particularly for the benefit of existing leaseholders, but the only way to stop future exploitation is to replace private leasehold with commonhold.
The Secretary of State promised to reform leasehold and called it an
“unfair form of property ownership”.
Those of us speaking today agree with that, but where are the widespread reforms? Have plans been watered down by the Prime Minister? If so, that is no surprise from a Prime Minister who is out of touch with the reality facing leaseholders across the country, who does not understand the strain and stresses facing ordinary hard-working people who are trying to keep their home, and who is out of touch about the very country he is apparently running.
I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) have committed that a Labour Government would do what the Conservatives are too weak and out of touch to do, which is end the sale of new private leasehold houses, grant residents greater power over the management of their own home, and crack down on unfair fees, with the right to challenge those rip-off fees. I am pleased that Labour has committed to the Law Commission’s recommendations to make it easier to convert leasehold to commonhold, because for so many of my constituents, leasehold has turned into fleecehold.
It has been evident for years that the current leasehold system is failing. Indeed, it was the subject of one of the first pieces of casework raised with me in 2015, but the fundamental reforms that people have been crying out for have not been implemented. The Government’s failure to act means that far too many people continue to be denied power, control or even a say over things as fundamental as safety, security, and the future of their homes and communities.
We have heard that across parties everyone is committed to reform, but I remind the House that in 2019, the Government gave a commitment in their manifesto, and there were promises by successive Housing Secretaries in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Now the Government are rowing back on their commitment to end the sale of leasehold on new builds and introduce a system of commonhold as the default for the future. The watered-down commitments are simply not good enough, and given that the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 does not apply retrospectively, it affords no comfort or protection to those already bound to an existing agreement. The people who campaigned and eventually got us to this stage have been disappointed yet again.
Leasehold is disproportionately prevalent in the north-west, as I am sure you know, Mr Deputy Speaker. In 2021, 35% of transactions there were leasehold, which was second only to London at 50%. At 27% the north-west also has a particularly high level of leasehold house sales, while across the rest of England and Wales, proportions range from 1% to 6%. The Minister boasted about that 1%, but he was obviously not looking at the north-west—why would that surprise me? On at least one housing development in my constituency properties were sold as leasehold, and the developer subsequently sold on the freehold to another company with increased ground rent. There was no consultation with the homeowners, who had no say and no option to purchase it themselves. Worse than that, the increases were much higher than inflation. I have made numerous representations over many years to housing developers and the company that now owns the freehold on behalf of my constituents, but disappointingly I, like many others, have had little to no response.
Many of my constituents are trapped by this unfair system, forced to contend with high service charges, a lack of transparency over charges, freeholders who block attempts to exercise the right to manage, excessive administration charges, and charges for applications to extend lease agreements. It is outrageous. There is a lack of knowledge among people of developers’ rights and obligations to them.
I am pleased that the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, recognises the need for fundamental leasehold reform. She has proposed five key measures to be included in a leaseholder reform Bill, with each aimed at protecting the rights and interests of leaseholders and ensuring a more equitable housing system. First, we need an end to the sale of new private leasehold houses—and that must be immediate. That will ensure that future homeowners are not burdened by leasehold arrangements but can instead own their home outright.
Additionally, private leasehold flats must be replaced with commonhold, a more workable and fair system that provides greater control and security for residents, with the recommendations of the Law Commission’s three 2020 reports implemented in full. In the interim, residents should be granted greater powers over the management of their homes, including the right of flat owners to form residents associations, empowering them to have a collective voice in decision-making processes. We must also simplify the right to manage, making it more accessible to leaseholders so that they can take control of the management of their properties.
Leaseholders should also have the right to extend their leases to 990 years with zero ground rent at any time. Alternatively, a cap on ground rent should be implemented at a maximum of 0.1% of the freehold value up to a limit of £250 a year. Those measures would provide leaseholders with greater security and affordability in extending their leases.
Enfranchisement valuation for leaseholders must also be reformed. By streamlining and clarifying the valuation process, we can ensure that leaseholders are treated fairly and not subjected to unreasonable costs.
Lastly, to crack down on unfair fees and contract terms, we propose the publication of a reference list of reasonable charges, ensuring transparency on service charges. Leaseholders should have the right to challenge excessive fees and conditions or poor performance from service companies. By holding those companies to account, we can protect leaseholders from rip-off charges and sub-par services.
I thank my hon. Friend for that.
People have worked so hard, only to be disappointed after such a long time. At the same time, with every delay, more and more people are getting trapped in these situations. Almost every country in the world apart from Britain has either reformed or abolished this archaic feudal model, but the Conservative party is not delivering. People should not have to wait any longer for basic rights over their own homes. I hope that the Government and Conservative Members will today stand up for their promise, recommit to it—they claim that everyone is committed to it—and do so with speed.
The Levelling Up Secretary described leasehold as “feudal” and in need of reform. I am sure that every Member on the Opposition Benches—along with millions of exploited leaseholders—agrees with him, and there is huge cross-party support. Let us not forget the impact of increased interest rates on mortgage repayments. How many of the same people are also affected by leasehold?
It has been said numerous times today, but almost every country in the world apart from Britain has either reformed or abolished this archaic model. There are estimated to be almost 6 million leasehold homes in the UK. It is a system that denies millions of people true home ownership. Some have to pay a couple of hundred pounds for the right to change the curtains or a carpet, and, if they receive permission, have to notify the freeholder so they can be inspected. Can you believe that? In your own home! We pride ourselves as a nation of homeowners and aspirational homeowners, yet leaseholds deny people the ability to fully complete that ambition.
