Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[Relevant documents: Twelfth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2017-19, Leasehold Reform, HC 1468, and the Government Response, CP 99; Correspondence between the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and the Chairman of the Local Government Association on the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, dated 3 November and 16 November 2021; Correspondence from the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing on the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill, dated 23 November 2021.]
New Clause 1
Ground rent for existing long leases
“Within 30 days of the day on which this Act comes into force, the Secretary of State must publish draft legislation to restrict ground rents on all existing long residential leases to a peppercorn.”—(Mike Amesbury.)
This new clause aims to ensure that the Government introduces further legislation to remove ground rent for all leaseholders, whereas the Act currently only applies to newly established leases.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 3, line 16, at end insert—
“Retirement developments where some leasehold residential flats have already been sold prior to commencement but others remain unsold
(12) A lease is an excepted lease if it is a lease of a retirement home in a development, where—
(a) other residential flats within the development have sold and completed on a long leasehold before the relevant commencement day under section 26(4) but it is a flat within the development which remains unsold, and
(b) the development commenced prior to 6th July 2021.”
This amendment seeks to avoid retirement developments where properties are on the market, but not fully sold by the time the Act comes into force for retirement properties, needing to have two lease types within one building, some paying ground rents and others funding the development of communal areas by another method.
Let me begin by thanking all colleagues who have helped this short but important Bill through its stages so far, including our friends in the other place. In particular, I thank those who joined the Minister and me in scrutinising the Bill in Committee. Let me also begin with an apology to the Minister. I told him on the occasion of our final meeting in the Committee that that would be my last outing in respect of housing, having handed over the portfolio to my capable hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), who is sitting behind me. I was wrong to say that, and I am very pleased that I was wrong. I stand here today ready to continue to raise an issue which matters hugely to me, to many of my constituents, and to leaseholders across the country—and, indeed, to the Minister himself.
Although the Bill is short, many important issues in it have already been covered extensively, first by our colleagues in the other place and then by Members here, in Committee. I do not wish to repeat too much of what has already been said, but the two new clauses tabled for Report are an opportunity for Members on both sides of the House to raise again two important aspects of the Bill.
New clause 1 would require the Government to produce draft legislation within 30 days to reduce ground rents to a peppercorn in existing long residential leases. The antiquated feudal system of leasehold is unjust for the many and not just the new. People in England and Wales have been trapped in that relic from the past for far too long. I urge the Minister to set them free, level up their life chances and support the new clause.
New clause 1 proposes that the narrow scope of the Bill be simply widened to improve the lives of leaseholders—the 4.5 million people trapped in this feudal system. Some 1.4 million of them are in houses, many in the north, the north-west and Wales, and may be experiencing high ground rents on top of other exploitative terms built into their leasehold contracts.
We are all united in wanting to stamp out abusive practices with ground rents, but is the defect of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment not that it amounts effectively to a confiscation of existing property rights? That in itself has fairness issues, but it also deters future investment in our building stock. That future investment is needed, for example, if we are going to insulate against climate change and turn our buildings into more carbon neutral ones for the future.
The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee looked at the leasehold issues in some detail and produced a report that led to the Competition and Markets Authority conducting its investigation. We looked at the issue of property rights and took advice and evidence from leading property lawyers, who said that where there is a general public interest, it is perfectly reasonable under the European convention on human rights to go down the road being suggested, and that even for existing properties, the ground rent system and other leasehold issues could be changed to reflect the fact that currently they are simply unfair.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and all the work he and the Select Committee have done to move the matter forward. Together with the Select Committee and many others, I certainly want to see this system kicked into history.
I reaffirm that campaigners have waited long enough for change, and we should not keep them waiting any longer. A former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), referred to the Bill as the “appetiser” before “the main course”. Again, I affirm that what we need is an all-you-can-eat buffet of reform here and now.
Amendment 1, tabled by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), would prevent some retirement properties from being bound by the legislation. Unfortunately, we are not able to support the amendment. In fact, in Committee I tabled an amendment that would have done quite the opposite. Those who buy retirement properties should have been able to benefit from this new legislation and be put on par with everybody else. Justice is justice. The right hon. Member has certainly been consistent, but consistently wrong on this matter.
I will agree to disagree. The Government have proposed a compromise, giving a longer transition phase for retirement properties, and we will support that approach, as was stated in Committee.
I find that the concerns of retirement community developers do not outweigh the need for those buying retirement properties to be treated fairly as consumers. Given the notice that the retirement community has had about the change, the transition period is generous enough. Many in the industry have done the right thing and already moved away from this income stream model, and I ask that their colleagues do the same.
In conclusion, the Bill marks another milestone in the slow journey to put the feudal system of leasehold into the history books. I thank all those campaigners who have educated legislators and the Government to secure change. The investigation and intervention from the Competition and Markets Authority have shone an authoritative light on the leasehold scandal. Developers have been exposed and are now responding by ditching the practice of doubling ground rents every 10 years. I urge Ministers to strengthen the Bill for all leaseholders and back new clause 1.
I draw your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am deeply embarrassed about the way that the retirement living industry has been treated over the past few years in the progress to this Bill. In recognition of the significantly greater capital costs of building developments that have communal areas, which have traditionally been funded through an income stream of ground rent, the industry was granted an exemption, or an assurance that it would be exempt from the provisions of the Bill, back in June 2019. That exemption was then withdrawn in January 2021. I understand that the decision to withdraw the exemption was made almost a year earlier, in February 2020, and that discussions about revoking the assurance of exemption had actually begun in August 2019. Throughout all that period, the industry continued to be reassured that the exemption was good and would hold, and it was not.
