Clause 2 - Excepted leases

Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 7th December 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The Minister is now speaking to clause 2 stand part.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Thank you. I was. I appreciate that it is not my job to be concerned on behalf of the Opposition, but I felt that there could have been some early morning settling into the rhythm of the Committee. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale may have missed the opportunity to speak to new clause 1—[Interruption.]

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. I actually asked the hon. Gentleman quite clearly whether he wished to speak to new clause 1, and he decided that he did not. We are now debating clause 2 stand part.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Sorry. I made a mistake. I do apologise, Mr Hollobone. I thought you said clause 1.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Because that particular opportunity was missed, we will ungroup—very kindly, on the Clerk’s advice—new clause 1 from that first group. When we come back to new clause 1 later in proceedings, the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to speak to it. His opportunity will come; it just has not come when we thought it would. We are now debating clause 2 stand part.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

You are very kind, Mr Hollobone. Clause 2 will be of significant interest as it sets out those leases not regulated by the Bill. We have taken care to tightly define these, as we are aware that any loopholes might lead to abuse of the system and a monetary ground rent being charged where we had not intended it. I will consider each of the exceptions in turn.

First, subsections (1) to (3) detail how business leases will be excepted. It is important that a commercial lease that contains a dwelling, such as for a shop or other business, can continue to operate as now, and that landlords of such buildings are not disadvantaged. Businesses are also likely to prefer to pay some form of rent rather than a premium for the use of the property. However, we also need to protect residential leaseholders from any argument by a landlord that a ground rent is payable because of the possibility of a business use. For that reason, subsection (1)(a) states that the lease must expressly permit the premises under the lease to be used for business purposes without further consent from the landlord.

In our response to the technical consultation on ground rent, published in June 2019, we committed that mixed-use leases would not be subject to a peppercorn rent. The example given was a flat above a shop, where these are both on the same lease. In such instances, it would be important that a commercial rent can continue to be paid, to reflect the business use of part of the building. However, we wish to ensure that the Bill does not result in a plethora of mixed-use leases that are to all intents dwellings but where the tenant pays a monetary ground rent. For this reason, subsection (1)(b) requires that, for such leases, the use of the premises as a dwelling must significantly contribute to the business purposes.

The Bill also includes provision to make sure that both parties intend and are aware of this business-use component of the lease. Subsection (1)(c) achieves this by requiring that the landlord and tenant exchange written notices at or before the lease is granted confirming the intention to use and continue to use the premises for the business purposes set out in the lease. The form of this notice will be prescribed in forthcoming regulations. Subsection (3) defines business as including a trade, profession or employment, but not a home business as under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954.

Statutory lease extensions for flats are already required to be at a peppercorn rent, so we have excepted them from the requirements of the Bill in order to avoid duplication. We will come to so-called voluntary lease extensions for flats when we consider clause 6. Statutory lease extensions for houses are required by legislation to be for 50 years for payment of no premium, but for a modern ground rent, which is typically higher than a peppercorn. Were the Bill to require that rent to be only a peppercorn, we would deprive the landlord of income for the granting of the lease extension. For that reason, those extensions are exempted from the Bill. However, we intend to return to the wider question of enfranchisement in future legislation. Our changes to the enfranchisement valuation process, including abolishing marriage value and prescribing rates, will result in substantial savings for some leaseholders, particularly those with less than 80 years left on their lease. The length of a statutory lease extension will increase to 990 years, from 90 years for flats and 50 years for houses.

I will turn now to community housing leases and other specialist products that we do not want to compromise. Community housing schemes promote the supply of new housing to meet local need where residents contribute towards the cost of shared community services. The use of ground rent in those cases is very different from ground rent for long residential leases where no clear service is provided in return. As we have done throughout clause 2, we have taken care to tightly define community housing leases to ensure that that exception applies only where intended. It covers long leases where the landlord is a community land trust, or the lease is a dwelling in a building that is controlled or managed by a co-operative society. We expect that to cover all deserving dwellings. We have also made provision, should it be needed, to add further conditions to those definitions in order to close a loophole should one be identified in future.

The clause also exempts certain financial products in cases where a form of rent is needed for the product to operate as intended. Subsection (9) defines them as regulated home reversion plans and homes bought using a rent to buy arrangement. It is important that those specialist financial products can continue, maximising choice for homeowners over how they finance their property purchase.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I think that many people who get involved in rent to buy perhaps do not understand that they may be excluded from that provision. I notice that the Minister is securing for himself some capacity to make regulations in future in relation to those particular types of leases. Could he give the Committee an indication of what kinds of regulations he anticipates will be made under the power that the Bill will grant him in respect of those particular kinds of rent to buy leases?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am embarrassed to say that I cannot, and the reason is that we do not know what the loopholes might be. We have a clever bunch of people who seek to avoid legislation. It will be helpful for the Government to be able to make such changes as might be necessary depending on the inventiveness of the people we deal with in future.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I am grateful to the Minister; it is remarkably honest of him to say that he does not know. One does not always hear that from Ministers, but am I getting the sense that the intent is to ensure that there is not some kind of workaround to the regulations and to the law, and that the intention is to protect those who have taken out rent to buy plans from oppressive provisions by landlords to charge some kind of ground rent, which the Bill is seeking to get rid of generally?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

On the intent, there are some financial products that we have exempted because the structure of their operation is dependent on the continuation of rent payments, but the opportunity is to make regulation in the future should people, for example, pretend to be something they are not, or try to do so. If we have the opportunity to close that down, I think that will be the intention. I feel that the hon. Lady could be building a case for future interventions—we will see. I think she is gathering evidence.

Subsection (9)(a) is clear that in order to benefit from this exemption, home reversion plan products must be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Subsection (10) defines a rent to buy arrangement, ensuring that arrangements such as Sharia mortgages are able to continue. It is important that the Bill enables legitimate activities that require payment of a rent to continue, which clause 2 does in a carefully considered way that has been informed by detailed consultation. The clause is drafted to enable such activities but with tight definitions, ensuring that the clause is not used by landlords to charge a ground rent by the back door.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:45 am, 7th December 2021

I thank the Minister for his explanation. I understand the exemptions and I am pleased that they are limited in scope. What reassurance can he give that there will be no unintended consequences in community housing, for example? He referred to ground rent as a means of recovering service charges. That has been a problem for the industry over a considerable number of years.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

It is important to point out that the Bill does not cover service charges. In the other areas that we are talking about, ground rent is paid for no discernible benefit in return, but in a community land trust there is the benefit of a shared endeavour to create high-quality community housing, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s concern applies.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.