The question is this: why have the Government not done more? Who owns the land and these properties? Who do leasehold payments go to and who are they donating to? It is about time that that was investigated. We do not need to wait. Let us start investigating what is going on and why the Government are not doing anything.
As a representative of a constituency with many new houses, I am concerned that the proportion of new build houses sold as leasehold rose from 7% in 1995 to a peak of 15% in 2016. Thousands more people have been trapped in leasehold arrangements over the past two decades. Those arrangements are often mis-sold: developers recommend solicitors to speed up the process and they do it at a discount. But where were the mortgage lenders? What were they doing? Where was their duty of care in passing loans to buy such properties? Did they not know it was a risk, or do they have something to gain from that risk if there is a mortgage foreclosure? How much is going on to look into why that happened, where it happened and who was involved? People are now denied basic rights over their own homes.
Despite the changes in July 2022 to restrict ground rents on new houses and flats to a peppercorn rate, the Government ignored Labour calls to extend the protections to existing leasehold properties. Leaseholds should not be sold anymore. They are absolutely not fit for purpose. Legislating for new houses is of course essential, yet just as essential is legislating retrospectively to help people already caught up in the leasehold scandal. Many people buying their homes in St Helens and Knowsley have been caught up in this scandal—many people. In 2017, the Government said they would work with the Law Commission to support existing leaseholders. The Government committed to making extending the leasehold
“easier, faster, fairer and cheaper.”
Only in January this year, the Levelling Up Secretary claimed that the commitment to abolish the “feudal system” of leaseholds still stood, yet neither of those things happened.
The Law Commission proposals would give people the right to extend their lease to 990 years, with zero ground rent at any time. That would place the vast majority of a home’s value in the hands of a leaseholder. That was considered to be a fair outcome in a country such as ours that wants to inspire homeownership, so why has the Secretary of State suddenly changed his mind and decided that people should no longer have the right to fully own their own home? Why?
The Prime Minister often says that it is not words, but outcomes that matter. Well, leasehold is causing millions of families unnecessary stress and hardship. The Government have promised for years to solve this crisis and even made a manifesto commitment to do so. I urge the Levelling Up Secretary and the Government to stick by their promise. Get rid of these feudal laws and bring British home ownership into the 21st century. I also remind the Prime Minister of his commitment to a Government of honesty, transparency and integrity. Well, let us see that outcomes matter. Let us start by finding the truth behind this scandal that affects so many millions of families. It is about time for honesty, transparency and integrity. Outcomes matter, Prime Minister.
The last Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, launched a campaign against leasehold in 1909, describing the leasehold system as blackmail, not business. In 2023, it is unacceptable that, despite campaigning by the Liberal Democrats and right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House—and some truly excellent speeches today—we are in the same position.
The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 was a necessary small step in the right direction to protect leaseholders from exploitation, but it is extremely disappointing that the next steps of the Act have once again been delayed, despite the Secretary of State admitting that the system is feudal in nature. He is, of course, right. Being unable to control the amount of ground rent paid each year is a relic of the feudal system, and is why pretty much every other country apart from Australia has abolished it and replaced it with some form of commonhold tenure.
It is also not right that homeowners should have to pay tens of thousands of pounds to renew their lease and remain in their own home when it ends, often having seen very little—if any—of their landlord during the period of ownership. Hon. Members have already made excellent speeches about the unfairness of this outdated system. Like them, I have casework from residents frustrated by extortionate ground rents and management fees.
I would like to reflect a little more on the management fees, which are becoming a scourge not only in traditional leasehold arrangements but in many new developments, where shared management companies for the areas outside the bricks and mortar of the owner’s home are exhibiting many of the characteristics of the landlord in a leasehold arrangement. These are known colloquially as “fleecehold” arrangements, and are as much of a problem as the traditional leasehold charges that we have been discussing at length.
Across North Shropshire there are several new developments, built by both large well-known developers—Persimmon has been mentioned, which I have dealt with—and smaller rogue developments, where the council have rightly required shared space as part of the planning conditions. But the developer has made no provision for those shared areas and the roads, street lights, pavements and play facilities to be adopted by the local authority. Instead, the shared areas are maintained by a management company and all the homeowners of the new development, who are the freeholders of their own homes, must share the costs of maintenance. The commercial substance of that arrangement is a leasehold.
Homeowners have come to me, fleeced by their management company and unable to force the directors of those management companies to hold annual general meetings or provide proper accounts. They do not want me to name their developments because that will reduce their ability to sell a home that they desperately want to leave and are completely trapped in.
The companies share similar features. They are often non-profit-making, simply passing on the costs of maintenance to the owners of homes on the development. But there is a catch: they are controlled by the original developer and they outsource the maintenance work to a connected business—often run by the original developer—which charges an exorbitant fee to the maintenance company. That way, the developer can fleece the people who bought their homes in good faith, and who cannot exit the arrangement. More importantly, having just taken on a mortgage for the most important purchase of their life, they do not have the resources to take the company to court, or to force it to hold meetings or get competitive quotes for the work required.
As Members have pointed out, there is often no point turning to the conveyancing solicitor for help with faulty conveyancing, because the solicitor was recommended by the developer, which offered a discount to use them. Quite how those solicitors get around conflict of interest laws I am not sure, but the result is that the homeowner is left with nowhere to turn.