Throughout that period, the industry continued to raise capital on the basis of the model with which they had been told they could continue. The amendment goes one tiny little bit towards trying to remedy the damage that has been done. It accepts that the practice will have to end, but it asks for one tiny concession, namely that, when the provisions of the Bill bite in March 2023, properties that are part-sold can continue to sell the residual remaining flats or properties on the basis of a continued ground rent. Without that, what we will have is some properties within a development being worth significantly more in terms of the purchase price than others, and some properties paying a ground rent and others not. It will be hugely complicated and divisive. Therefore, the amendment merely asks for that to be addressed. At the most, if the provision were to pass, we anticipate that this would account for about 2,000 properties. I ask the Minister to reflect on this, and, even at this late hour, accept the amendment.
I rise to speak in support of new clause 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury).
To respond to the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), on the issue of ground rents, it is clear that service charges are for communal areas. Indeed, McCarthy Stone’s website says very clearly—
Indeed: ground rents are payments for which nothing is received in return, which is why they should be abolished. For the record, I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform and have campaigned for the abolition of ground rents for a number of years, having seen the impact on individuals of their use and abuse.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale for tabling the new clause and for being a consistently strong advocate for leaseholders during his time as an Opposition spokesperson. He apologised at the start of his speech; I would ask him to resign based on that apology had he not already been moved to another position. [Laughter.] He has done a sterling job in this brief, and the new clause is typical of the way he has used every opportunity available to him to push forward the cause for leaseholders.
As we know, new clause 1 would not abolish ground rents altogether but, if it is agreed to, will set a timescale by which concrete proposals on their abolition must be put forward. That is important because for too long my constituents and thousands of others have suffered because of the leasehold scandal.
I know that the overturning of a system that has been in place for 1,000 years is not necessarily straightforward, and arguments will always be made as to why things cannot happen, but, as has been said so many times—I have already said it once in this debate myself, but it is worth saying it again and again because it is such a powerful point that can never be made enough—ground rent is a payment made for which absolutely nothing is received in return. Why, then, can we not get on and reduce that payment to effectively nothing so that the legal position reflects the reality of the situation? That would send out an important signal—not just a departmental press release but a signal that will make a tangible difference to people’s lives: that the days of leasehold are numbered and that this place does not accept that ground rent is a legitimate payment.
We see ground rent for what it is: a feudal device used to suck money away from people who get no benefit and no advantage from the payment but risk losing their home if they do not make it. Such arrangements have no place in the 21st century or, indeed, any century.
Some say that we should not ban ground rents on existing leases because that would introduce an element of retrospective impact on long-standing investments, including pension funds, but that is not an argument I have any sympathy with. The toxicity of leasehold has now been known for at least five years, which is plenty long enough for any investor to have taken a closer look at what they were involved in, looked for alternative sources of income and realised that nobody with an ounce of humanity should be using people’s homes as an investment vehicle—and especially not ones that included leases that were so onerous they made the homes unsellable.
Yes, there is a concern that we should not readily change the law so that it works retrospectively and changes the legal nature of a contract after it has already been entered into, but let us not forget that this place voted to introduce the loan charge, which retrospectively changed the law, arguably to the considerable detriment of many who say they were misled about what they signed up to at the time. There are parallels, because let us not forget that the victims of leasehold did not sign up to leases in the full knowledge of what they entailed. The developers, lenders and lawyers all have some degree of culpability, but the innocent victims—the leaseholders—do not.
The Competition and Markets Authority has been clear on several occasions that leaseholders have been wronged, and I welcome its decisions, but of course those decisions do not cover everyone, which is why we in this place need to step in. We often talk in the House about the plight of the Women Against State Pension Inequality—did the WASPI women not sign up for something very different from what they ended up with?
I know there are legal opinions about freeholders’ human rights, but what about my constituents’ human rights? In fact, I would love the owner of a set of freeholds to get on the witness stand and try to convince a judge that they are the wronged party in all this. I would love to ask them whether they think people should have the right to live in their own homes without them being used as an income stream for someone else.
The irony of what we are debating is that many of those who have done the most to bring the leasehold scandal to the public’s attention—I think in particular of the National Leasehold Campaign—stand to benefit the least from this Bill because there is nothing in it to help existing leaseholders. That is why new clause 1 is so important. Four years ago, when he was Communities Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) promised an outright ban on leasehold houses, and we all hoped that by now a law would be in place for everyone so that these wrongs could be righted. Those people deserve an end to this. They deserve hope that something will finally be done to make their lives a little better. If the Government cannot support the new clause, then, at the very least, I would like to hear from the Dispatch Box a commitment in the form of a final date by which the scourge of leasehold will finally be consigned to the history books. The wronged leaseholders deserve that, and it is about time it happened.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). I share his concerns and those of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), because a significant number of new homes built in the north-west of England, particularly in my constituency and in theirs too, have been on leasehold contracts. Although I recognise the aim of the new clause, I am not completely sure that it will resolve all the issues for my constituents, and I want to talk through some of the issues that they have told me about over the past couple of months.
I welcome many of the proposals set out in the Bill and recognise the important role that they will have in protecting leaseholders moving forward. I am, though, concerned that, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, they will offer little comfort for the thousands of homeowners who have become trapped in historical leases, which I am afraid many were even unaware they were purchasing when they signed for their new home. That includes an number of constituents in Warrington South who have spent the past 12 years trying to resolve a situation that they were inadvertently drawn into when they were mis-sold their properties on the Steinbeck Grange estate in Chapelford village by David Wilson Homes.
