Leasehold reform: 'endless carrot-dangling over desperate leaseholders’ heads wearing thin'

Campaigners protesting against leaseholds (Shutterstock / Frank 2012)
Campaigners protesting against leaseholds (Shutterstock / Frank 2012)

Was any political promise more doomed to failure than leasehold reform? Since 2017, the Government has repeatedly pledged that the “outdated feudal system” would be overturned — yet in the intervening years, any proposed policies have been watered down so vigorously as to be unrecognisable.

As confirmed in today’s King’s Speech, leaseholds will only be banned for new-build houses, and not flats — which account for 70 per cent of all leasehold homes in the UK.

And, though a list of protections for leaseholders at the mercy of their managing agents has been outlined, exactly when they come into practice, and how, remains anyone’s guess.

Why the Government insisted all leaseholders hang on until today’s big reveal — and then failed to reveal any of the key details that might actually help them — is unclear, but until then, one thing feels certain: leaseholders remain losers.

The proposed bill will apparently make buying and selling quicker by setting a maximum time for provision of information required to make a sale, but when?

Too many families simply trying to move on with their lives have had sales fall through thanks to unscrupulous agents refusing to hand over the required documents — all of whom have been left yet further out of pocket by needless solicitors’ fees for purchases that were never going to happen. And that's on top of the extortionate fees they are already paying; according to ONS data, Londoners' service charges have gone up by a third in two years.

If Gove, Rishi Sunak et al really wanted to show commitment to reforming a system that continues to blight an estimated 10m leaseholders’ lives across the UK, a few dates and hard facts might have been worth including

Today leaseholders have also been told there will be “better transparency” over costs charged by the freeholder or managing agent “in a standardised comparable format [so they] can scrutinise and better challenge them if they are unreasonable.” Wonderful. But again, when, and how?

For all the years of talk that the leasehold system is not fit for purpose, the same can be said of the current process through which leaseholders must attempt to get redress. It costs £300 per application (£100 for the submission and £200 for the hearing), along with solicitors’ costs (well into the thousands), and the many hours it takes to pull each together.

For honest owners who have never had a need to enter the legal system, the process is too costly, time-consuming and frankly, nail-biting, to see through — not least when you have legal threats pouring in from the agents in question.

Another pledge on the Government's list today is that it “will require more freeholders to belong to a redress scheme so leaseholders can challenge them if needed” (the latter two words presumably being their attempt at humour), but the same questions remain.

Ditto of the promise that leaseholders will no longer be liable for agents’ court costs when challenging poor practice, which Mark Chick, senior partner at Bishop & Sewell LLP, describes as “the biggest” of today's announcements. Yet “how this would work in practice… is not clear at this stage,” he says. “There is of course the usual caveat that the devil will be in the detail.”

If Gove, Rishi Sunak et al really wanted to show commitment to reforming a system that continues to blight an estimated 10m leaseholders’ lives across the UK, a few dates and hard facts might have been worth including.

Again, it looks like the Government is posturing, rather than tackling the problem, one which allows humankind to stoop to its very worst.

Last week I learned that agents in London had repossessed a man suffering from dementia's home, due to his failure to pay his ground rent. He had been dutifully paying until that point, along with his mortgage, but when his condition meant he was no longer able to respond to payment notices nor their court summons, he was evicted, and his home repossessed.

“They would not even allow us to pick up keys to collect personal belongings,” his friend tells me, adding that emails from both he and the man in question’s social worker to explain his situation went unanswered. “It is all very sad,” he says. The man is now in a care home.

In recent months I have heard dozens of equally devastating stories: the young couples who can't keep their heads above water as shocking service fees mount; constant threats of repossession and court action levelled at families, and any attempt at trying to facilitate reasonable conversation with agents who can sign whatever number they like on bills with scant recourse ignored.

Some companies go through the existing tribunal dozens of times each month - yet the law still, somehow, remains on their side.

The endless carrot-dangling over desperate leaseholders’ heads is wearing thin. Until the Government states exactly what their gameplan entails, it's as good as none at all.