It is important to emphasise that these people do not get a reduction in their council tax, often while suffering unfinished roads, inadequate lighting and wasteland that should be some sort of park or recreation area. If the council enforces the conditions of the planning permission—to tidy up and landscape the shared areas for example—the costs are passed on to the residents, who have no choice but to pay. I have a case where a large national developer—Persimmon—requires the permission of the management company to allow someone to sell their freehold. That is leasehold in all but name, and it needs reforming along with the feudal arrangement that we all agree needs getting rid of.
There is one development that I can name because it has already been made public, and I described it in some detail in an Adjournment debate last year. The Brambles in Whitchurch was set up under one of these arrangements but, catastrophically, the developer went bust before the estate was finished. The homeowners are liable for the maintenance of the shared areas, which includes their sewerage connection. But it was not completed properly, and they have faced exorbitant costs of over £1 million between 14 homes to get their foul waste connected to the mains sewers and their roads surfaced. That is very similar to the situation in which some leaseholders found themselves after the disastrous Grenfell fire, when they discovered they were living in buildings covered with dangerous cladding, but there is no equivalent of the Building Safety Act 2022 to protect the homeowners in my constituency who have no sewerage connection.
In a second case, a developer charges astronomical fees for the maintenance of a shared ground source heat pump, but keeps the renewable heat incentive payment, paid by the Government, to himself, in his own, separate company.
In a third case, the management company is connected to the maintenance outsource provider and passes on astronomical costs to the residents. There is no mechanism to help these people; indeed, the practice is becoming the norm. Local authorities are not incentivised to adopt shared areas when they can charge full council tax and effectively dodge the maintenance costs that come with the new dwellings.
When the legislation to deal with our outdated leasehold system is finally brought before the House, I urge the Minister to consider measures to deal with the outrageous practice of fleeceholds, which is being exploited by sharp practice at best and possible criminality at worst, and to ensure that people who have already been subjected to those arrangements can take more control of their situation.
Many people have already entered into fleecehold or leasehold arrangements, before any legislation to protect them has been implemented. For example, nobody should feel pressured to renew their lease before the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022 is implemented. To this end, I am happy that Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Stunell, introduced amendment 9 to that Act in the other place, to protect people who need to renew their leases by creating a duty to inform leaseholders of the contents of the Act before negotiating or renegotiating a lease extension. Unfortunately, the Government removed the amendment when the Bill returned to this place.
When people buy a home, it is often the biggest and most important purchase of their lives—it is a dream realised. They are often promised reasonable-sounding ground rents and maintenance fees, but when they find themselves tied into a cycle of rapidly increasing costs, beyond their control, that dream turns into a nightmare.
We have the means to prevent that happening and we should stop delaying. We should act now to protect them. The Liberal Democrats will support the motion today. I urge the Minister to do so, and to consider the additional problem of fleecehold arrangements when she brings leasehold reform to the House.
I would like to start by taking the House back to 2012, when Grant Shapps was Housing Minister and appeared on Channel 4 to speak about leasehold, and said that only a “tiny, tiny, tiny” number of landlords caused problems. Since then, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, with Martin Boyd and Sebastian O’Kelly, along with Sir Peter Bottomley, Jim Fitzpatrick, when he was a Member of this place, and the National Leasehold Campaign, have proved that analysis to be completely wrong. Let us be clear: those are the people who have contributed time and again to make this the issue that has led us to the debate today.
I got involved in the issue shortly after I was elected to this place. I remind the House of my opening comments in a debate that took place in this Chamber on leasehold:
“What we are discussing today is nothing short of a national scandal. It is the payment protection insurance of the house building industry. Every now and again a sharp practice comes to light which is totally unconscionable and of which every reasonable person would say, “We cannot allow this to continue. Parliament must act.” This is one such occasion.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 618, c. 1342.]
I believe those sentiments have become widely shared by Members across this House, as details of the leasehold scandal have come to light. Indeed, those words could have been easily spoken by any number of Members, on either side, speaking today. But when did I actually say those words? 2016, some seven years ago. It is seven years since the sickness at the heart of our housing system was exposed, but for those who have been victims of the scandal, it seems very little has changed. They remain victims to this day. We cannot allow that to continue.
It is worth reminding ourselves why the issue has come up the political agenda. For me, the lightbulb moment came after I was approached by a couple of constituents who were concerned about having to pay ground rent on their newly purchased home—a home that was the sort of standard new-build construction that can be found anywhere in the country. Why were those properties leasehold at all? There were no common parts or complicated land ownership. The only reason these properties were leasehold was greed. That greed enabled a whole host of fees to be artificially generated, ensuring that every homeowner would be paying far more than they should, for each and every generation to come. What is the justification for those fees, except that it is what people have been signed up to, unwittingly and with poor legal advice? Well, we know what the CMA thinks about that argument. Prices quoted by the developer to purchase the freehold when the property was initially sold rose four, five or even 10 times higher once the developer had sold their interest on. Hundreds of pounds were being demanded for minor alterations to the property and thousands requested if planning permission was sought. Their home, the biggest single purchase most people will ever make in their life, had been turned into a cash converter for the anonymous freeholder.
Then there was the biggest insult of the lot: the ground rent. Initially, it was a modest fee, but a price escalator was hidden away in the small print. Sometimes it would double after 10 years, then double again after another 10 years, and so on. For some leaseholders, in a relatively short period their property became unsellable. The linking of ground rents to RPI is becoming a real issue with inflation so high, even making some of the outrageous doubling ground rent clauses seem reasonable in comparison. That is putting people in hardship, and it is the biggest insult of the lot because ground rent is, literally, money for nothing. Its payment is a complete legal nonsense that does not stand up to even the smallest amount of scrutiny. I do not give Vauxhall another £100 every time I drive in my Astra. If someone buys a home, that should be it; it should be theirs. It should not be a virtually unregulated income stream for an offshore investor who sees that home as just another number on the balance sheet.