My constituents believed they were purchasing their properties freehold, and many were not disabused of this position until several months after they moved in, when they received an invoice. One might rightly ask why their lawyers did not make them aware when they were signing the contract. It has become clear that most of them used a legal firm recommended by the developer—by the house builder’s sales team—and those lawyers failed to point out the tenure under which the properties were being sold, and failed to make Steinbeck residents aware of the important clause in their contract documents. By using their first names in dealings with clients, they made sure they could not be traced by dissatisfied customers once they became aware of the situation. The law firm went into administration within days of the estate being completed.
I note with interest that the Law Society’s response to the Bill states that it is not the solicitor’s place to dissuade a client from entering into a particular transaction; their role is to ensure that the transaction is legally sound and efficiently completed. I agree with that, but I believe that every lawyer has a responsibility to their clients, and in this case the client was not the developer but the homeowner, or prospective homeowner. They should have made clear all the elements of the contract and their clients should have been advised accordingly. I am aware of one Warrington solicitor who, when looking at the contract that was brought to him, advised the purchaser not to proceed because of the leasehold situation, and has come forward to give me all those details.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating several issues surrounding the potential mis-selling of leasehold properties. I thank the CMA for its endeavours in addressing this poor practice. It has been to Warrington and engaged with my constituents, and I am incredibly grateful for the work that it is doing there. These investigations have looked at four developers—Persimmon, Countrywide, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes, which is the parent company of David Wilson Homes. To date, the CMA has reached agreements with the first three. I therefore encourage the management of Barratts to recognise the harm that has been caused by its past sales polices and agree a way forward with the CMA as soon as possible to put things right.
Many hon. and right hon. Members have raised these issues in this House, but progress is also down to the tenacity of the men and women trapped in unfair leasehold contracts across the country who have continued to fight for their rights. I particularly praise my constituent Mr Mike Carroll, who has refused to take no for an answer and is continuing to work tirelessly with me and his neighbours to achieve the right and just outcome for them.
Ministers also need to look again at how consumer bodies around the country, particularly trading standards, should be working in the interests of homeowners, to help them resolve some of these issues. In the case of homeowners in Warrington, trading standards appear not to have been interested and have done little to involve themselves in any investigations. That is not the case in other parts of the country, where resolutions have been reached. I note in particular that Cardiff trading standards got involved and looked very closely at some of these practices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity in looking after his constituents. All of us across the House try to do that, and he has done a brilliant job. On other areas that need to be addressed, the solicitors that have gone into administration were insured. The big companies have liability insurance sitting in pots, so leaseholders could simply say to the insurers, “You’ve had the premium, and now we want to see some help from you.”
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The greatest challenge that my constituents face is that they cannot find the people who did the work—the lawyers no longer exist as a company body. My constituents are working to try to find some recompense, and I hope that the situation will be resolved by the CMA.
Will the Minister consider what actions his Department can take to tackle the problem faced by residents on Steinbeck Grange in Warrington and elsewhere who are locked into leaseholds and did not expect to be in this situation? I hope he will look very carefully at what the CMA says. I know that he has been working with the CMA to try to find solutions, and I hope that he will continue to do that, so that a satisfactory outcome can be found. Having met residents and constituents on Friday evening, I know that the impact that this has had on their lives cannot be overestimated. They have been living through a genuine nightmare, having bought what they thought was their dream home. I urge the Minister to think about the impact that this has had on those individuals.
It is time not only for us to protect those who will be looking to buy a new home in the future, but to secure justice for those who have been mis-sold properties in the past and are still paying a heavy price through unreasonable management fees and escalating ground rents. I am pleased to support the Government’s efforts, but I urge them to go further.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I welcome the steps that the Government have already taken but encourage them to go that little bit further.
Thinking back to the Select Committee inquiry in, I think, 2018, I remember that we invited not just formal witnesses—I have mentioned certain very distinguished lawyers who advised us—but many leaseholders from up and down the country. Up to 100 people came to events. There were a number of roundtables at which they met individual members of the Committee and told us about their experiences.
All the issues that the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) has just raised were in our report, including mis-selling and how lawyers told people, “It’s just the same as freehold, really. It isn’t any different: you own your own house and, by the way, there’s an incentive to go with us on this leasehold arrangement. Here are the presents we’ll give you, the garden we’ll do up for you and the new carpets we’ll provide.” What solicitors were doing was scandalous, and we identified that in our report.
The simple message we had from everyone present was, “Everyone’s talking about changing the system for the future, but we’ve got problems here and now.” I understand why the Bill goes only so far on future ground rents and future arrangements, because it is more challenging and complicated to unwind existing legal arrangements than it is to describe what should happen in new arrangements, but I say to the Minister that the people in these leasehold homes who are experiencing all the problems that have already been explained, including in our report, think that that is unfair. They think that people in the future will be protected but that they will not and that Ministers, having raised the issue, should take it one step further and bring in the same rules for them. It is almost as simple as that. They cannot understand why, as they see it, they are being left behind and, so far, ignored on not just ground rents but a range of issues including the mis-selling of the service charge and all the other scandals that the Select Committee unearthed in its inquiry.
On new clause 1, if the Minister were to say, “I can’t accept 30 days, but I’ll put in 90 days, ” or even, “I’ll put in a year,” I think there would be general agreement. At least we would have a timetable for when draft legislation will come forward. Will the Minister give us a bit of certainty about when we will get the full legislation that is promised? The Government have committed to it, and there is no argument about the principle.
The new clause mentions “draft legislation”, and I offer again to the Minister that the Select Committee will go through that in detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. Given that it will be technically complicated but without a great deal of party political contention, that is exactly the sort of role that we can play. That would allow the Government to bring legislation forward more quickly because—before it sees the light of day—we can quickly iron out problems that would normally take Ministers and civil servants ages.
Finally, I still want a little more reassurance on the costs of the Government’s proposed measures. The Minister has exchanged correspondence with me, as Chair of the Select Committee and, as I understand it, there will be a new burdens agreement with the Local Government Association—although that has not been published yet—and there will be some money to help with enforcement, with other money coming from fines when people misbehave and charge ground rents in the future that are not compliant with the law. That is all well and good, but the problem is that, in the same letter, the Minister says that the Government do not expect many breaches to occur, so I worry that the enforcement teams will be another burden on councils’ already overstretched budgets. Given that fines will clearly not cover all the costs involved, what will be the new arrangements?
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On new clause 1, I do not think there is any argument that we need to look at historical leaseholds. However, my constituency has lots of new build and regeneration going on, and a lot of leasehold properties being built, and I am not convinced that that investment would come forward if the developers did not see where that income stream would come from, including pensions and so on. A lot of evidence is going back and forth, but I disagree just on that point.
I completely agree on the historical leasehold issue. The real problem is in the myriad different leases that are out there and have been for many years. I read the Select Committee report referred to by its Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), a moment ago, and I found some of the things that lawyers were doing astonishing. It fascinates me how they ever got insured and how they have not been struck off—I know that other investigations are going on. This is about not just ground rent but service charges and buildings insurance, which is an issue we must address, whether in this Bill or another measure.
I own a freehold property with a mortgage, and I have contents and buildings insurance. In my buildings insurance, I have legal protection of the sort that we would expect our constituents to benefit from when they pay for buildings insurance. However, those in leasehold properties must pay buildings insurance to the freeholder or their management company and have no choice whatsoever about the company, what the premium is or what the coverage is. I use an example from my own constituency of what happens when a claim is made. We had a large sinkhole in a housing development where there were leaseholders: I sat in a meeting with the insurance representative, the freeholder and my leaseholder constituents, and the insurance company said straight to me, absolutely deadpan, “Your constituents may well have paid the premium, but the policy is not theirs. They have no cover whatsoever—the cover is for the freeholder.”
There has to be something morally wrong about that. Insurance has developed over the years; it used to cover very few things, but these days nearly all buildings insurance worth its salt has legal protection. That is what it says on the tin. The Bill does not cover that in the way I think it should. Sometimes it is wrapped into the service charges and everything else, and the ground rent is part of that package, but at the same time we have houses with historical freeholds, some of them from the old military estates where people have bought properties on what used to be Ministry of Defence property, and they are paying leasehold rents on what everybody assumed was a freehold property. Something is structurally wrong.
There was an allusion earlier to looking forward rather than back. I say to the Minister that looking forward is fantastic—we need some dates and some targets that our constituents can look forward to—but we should not rule out looking back just because it is difficult. As I said on the Building Safety Bill in this House only last week, looking back because it is difficult is what this House is supposed to do. It will be more difficult to look back and bring in those leaseholders, our constituents, who feel left out of this legislation and still very vulnerable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said, but it can be done.
This is not a case of, “It’s impossible”, because we are doing it retrospectively in the Building Safety Bill. We are going back 30-odd years retrospectively on that Bill. Can the Minister explain, when he sums up on new clause 1, why the Government feel that that is so difficult, when we are doing it on a separate piece of legislation that is going through the House today?
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I express my support for new clause 1; I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), and to others across the House, for their words tonight and for pointing out the enormous imbalance between powerful developers on the one hand and people buying a property for themselves, who possibly do not have all the information before them that ideally they should, on the other.
I refer to an issue in my own constituency, an attractive modern development on the edge of the town of Woodley, which is part of my Reading East constituency. The Loddon Park development is relatively recent, but there is a clear need for action to be taken. This development is in the south-east of England, a different part of the country from many of the developments mentioned tonight, and while there are some similarities there are also some differences.
Loddon Park is an attractive new estate, built in the past few years in parkland on the edge of Woodley. There are several hundred properties, a mixture of owner-occupied and some social housing. There are many attractive ponds and features, including meadowland, in the development. Unfortunately, when the whole development was given planning permission, the local authority—mistakenly, I believe—allowed the site developer to charge upkeep for those common areas in perpetuity. There is no limit, as I understand it, to the charge that can be made. It is deeply unfair for normal householders—many of them have young families, are commuters who work locally and are facing, like many people across the country, significant rises in the cost of living—to face in addition ongoing costs for maintaining the landscape around their homes. Frankly, that is wrong.
I hope the Minister will consider new clause 1. We have heard arguments from many MPs across the House and from different places around the country, whether in the south or the north of England; we have heard from the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who set out some powerful legal arguments for why this action should be considered. I hope the Minister will look at it again, even at this stage, and will consider further action by the Government and our new clause.
It is always a pleasure to make a contribution in such debates, and it is nice to be here. When we look at amendment 1 and the reasons why the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) tabled it, as he expressed in his contribution, it is hard to say that we should not support it.
We must make sure that there is financial fairness for leaseholders, especially long leaseholders who plan to hold a lease for more than 21 years. The issue of ground rent payment has been brought to my attention by my constituents, and the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) rightly gave an example of his constituents. An elderly couple in my constituency, who paid their mortgage off more than 15 years ago, are still paying ground rent of more than £50 a year. Although that is not much, I am pleased that the need to abolish this has been recognised. We already changed the legislation in Northern Ireland, so I understand why this Minister and Government are looking forward to making these changes tonight. Many Members have stated that many people have long leases with higher ground rents at the start of their lease, with shorter ground rent review periods. As a result, leaseholders face unsustainable ground rents, so there is a real need to change this, as hon. Members have said.