As we have seen reported in the Financial Times last week, throughout history the cost of leasehold and freehold homes has generally moved in lockstep, but over the last five years the price of freehold properties has continued to rise but leasehold homes have not kept pace. There is no doubt that the Grenfell tragedy has played a huge part in that, as the inadequacies of the building safety regime have been laid bare, but I also believe that the general toxicity of leasehold as a form of housing tenure, with people unable to sell their homes, has played its part. Leasehold has clearly had its day, but we need the Government to finally consign it to the history books. The pieces are all in place. The knotty legal issues have been untangled and the argument that leasehold has had its day has been won. What is missing is the political will to get that change over the line.
In particular we need to see greater powers for residents over the management of their homes, with new rights for flat owners to form residents’ associations and a simplification of the right to manage. We need leaseholders to have the right to extend a lease to 990 years with zero ground rent at any time, and we need to bring forward reform to the process of enfranchisement valuation for leaseholders, including on marriage values, and prescribing rates for the calculations of the premium. We need a crackdown on unfair fees and contract terms through the publication of a list of reasonable charges, requiring transparency on service charges and giving leaseholders a right to challenge rip-off fees and conditions or poor performance from service companies. We must end the right of third-party landlords to build on other people’s homes without considering their interests, their safety or the quality of their homes. We need to squeeze the freeholders until the pips squeak.
This debate is, at its root, about power, who holds it and how it is exercised. Who owns the land holds the power. That has always been true in this country, but we have moved on from the barons and the lords of the manor to the offshore private equity companies—a 21st-century update of the feudal arrangements that have for so long held this country back. It is an arrangement that no other country in the world has sought to replicate. We know that this Government are not keen on international comparisons but perhaps that ought to tell us something. It is clear from this debate that just about everyone agrees that something needs to change, but I am not confident that we will see change any time soon. I thought the Government were all about taking back control. Do they not realise that a leaseholder does not have control? How can they have control if someone is trying to use their home as a cash cow?
It is a shame that the Secretary of State is not here today to hear this debate. Perhaps he is interviewing the next Housing Minister, given that we have one every couple of months. He is probably the most able member of the Cabinet. Maybe the competition is not up to much, but I believe that he has the cognitive skills to recognise that leasehold as a form of tenure is an intellectual dead end for the freeholders, for his party and for anyone who tries to defend it.
The Law Commission has given us the route out of this mess and the case has been made, but what is lacking is leadership from the very top and the courage to say that this is a priority and this injustice has to come to an end. I believe that all those on the Government Front Bench should go back to the Prime Minister and deliver the simple message that if his party does not want to deal with this issue, it should stand aside and make way for one that does.
I recall, back in the 1980s, the scandal of endowment mortgages. Over the years, I have also owned leasehold properties and had my fingers badly burned, so I understand many of the issues that so many people across the country must be facing.
The public rightly want reform. When people, particularly first-time buyers, look to buy a property, they are not made aware of what they are entering into, particularly with leasehold agreements. They think they are buying a home, so they think they will own the home. Of course, they then discover that they have actually bought high ground rents and extortionate service charges, often for services that are promised but not delivered, such as the maintenance of green space. Homeowners are paying full council tax, yet they are having to pay perhaps another £300 to maintain the verges and parks around these new estates. Some developers promise a council tax discount, despite paying additional amounts to companies such as Greenbelt, which I believe is associated with Persimmon Homes.
The scale of this is extraordinary. I understand there are about 5 million leasehold homes in England, including 8% of houses, and I know just how prohibitively expensive this can be. The absence of sinking funds, the lack of management reporting, the extortionate insurance payments, the charges for permission to make changes, the fact people cannot have bicycles on their property, the fact they cannot fit an electric vehicle charging point, and other ridiculous things—the list goes on.
The Father of the House is absolutely right. In one of the properties in which I was a leaseholder, we set up as directors and took control of the property. We appointed our own management company, at significantly lower cost, to address some of the massive overcharges we faced.
In 2014, the Competition and Markets Authority estimated that the average service charge amounted to just over £1,100 a year, suggesting that service charges could total between £2.4 billion and £3.5 billion a year. My hon. Friend Mr Betts highlighted the 2019 Select Committee report—I was privileged to sit on that Select Committee—which identified that, too often, leaseholders, particularly in new-build properties, have been treated by developers, freeholders and management agents not as homeowners or customers but as a source of steady profit. We concluded by urging the Government to ensure that commonhold became the primary ownership model for flats in England and Wales, as it is in many other countries. Of course, that has not been adopted.
Does my hon. Friend share the frustration that many of my constituents face? When they try to set up “right to manage” companies, and to move towards taking over their freehold, the process and the disputes about which buildings and outhouses constitute part of their property make it extraordinarily complex, and often expensive, to take control of management accounts.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is incredibly complex and extremely expensive to go through that process.
The last Labour Government’s Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 introduced commonhold as a new tenure, which this Government should have pursued over the past 13 years. Progress was not made for two reasons: the conversion from leasehold to commonhold requires consent from everyone with an interest in the property, as my hon. Friend just said; and developers do not want to build new commonhold developments because there is no incentive and no financial upside, as my hon. Friend Justin Madders highlighted. This Government have ignored these exploitative practices, and the ever-louder calls from the public to end them, for 13 years. They launched the Commonhold Council two years ago, so will the Minister update us on what has happened with that? It appears to be nothing.
The public are aware of the Conservative Government’s broken promises. Their 2019 manifesto promised to address this issue by implementing a
“ban on the sale of new leasehold homes”.
That has not happened. Even the Housing Secretary admitted that they should end this “absurd, feudal” system, but we are 13 years on from the last Labour Government and nothing has happened. This Government have let down the public. I appreciate that there is a high incidence of these cases in the north-west England, but there are also some in my constituency. Groups of residents across my local towns are keen to take control of the development of their blocks, but it is too expensive and complicated to do so, as many Members have been saying. In one block of 70 flats, the residents have managed to take that on, but the previous managing agent took £76,000 from the residents’ account and they have not been able to recover the money. The residents are keen to ensure that managing agents are better regulated in any proposed legislation.
As my right hon. Friend Mr Jones said, there is so much sharp practice out there. That is why Labour would implement the three Law Commission 2020 reports in full. They included measures designed to make it easier for leaseholders to convert to commonhold; to allow shared ownership leases to be included within commonhold; to give owners a greater say over how the costs of running their commonhold are met; and to ensure that they have sufficient funds for future repairs and emergency works.
My hon. Friend mentioned sharp practices, which I mentioned to those on the Labour Front Bench at this debate’s opening. I can give many examples from my constituency, but one of the latest involves leasehold companies, or their agents, sending out innocuous questionnaires to people about improvements they may have had done to their homes. People are filling those in and sending them back in good faith, and then getting a bill for the privilege.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and I have examples of that in my constituency; letters will suddenly appear demanding, let us say, £13,000 from each and every resident for changes that have been made and claims of service.
For some time, Labour has been pressing the Government to bring forward the promised leasehold reform part 2 Bill and to ensure it contains those recommendations set out in the Law Commission reports of 2020. As I mentioned at the outset, we have had so many scandals associated with property and mis-selling over the years, including endowment mortgages. There is now an entire parasitic industry surrounding home ownership in this country and it needs to be addressed. The situation is so much better in other countries around the world.
Twenty-one years ago, Labour introduced the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. For the past 13 years, the Government have not seen this issue as a priority. The developers are profiteering and there is a correlation between the profits being made by those companies and the exploitative practices that go on around leasehold developments. This is a scandal and Labour in government will bring an end to it.
For nearly a decade before I was elected as the MP for Ealing North, I had the honour of serving in local and city-wide government in the capital, working every day to tackle the housing crisis. If my memory serves me correctly, when I was working for the Mayor of London, as his deputy mayor for housing, he responded to a Government consultation back in 2017 entitled “Tackling unfair practices in the leasehold market”. I looked at that consultation document this morning and noticed that its introduction cited Sajid Javid, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as having said:
“I don’t see how we can look the other way while these practically feudal practices persist”.
Two years later, following more consultation, the 2019 Conservative manifesto included a commitment to continue reform of the leasehold system. Three years after that, the latest Housing Secretary said that he would
“end the absurd, feudal system of leasehold, which restricts people’s rights”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 715, c. 978.]
The current Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government seemed finally to be on course to do something at the start of this year, confirming that the Government would “absolutely” abolish the feudal system of leasehold and bring forward legislation shortly. Yet here we are, in May 2023, with the Conservatives apparently abandoning their promises to leaseholders. That is why, today, we will be voting to make the Secretary of State keep his promise.
I know the impact that the current system of leasehold can have on people, both as a former leaseholder myself and, crucially, from the experiences of the people I represent. Since I was first elected in 2019, I have been contacted by email, phone, in my advice surgery and on the street by leaseholders from all parts of my constituency to talk about the challenges they face. Let me mention just a few of my constituents here today. I draw the Minister’s attention to leaseholders at Oaklands on Argyle Road. They are facing the prospect of the freeholder adding another storey to their building without any meaningful consultation and despite issues of subsidence in the block.
Meanwhile, leaseholders at Chartwell Close in Greenford have reported great difficulties, costs and a lack of information from the freeholder when trying to exercise their right to manage. Leaseholders at Bridgepoint House, right opposite my constituency office, continue to face a very challenging time with all those involved in owning, building and managing their block as they try to remedy fire safety concerns.
Those are just a few examples of the many people I represent who live in private leasehold flats, and who far too often lack control over, or even a say in, what happens to the place in which they live. That is why I will be glad to vote for our motion today, to press the Government to end the sale of new private leasehold houses, to introduce a workable system to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold, and to enact the Law Commission’s recommendations on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage in full.
The truth is that having security in our own home is a fundamental need for people and families in whatever tenure they live. The impact of leasehold means that, even when people are able to buy a home, which should bring that security, that basic desire for real security is often stymied by a feudal system of ownership. We might have thought—as, indeed, leaseholders across the country might have thought—that when Conservative Ministers said that they did not see how
“we can look the other way while these practically feudal practices persist”,
change was coming. We might have thought that change was coming when Conservative Ministers said that we should, “end the absurd, feudal system of leasehold, which restricts people’s rights”. But after years of opportunities to act, they have proven themselves simply unable to tackle the long-term challenges we face.
The truth is that the Conservatives in Government cannot tackle the long-term challenges we face; they have become a long-term challenge themselves. It is time to do the right thing, to follow Labour’s lead and to give people the security that they need and deserve.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to close for the Opposition. I start by declaring an interest: my wife is the joint chief executive of the Law Commission, whose work I intend to cite in my remarks.