Leaseholders with high or escalating ground rents will often struggle to remortgage or sell their houses, leaving them in greater financial distress. The Bill aims to restrict ground rents on newly created long residential leases, with some exceptions, to a token of one peppercorn a year. That effectively restricts ground rents to zero financial value. The intention is to make leasehold ownership fair and more affordable for leaseholders. We should support that purpose.
In Northern Ireland, individuals can apply to the Land Registry to buy out their ground rent. In some cases, the individuals cannot afford to pay the substantial sum outright, so I am pleased that the Bill has assurances for long leaseholders and that Government have protected householders. If ground rent is demanded in contravention of the Bill and any payment received is not returned in 28 days, the landlord will face a fine ranging from £500 to £30,000 per qualifying lease. The fines are clear and hopefully prohibitive.
However, there is one substantial problem with the Bill, as others have said: it will apply only to new leases and will not assist existing leaseholders faced with high and escalating ground rents. I feel that they should not be left behind and I would be grateful if the Minister clarified this matter, looked at it again and considered the impact that the situation has not only on finance, but the possibility of remortgaging or selling property.
The Bill’s commencement date has also raised concerns across the House, so I would be grateful if more clarity was given about that. A Bill on broader leasehold reform is expected in the third Session of this Parliament and I would encourage discussion and a closer look at how the situation can be improved to make circumstances easier for leaseholders. Others have said that we just need a wee bit more movement, and perhaps that can be done in the next Session.
This is a bit like the Rolling Stones tour in that I said goodbye to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and he has come back for an encore, for another concert. However, like the Rolling Stones, it is good to see him back again. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contribution to this debate and for the constructive way in which they have engaged with the Bill throughout its passage. I particularly thank the Opposition Front Bench team for their helpful contributions.
I will address each amendment, starting with amendment 1 in the name of the hon. Gentleman. The difficulties faced by existing leaseholders have rightly been raised by Members across the House, both in Committee and in correspondence. I understand Members’ points about the fact that the Bill relates only to new leases. I point out, however, as I did in Committee, that the Bill is just the first of two-part legislation to reform the leasehold system and that further legislation will follow in this Parliament, so I encourage others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), to engage with me in discussions on the second part of the legislation as it begins to form.
The Government understand the urgency of the need for changes for leaseholders paying out unacceptable charges day to day. However, I do not think that the arbitrary deadline in new clause 1 is useful in this context, and similar is true of the alternative deadlines suggested by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). Although I appreciate that this is not completely relevant, Madam Deputy Speaker, on what he said about new burdens, the point of legislation such as this is to encourage people to behave appropriately so that they treat leaseholders fairly and there are no cases. However, as the Bill is implemented and we see how it develops, I look forward to discussing with him and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee the impact that that will have on councils.
I would love to be tempted by something like that, but given that we have just gone through two years of a rather unexpected global pandemic, it is best not to pin these things down too firmly.
Unfair practices have no place in the housing market, and the Government are committed to ending them. That is why, in addition to our proposed reforms, we asked the CMA to carry out an investigation into the potential mis-selling of homes and unfair terms in the leasehold sector. We are clear that we want to see existing homeowners who have been affected obtain the justice and redress they deserve. During 2021, through determined negotiations, the CMA secured commitments from Aviva, Persimmon, Countryside Properties and Taylor Wimpey to amend their practices, which included righting the wrongs of doubling ground rents and houses being sold as leasehold. These settlements will help to free thousands more existing leaseholders from unreasonable ground rent increases. I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming the progress the CMA has made.
Indeed, the investigation continues, and we are closely monitoring those developers and landlords that have failed to sufficiently change their practices, such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter). The action against major industry players serves as a warning to other developers with similar arrangements in place. Let me be absolutely clear in reiterating the Government’s position: we want to see other developers come to the table.
Again, I reassure hon. Members that we take the plight of existing leaseholders extremely seriously, and we are making moves across a number of areas of Government policy to reflect that commitment. It is on that basis that I ask the hon. Member for Weaver Vale to withdraw the new clause, and to work with me on the development of further reforms to support existing leaseholders, as I have described—or, alternatively, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), with his experience through the work of his APPG.
On amendment 1, which is in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), as hon. Members will know, it is our intention to protect leaseholders from unfair practice through this Bill by ensuring that in future regulated leases are restricted to a peppercorn rent unless excepted. The Government believe that those who purchase retirement homes should benefit from the same reform as other future leaseholders. While we would like the provision of the Bill to come into effect as soon as possible, we have decided to give the retirement sector additional time to prepare for these changes. The transition period for retirement properties is being granted in recognition of the fact that the sector had previously been informed that it would be exempt. We have provided this additional time—first announced over a year ago, on 7 January 2021 —for the sector to prepare for these changes. As such, the ground rent Bill will come into force no earlier than 1 April 2023 for retirement homes. We have carefully considered this to ensure we are striking the right balance—giving the retirement sector time to transition and ensuring that protection for leaseholders comes as quickly as possible.
Amendment 1 seeks to exempt retirement properties from the peppercorn rent provisions where part of the development remains unsold at the commencement of the Bill and where the development itself was commenced prior to 6 July 2021. There is a simple reason why I am rejecting this, which is that we want to protect more leaseholders. The amendment would mean that many new leases enter the market charging a monetary ground rent, with more consumers of retirement properties being left outside the Bill’s protections.
What was the rationale for granting the exemption in the first place? Surely the Minister recognises that, for many people in the retirement sector, it will be in their financial interest to pay a lower purchase price and have a continual ground rent, rather than to pay a significantly greater capital sum upfront. Individual circumstances will of course differ.