This has been an excellent debate, featuring a great many thoughtful and informed contributions, and I thank all those hon. Members who have taken part in it. In particular, I commend the remarks made by my hon. Friend Mr Betts, my right hon. Friend Mr Jones, and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Blackburn (Kate Hollern), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Ealing North (James Murray). Together, they brought to life the plight of leaseholders across the country and powerfully reinforced the case for bold and urgent reform.
The sense of satisfaction, pride and security that is felt when someone completes the purchase of their first home and the keys are finally handed over is something that millions of homeowners across the country will recognise and remember with fondness. Given a free choice, an overwhelming majority of families would prefer to own their own home, and home ownership remains indelibly associated in the minds of many with security, control, freedom and hope.
Yet, as we have heard, for far too many leaseholders, the reality of home ownership has fallen woefully short of the dream, their lives marked by an intermittent, if not constant, struggle with punitive and escalating ground rents, unjustified permissions and administration fees, with unreasonable or extortionate charges, and with onerous conditions imposed with little or no consultation. For all those leaseholders also affected by the building safety crisis, particularly all those non-qualifying leaseholders who the Government have chosen to exclude from protections in the Building Safety Act 2022, that dream has not just fallen short; it has become a living nightmare.
This is not what home ownership should entail. Under successive Conservative-led Governments, the dream of owning their own home has slipped away for far too many families. Labour is committed to addressing that failure and reviving the dream of home ownership for current and future generations, but we are equally determined to reform the leasehold system fundamentally and comprehensively, by addressing the historical inequity on which it rests and making sure it works in the interests of leaseholders.
The Government ostensibly agree with us on the need to overhaul the entire leasehold system. In 2017 they asked the Law Commission to suggest improvements to both the leasehold and commonhold systems and, once the recommendations were published in July 2020, they made it clear that they were considering how to implement all of them. In 2021 they established the Commonhold Council to prepare the ground for widespread take-up of a collective form of home ownership that is the norm in many other parts of the world.
In 2022 the Government passed, with our support, the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act, which set ground rents on newly created leases to zero. Ministers assured us, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale pointed out, that that legislation was merely the first part of a two-part seminal programme to implement reform in this Parliament. In January this year, in an interview with The Sunday Times, the present Secretary of State went further and unambiguously announced his intention to abolish the leasehold system in its entirety—raising expectations, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham pointed out, among leaseholders across the country.
Yet not only are leaseholders still waiting for the publication of the leasehold reform (part 2) Bill, but, according to recent reports, the Government’s commitment to legislate for fundamental and comprehensive leasehold reform through that Bill looks set to be abandoned after the Secretary of State was overruled by Downing Street. If the substance of those reports is true, it will represent the latest broken promise in 13 years of Conservative failure. The media reports in question indicated that we will see a second leasehold reform Bill in the King’s Speech later this year, but they suggested that No. 10 will only allow the Secretary of State a limited one.
We are told that the Bill in question might include a cap on ground rents, more powers for tenants to choose their own property management company and a ban on building owners’ forcing leaseholders to pay to the other side any legal costs incurred as part of a dispute. However, it is still not clear whether that is the sum total of the measures leaseholders can now expect, or whether Downing Street might give the Secretary of State permission for a little more.
When the Minister closes the debate, will she therefore tell the House, and all the leaseholders across the country who are listening very carefully to what is being said here today, not just what the Government are committed to implementing at some point in the future, but what the major provisions in that forthcoming leasehold reform Bill will now be? Will they be limited to the three measures I just mentioned, or can leaseholders expect more—perhaps a prescribed formula for valuation in standard cases, or, as I believe the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Lee Rowley, implied but did not explicitly confirm, improvements to freehold service charge protection?
If the Minister is not prepared to tell leaseholders what all the major provisions in that forthcoming Bill are likely to be, or if the Government have still not made up their mind after all this time, she owes it to leaseholders at least to clarify whether the Government remain committed to that Bill’s containing all those specific measures relating to enfranchisement, valuation and lease extensions that Robert Jenrick committed to implementing when he was Secretary of State.
As set out in a written ministerial statement of
But whether it ultimately includes merely a handful of worthy measures or all those explicitly committed to by the right hon. Member for Newark during the period he led the Department, what now looks certain is that the scaled-back leasehold reform Bill that the Government are finalising will be a far cry from what successive Ministers—and, in particular, the present Secretary of State—have led leaseholders across the country to believe would be enacted by this Government in this Parliament. When she closes the debate, the least the Minister can do is to be honest with leaseholders about what they should no longer expect from this Government in the way of leasehold reform, and make it clear, if that is indeed the case, that Ministers do not now intend in this Parliament to enact all the recommendations on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage made in the Law Commission’s three reports of 2020.
As well as that honest admission, leaseholders deserve an explanation as to why the Government are seemingly not now prepared to implement those sensible and proportionate recommendations in full. Finding adequate parliamentary time cannot be the reason, given that the Law Commission parliamentary procedure would reduce the time any such legislation would spend on the Floor of the House and enable the Government to complete the process before a general election. The House, as well as all those organisations that have been campaigning for so long on behalf of exploited leaseholders, deserve a clear answer today about the real reason leaseholders look set to be fobbed off with just a limited Bill.
To conclude, nearly 5 million households in England are trapped in an archaic system of home ownership that has its roots in 11th-century English property law. This House has legislated to give leaseholders more rights in the past, but none of those previous efforts fundamentally disturbed the historic inequity on which the system rests, and as a result, leaseholders remain at the mercy of arcane and discriminatory practices, to their detriment and to the benefit of freeholders.
I end by saying this directly to any leaseholders watching our proceedings today. Labour recognises that you have waited long enough for this House of Commons to truly deliver for you. We are determined to fundamentally and comprehensively reform the current system, overhauling leasehold to your lasting benefit and reinvigorating commonhold to such an extent that it will become the default and render leasehold obsolete. If the Government abide by the spirit of the motion tabled today and honour their commitments to you in full, we will work with them constructively to improve your lives, but rest assured that if they do not, a Labour Government will finish the job.
Now that we are all back, I want to reiterate once again how important it is for those who have contributed to the debate to get back to hear not only the Opposition’s but the Minister’s winding-up speeches. One way to ensure that that happens is to actually stay in the debate and hear what other people have to say—a novel idea, I know, but it can be well worth it.
It is a pleasure to wind up this wide-ranging and impassioned debate on behalf of the Government. We have heard from Members across the House of the challenges inherent in the leasehold system—challenges that we are determined to tackle through further reforms in this Parliament. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have given powerful examples from their constituencies of leaseholders who have been hit with unfair and unreasonable costs. I pay tribute to the Father of the House, my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, who set out how he believes life can be made better for people in their homes. I thank him for his considerable and extensive work alongside the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and as co-chair of the APPG on leasehold and commonhold reform. I also thank my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton and my hon. Friend James Grundy for their contributions.
The examples set out by Members across the House only underscore the importance of our work to reform the leasehold sector for good and move towards a simpler, fairer, more equitable commonhold system for flats—a system that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Building Safety rightly asserted in opening the debate, is common around much of the rest of the world.
I do not have much time, and I have a lot to get through, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer the questions asked by him and his colleagues.
The first point to address is one of timing. In a sense, this debate hinges somewhat on a false premise. It hinges on media speculation—
A false premise. It hinges on media speculation, as Matthew Pennycook set out. I want to be very clear that there has been no U-turn, as some have tried to characterise it. This is about timing. As hon. Members will know, it is a long-standing tradition of this House that Ministers cannot comment on precise timescales and details of forthcoming legislation, but I can reassure the House today that officials in my Department are working flat out to bring forward further leasehold reform.
Perhaps hon. Members would like to listen to the remarks I am about to make, because I am sure I will answer their questions.
Lisa Nandy, when she opened the debate, said that it will “take some time to phase out this archaic system.” She said—these were the words from the Opposition Front Bencher—that Labour recognises how complex this is. I think it is right to draw the House’s attention to the Labour party’s record when it was in office. I am holding a document from 1995 in which Labour promised to outlaw the feudal leasehold system, but it did nothing while it was in office. Labour has left it to the Conservative Government to fix these issues.
As hon. Members will know, in January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out his intention to bring the “outdated and feudal” leasehold system to an end. To deliver that intention, and in line with our manifesto commitments, we have embarked on a significant programme of reform to give people real control over their homes and their lives. [Interruption.] It is entirely wrong to say, as Members are chuntering from sedentary positions instead of actually listening to what is being said, that no action is being taken. Perhaps they would like to pay attention.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I might be old-fashioned, but I thought that when Ministers came to the Chamber to reply, they had to reply to the debate. The Minister has thanked Members from her own Benches who have spoken, but detailed questions were asked by Members from across the House. All we are getting is a speech written by civil servants, not a response to the debate, and she is quite clearly refusing to take any interventions from my hon. Friends.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Obviously I am not responsible for the Minister’s speech, but I am sure she will be referring to the contributions made by others during her winding-up speech—she is perhaps coming to that now.
I am also checking to make sure that the other Minister, Lee Rowley, will be coming back to the Chamber. I am not sure that he gave apologies for not being here for the wind-ups, but we are just checking.
I wanted to thank my colleagues on the Government Benches—it is a courtesy of the House that we do so, and unfortunately, they were not thanked by Matthew Pennycook. I am very grateful for all Members’ contributions, and if they will allow me, I will come on to answering their questions.
As I was saying, it is our manifesto commitment to bring to an end the outdated and feudal leasehold system. That is why we have embarked on a significant programme of reform. One issue that has been repeatedly raised in today’s debate is escalating ground rents. The Government have tackled that issue head on through our Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022, ensuring that people buying most new leases will not have to pay a penny in ground rents. For existing leaseholders who have already been saddled with unjustified rent hikes, we have asked the CMA to investigate such unfair terms. The CMA has secured commitments benefiting over 20,000 leaseholders, including the removal of terms that allow for the doubling of ground rents, with the charges instead reverting to original rates.
In 2021, commitments were secured from Aviva, Countryside Properties and Taylor Wimpey to return doubling ground rent terms to original rates, and from Persimmon to support leasehold house owners to buy their freehold at the original price quoted. Last year, similar commitments were secured from 15 landlords who bought freeholds from Countryside Properties, and nine companies that bought freeholds from Taylor Wimpey. A further four national developers—Crest Nicholson, Redrow, Miller Homes and Vistry—
In her opening comments, the Minister referred to the reason why this motion has been tabled, which is media speculation that there is some backtracking from the Government’s commitments on this issue. The motion very clearly says that the Secretary of State should give an oral statement in one month’s time, and the fact that he is not here today sends a terrible message about his and the Government’s priorities. Surely, in the absence of the Secretary of State, the answer is to support the motion.