I was delighted when I was appointed as a Minister for the Department on 16 January 2021. The negotiations to which my right hon. Friend refers pre-date my time at the Department, so I will have to take his word for what happened. It is important that as many people as possible benefit from the provisions of the Bill. We have offered a generous transition period and many people have already adopted their operating models, so he can be reassured: the sector will cope.
The amendment could serve only to incentivise any retirement developer to sell simply one unit on a development before commencement of these provisions in order to continue to charge ground rents on all the properties in that development. The amendment would risk providing a loophole. Throughout consideration of the Bill, arguments concerning the transition period have been made on both sides: there have been those who wished to extend the period, including by application to part-sold properties, and those who wished to remove the period entirely.
On Second Reading, we heard arguments by my right hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and for New Forest West in favour of amending the transition period for the sector. Subsequently, I had helpful conversations with representatives of the retirement development sector, whom I met on 8 December. I am grateful to them for taking the time to explain their position to me.
We appreciate that there are likely to be some developments that will continue to include a mixture of properties with monetary and peppercorn ground rents. That will not be limited to retirement properties, and we do not consider that that is a compelling case for retirement sector leaseholders to be exempted or treated differently. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is a simple way to avoid this: reduce all ground rents to a peppercorn.
The Bill provides a clear-cut date for consumers. If a regulated lease is sold after the date, there can be no monetary ground rent. That is transparent and easy for consumers to understand. Indeed, many consumers may already be planning their purchase based on that date, secure in the knowledge that they will be protected from pointless monetary ground rents from that point forward. To bolster the clarity and transparency provided by the Bill, we will of course ensure that all relevant leaseholders are aware of the legislation and the impact that it will have on them, before the Bill comes into force. I therefore ask Members not to press the amendment.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
Queen’s and Prince of Wales’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I start by thanking colleagues across the House for their support for this important piece of legislation. I am pleased to say that there has been recognition from both Houses of the importance of getting the Bill enacted promptly for the benefit of generations of future leaseholders, and I thank the Opposition, particularly the hon. Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for their engagement and valuable input. I also wish to put on record my thanks to those who served on the Committee; the Chairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott); the Clerks; and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) for ably assisting me throughout.
The Bill delivers an important improvement to the leasehold system for future generations of home owners. It is a vital step towards addressing the historic imbalance in the leasehold system and it is integral to the Government’s broader reform to create a housing market that works for everyone. It has benefited from a number of amendments both here and in the other place, and I thank all those who have participated in debates and given their time. The changes have included raising the maximum penalty from £5,000 to £30,000, giving certain powers to Welsh Ministers when a property is in Wales and a range of important clarifications that ensure that the Bill will not have unintended consequences. Taken together, the amendments have significantly strengthened the legislation.
The Bill is narrowly focused on the ground rent of future residential leases, but it is understandable—
I strongly support the Government’s commitment to ending the practice of charging unfair and excessive ground rents. As my hon. Friend will know, residents in park homes such as those in Penton Park in my constituency are still facing excessive pitch fee rises each year. Does he agree that legislation should be introduced to link the pitch fee review inflation index to the consumer price index rather than the retail price index as soon as possible?
As I have said, the Bill is narrowly drafted, so the pitch fees do not apply. However, the Government are committed to making the changes for which my hon. Friend has been campaigning, and we will make those changes when legislative time allows.
Although the Bill is narrowly focused, it is understandable that Members—including, just now, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) —have raised broader issues relating to the leasehold system. We understand that many leaseholders feel trapped in a system that is not working for them, and we are determined to provide greater protection and support for all leaseholders. The Government are committed to undertaking an ambitious and far-reaching programme of reform of the leasehold system, and I can assure the House that we are working apace to bring about those reforms.
I thank the Minister for giving way to me, because it saves me a speech.
The most important aspect of the legislation to which the Minister has just alluded is that “far-reaching” should not mean “far away”. It is really important for leaseholders that it should be introduced as soon as time is available, and any help that the Minister may need in cajoling other parts of Government to introduce legislation as soon as possible to protect leaseholders in a way that this Bill does not will no doubt be extremely welcome.
May I take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning)? When the Minister conducts that far-reaching review, will it return to the case of Custins v. Hearts of Oak Benefit Society back in 1969? Will it consider the abolition of leasehold, and the full ability of leaseholders to take on the franchise and ultimately the freehold of their buildings?
I think it is too early for me to be able to predict exactly what will be in the Bill, and what its reach and remit might be, but I am sure I will be open to conversations with the hon. Member to discuss his thoughts on what could go into it.
It would be remiss of me to not mention that in fact only two weeks ago we launched a public consultation to seek views on proposals to allow more leaseholders in mixed-use buildings to take control and ownership of their building. That consultation will play an important role in shaping the next stage of our reforms to create a fairer leasehold system in England and Wales.
I thank the Competition and Markets Authority for the vital role it is playing in improving the sector for existing leaseholders. The CMA has already helped thousands of leaseholders to gain access to justice since opening its investigation, and I welcome its dedication in the ongoing fight against abuse in the sector. Let me repeat that the CMA’s action against industry players serves as a warning to others, and we expect those who continue to permit such poor practices to heed the example set by the investigation.
To save the Minister time, may I, on his behalf and that of the whole House, thank the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, the campaigning charity, especially Sebastian O’Kelly and Martin Boyd, together with their compatriots in the campaigning groups without whom we would still be saying that there was a major problem that had not yet been recognised?
I thank the Father of the House for saving me the trouble of having to offer those thanks.