If the hon. Member will allow me to answer the questions I have been asked, I will come to his points in my remarks.
We are making significant progress to afford real relief to leaseholders, which everyone in the Chamber is calling for, while reforming the system for the better. However, the questions facing leasehold tenure are not simply about money—important though those are—but also include, “Who decides?” For people living in a leasehold home today, we are going to make it easier and cheaper for them to take charge of their building, whether by taking advantage of our reforms to the right to manage or by going all the way and buying out their freeholds following our planned enfranchisement reforms. Both offer to put owners in the driving seat over the decisions that affect them.
In the case of new homes, our ground rent Act has cut off a key source of revenue for freehold landlords. Without strong economic reasons for developers to hold on to, or sell on, the freeholds of other people’s homes, we have created a powerful incentive for builders to put buyers in charge of their new homes from the outset. We know there is more to be done, which is why we are taking two key further steps on new homes.
First, we have made great strides in tackling the needless practice of selling new houses as leasehold. Our actions, including prohibiting Government programmes such as Help to Buy from funding new leasehold houses, have seen the share of new houses sold as leasehold cut from over 15% in 2016 to less than 2% today. But we are clear in our intention to go even further, which means that soon, other than in the most exceptional of circumstances, the selling of new leasehold houses will be banned altogether.
The Minister has just made two commitments. One is banning the sale of new leasehold homes, and the other is bringing in a new process for enfranchisement. Is that a commitment to have both of those in the Bill that will be presented in this Parliament?
It is a commitment that I have made from this Dispatch Box, and the hon. Gentleman has heard me say it clearly. He is an extremely experienced Member of Parliament, and he knows that it is not possible for any Minister to commit to the details of what will be in a future Bill or King’s Speech, but I am making commitments about the measures that we intend to enact.
For buyers of new flats—[Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members would like to hear some further commitments. For buyers of new flats, we will also bring forward much-needed reforms to the commonhold system, so that flat owners and developers will finally have access to a viable alternative to leasehold. It was this Conservative Government that set up the Commonhold Council, and it has met regularly and we are working closely with it.
Several hon. Members spoke about recent reports from the Law Commission, and it is worth saying that we have been working in lockstep with the commission to ensure that our reforms are workable and deliver the outcomes we all want to see. Indeed, I take this opportunity to thank the commission for all its work in this area. It has made more than 300 recommendations for improving the leaseholder system across enfranchisement, including how valuation operates, commonhold, and the right to manage. I have no doubt that hon. Members appreciate the complexity of the reforms in this fiendishly complicated area, and it is absolutely right that we take the necessary time to ensure that they are done properly. We are unapologetic about saying that, for the sake of the owners of 5 million leasehold homes, we have to get this right, and that is what we are committed to do.
I thank the Minister for giving way; she is being generous. I asked a specific question about Wales, and it is the preference of the Welsh Government that reform is brought forward on an England and Wales basis. Will she commit to doing that? Her predecessor, Lucy Frazer, promised that change would be coming “soon”, so why are the Government dragging their heels?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know that we work closely with all the devolved Administrations when we bring forward legislation, and that is the right thing to do.
As hon. Members will know, it is not only leaseholders who are too often subject to unfair or outrageous practices. We should not forget the plight of freehold homeowners who pay towards shared services, such as unadopted roads, but have few rights. The Government remain committed to making estate management companies more accountable to the homeowners for whom they provide services. When parliamentary time allows, we intend to legislate to deliver these commitments, including measures that will allow homeowners the right to challenge the reasonableness of costs they have to pay. We will give them the ability to apply to the first-tier tribunal to appoint a manager to manage the provision of services.
In all aspects of this ambitious programme of reform, the Government are committed to rebalancing what has historically been a largely one-sided relationship between homeowner and landowner. We are affording peace of mind to those who have realised the dream of home ownership—something we on the Government Benches strongly support—giving them much greater control of the place where they and their loved ones sleep at night. Crucially, we are pursuing this agenda in the right way, working hand in hand with the Law Commission, the CMA and our partners across the housing sector.
I think the House is still somewhat confused as to what the Government’s position is. The Minister says there has been no U-turn, so can she confirm that it is the Government’s intention to legislate for all the recommendations that the Law Commission made in its three reports in the forthcoming leasehold reform part 2 Bill?
I refer the shadow Minister to the remarks I have literally just made on that point. I repeat that we are committed to moving to a fairer, simpler and more equitable system. We are committed to the promises in our manifesto, as the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, set out in his opening remarks. These promises have been repeated by previous Secretaries of State with responsibility for housing. That is our ambition, and we will work tirelessly with Members from all parts of the House to make it a reality.
Before I put the Question, I am sure that the Whips Office and those on the Treasury Bench will appreciate that concern has been expressed that the Minister who opened the debate is not here for the closing speeches, and I believe attempts are being made to find out what has happened. I assure colleagues that that will be pursued. I just give a reminder for those who wish to participate in the next debate that it is important to get back in good time for the Opposition wind-up as well as for the Minister’s wind-up, and one way to achieve that is to stay for most of the debate, rather than disappearing off for long periods.
The House divided: Ayes 174, Noes 0.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House notes the commitment by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in January 2023 to abolish the feudal leasehold system which he has acknowledged is an unfair form of property ownership; calls on him to keep his promise to the millions of people living in leasehold properties by ending the sale of new private leasehold houses, introducing a workable system to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold and enacting the Law Commission’s recommendations on enfranchisement, commonhold and the right to manage in full; and further calls on the Secretary of State to make an oral statement to this House by