I thank Welsh Ministers and their officials for their engagement on the relevant amendments, both here and in the other place. My thanks also go to the Local Government Association, National Trading Standards and the relevant tribunals, all of which have provided support with the progress of this legislation. I again thank all Members for their contributions. This legislation will make a real difference to thousands of future leaseholders across England and Wales, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister and everyone in the House who has been involved with the Bill: the Clerks, the Library specialists and the Bill team. I also thank hon. Members who have participated in each part of our proceedings, giving their time, effort and wisdom. I thank the many Members who contributed on Report: the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who is not in his place but we agreed to disagree; my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee; the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter); my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda); and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). They all made very powerful contributions.
I would like to reiterate and re-affirm the comments made by the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and put on record my thanks, and that of the Opposition, to the incredible campaigners at the National Leasehold Campaign, Catherine Williams, Katie Kendrick and Jo Darbyshire, and at the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, Martin Boyd, Sebastian O’Kelly and, of course, the late Louie Burns. I want to pay my respects to the Father of the House, who has consistently campaigned on this issue and educated others, including me. I know he will continue to do so. I thank him.
They and many others have done the hard graft in fighting for leasehold reform and, with this Bill, they are only now beginning to see their efforts bear fruit. It is unfortunate that their wait will continue. The Bill represents the picking of a single apple in the orchard. It really is narrow in scope, a point acknowledged by the Minister. It does not attack the many issues raised by Members across the House that plague existing leaseholders. It will not deal with existing ground rent costs, untransparent service charges or management agent fees. It is crazy that anyone of us here or beyond could set themselves up as a management agent and charge astronomical and unfathomable service charges. Those issues must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
The Bill will not force accountability on freeholders or managers for their actions. It will not cover, as has rightly been pointed out, historical building safety costs, which are still being debated at considerable length in this Chamber. It will not deal with the cost or difficulty in obtaining enfranchisement, unfair contract terms or the many other issues still faced by homeowners locked in leaseholds, such as insurance, which is a major unfairness. The unfairness and injustice must be gone for good. The Government need to take further action. Leasehold is a system hundreds of years old. A 28-page Bill is not enough to finish it off—and we need to finish it off. The Bill is a good attempt at preventing future wrongs, but with so many real existing wrongs in front of us it is easy to see why leaseholders sitting in properties today will feel short-changed when new neighbours literally across the road will be freed from the problems that are still impacting them—a real injustice.
I am partially pleased—partially—that in advance of today’s debate the Government published a consultation on wider leasehold reform, but let us not pretend that that is a considerable step forward. We have been here before. We have had numerous consultations. A consultation paper published in 2017 on tackling unfair practices in the leasehold market was closely followed up in 2018 by consultation on implementing reforms in the leasehold market. We have had announcement after announcement from Government press officers. What we have not had so far is real and fundamental change. After hundreds of years of leasehold, patience is wearing thin. England and Wales are lagging far behind the rest of the world and our neighbours closer to home—I referred to Scotland.
In conclusion, the Government will have to do more, and do it quicker than “in due course”, to convince leaseholders that they are serious about taking on those vested interests to which Members from across the Chamber have referred. Members tonight have echoed the view that we need a clear timetable. Be the history-maker, Minister, set people free and usher in an age of commonhold.
I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for his kind words. It has been right and proper and a pleasure to work in collaboration with him and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), as it was to work with Jim Fitzpatrick when he was co-chair of the all-party group on leasehold and commonhold reform.
It is 20 years since the House of Commons and the Government thought that we had brought some sense to the leasehold system. We failed and successive Governments did not pay attention to what had gone wrong, partly because the responsibility for the leasehold and commonhold sectors were split between Departments. The Ministry of Justice, as it was at some stages, did not have any resources and it did not collaborate with the Ministry of Housing, so effective action has been delayed.
The Minister has referred to the narrowness of the Bill. We have to accept that. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) raised the issue of park home residents, who have been treated even worse than some leaseholders. I hope that the Government will give some serious attention not just to the inflation rate that they are charged, but to some of the criminal and near-criminal and exploitative actions of many of the people who run those sites. It is completely appalling, and I direct investigative journalists to look at that matter.
On the question of leasehold itself, I welcome the progress made by the Bill. I am sorry that I got back in time to vote on new clause 1—I probably voted in the wrong way and I apologise for that. The sooner that we can deal with existing leaseholders and the cost to them of ground rents and of extending their leases the better. We must get to the stage where owning somebody else’s leasehold becomes a diminishing asset. The faster the freeholders sell the freehold to the leaseholders together and create, in effect, a commonhold the better. We are making progress. I am glad to have contributed in part, and I am glad that the Minister and his colleagues are taking the action that I wish had been taken many, many years ago.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the Father of the House. As we have already mentioned this evening, we are now four years on from the promises that were made about reforming leasehold, and the Bill, as we have all accepted, is a step in the right direction. However, as we have all acknowledged as well, it is little comfort to those who are still trapped in homes that they cannot sell because of the onerous leases with which they have been left, and we must do something about that. I tried to get the Minister to give us a year when that might happen, but we could not get anything out of him. None the less, I can assure him and the House that we will keep pushing on the issue, because justice demands that it is resolved.
It is also worth commenting on the fact that one in three houses sold in the north-west in the past 10 years is leasehold. There has been much talk about levelling up. Who can doubt that a person’s home is the biggest investment they will make? So it is simply unacceptable for so many homes in my part of the world to have been built off the back of an exploitative and unjust business model. Surely, if levelling up is to mean anything, it should at the very least mean that people’s homes are owned on the same basis wherever they live in the country.
The ending of ground rents for new homes is a positive, but it will create a strange situation. There will be houses within a stone’s throw of one another that have a different form of ownership. That will just add more weight to the sense of injustice that existing leaseholders feel, which is why I am so keen for us to push on and deal with that issue.
As many Members have said, a lot more needs to be done. A whole range of issues have been mentioned tonight. We have, for example, barely touched on park homes. There are so many scandalous things going on there, and we really should be paying them more attention. For homeowners, we see the following: management fees, which are a rip-off; non-transparent service charges; the cost of enfranchisement; insurance scams; obscure penalty clauses; and other costs that appear everywhere we turn in a lease. They are all baked into the business models of those avaricious companies which, let us not forget, are still out there building houses.
I am a little concerned that the companies on which we rely to build the houses that we need are responsible for many of the injustices that we have discussed tonight. We need to keep a close eye on their practices in future. I still think that we need an inquiry into the whole industry. We have previously discussed some of the things that we touched on tonight, and the question of how close lawyers were to developers and whether they were acting in the best interests of their clients needs further examination. We need to look at the lenders and surveyors and what the developers were saying to people, often first-time buyers, who were misled about what they were buying. We need to make sure that the system is examined thoroughly so that there is no repeat of the scandal that we have seen over the past five years.
People who buy a home should have a right not to expect it to become an ongoing income stream for a third party. If we have that as our guiding principle we will not go far wrong, so let us crack on with legislating so that that can become a reality for everyone. As many Members have done, I want to acknowledge the fantastic work of the many campaigners who have been active in bringing this issue to the fore including, as we have heard, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, Martin Boyd, Sebastian O’Kelly, the late Louie Burns, the National Leasehold Campaign, Catherine Williams, Katie Kendrick, Jo Darbyshire and many others, with the Father of the House being one of the biggest cheerleaders. There are many people who have contributed to bringing the issue to the attention of the House, but there is much more that we need to do. It feels at times as if progress is painfully slow, but that should not dim our determination finally to consign leasehold to the dustbin.
We know about some of the abuses, because people who were working in firms that I would respectfully declare to be dodgy provided information anonymously. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in saying to Richard Davidoff, who might take defamation action against people who have blown the whistle on practices that we would condemn, that the courts should not be used to stop people blowing the whistle on practices that are questionable, if not completely wrong?
As always, I find myself in agreement with the Father of the House. Whistleblowers should be able to speak up freely. With my other hat on, it is probably time that we had a review of whistleblowing legislation to make sure that people are adequately protected. We owe a debt to people who are prepared to speak up and put their head above the parapet, possibly at great personal expense. The scams have to be stopped, and people need to be supported.
On that note, we have made a little progress tonight, and I want to keep making progress. I am sure that the majority of the House will want leasehold finally to enter the history books, rather than being something that we deal with on a day-to-day basis.
I shall begin by highlighting the investment property in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which is a flat held on a long leasehold basis. Like everyone else in the House, I recognise the need to deal with abusive practices in relation to leasehold and ground rents, but I fear that the blanket abolition of ground rents for every single new building could have significant negative unintended consequences.
Measures specifically targeted at unfair practices such as a code of conduct, a potential cap on ground rents and a ban on selling houses on a leasehold basis could be effective in stamping out wrongdoing, but without the negative potential consequences of the Bill’s widely drawn approach. As drafted, the Bill will see professional freeholders exit the market. It is disappointing that the Government have not responded to the calls on Second Reading to consider an exception in the Bill to enable ground rents to continue to be an option for large, complex apartment blocks. If we remove the choice to use ground rents for buildings of that kind, all the responsibility for ensuring the safety and long-term viability of the block will fall on leaseholders. That will inevitably lead to higher costs, since individual residents groups will not have access to the kind of specialist expertise and collective buying power that professional freeholders have when they buy in services to repair, maintain and enhance buildings.
There is evidence that after the removal of professional freeholders in Scotland, the lack of professional oversight and accountability has meant many more buildings falling into disrepair. A 2019 report for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors highlighted that many residents in Scotland had great difficulty in securing agreement from fellow flat owners to fund essential work on the fabric of their building. That can slow down remedial work, greatly adding to costs. Even identifying and contacting fellow flat owners may be difficult, for example if they are buy-to-let investors living overseas, and that is even before we get to the point of trying to secure agreement on the work that needs to be done, how much it will cost and persuading everyone to pay up. Disputes have left some leaseholders in Scotland having to threaten their neighbours with legal proceedings, generating even more fees to pay.
Without professional freeholders, flat owners in large blocks will have to take on myriad financial and legal responsibilities and keep up to speed with a rapidly changing and complex regulatory environment. These onerous obligations are an extra burden to be shouldered by ordinary people on top of busy lives holding down jobs and looking after their families. Some leaseholders might prefer to pay a modest regulated ground rent so as not to have the hassle and risk of taking on these responsibilities, but the Bill denies them that choice for new buildings.
Buildings that involve business as well as residential use will be especially difficult for residents to manage. Even the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee recognised that exceptions to the ground rents ban should be considered in such circumstances.
I find it hard to comprehend a Bill whose main effect will be to reduce professional oversight and responsibility for residential buildings at a time when we have a building safety crisis. This is also an era where we urgently need investment in our building stock to make the changes to insulation and heating systems needed to meet climate change commitments. That is another reason surely to try to retain professional freeholders, not shut them down. It is worth remembering that the investors behind most of these professional freeholders are generally the pension funds that are so essential to providing us all with security in old age.
I close by asking the Minister to pause, reflect on this legislation and consider whether an exemption can be allowed for large, complex apartment blocks. The system of freehold interests and ground rents has come under sustained criticism, including this evening. It has even been described as “feudal”, but England’s laws on real property have successfully underpinned economic activity for centuries, providing a crucial foundation for economic prosperity and development. That was made possible by adaptability and inventiveness, including the capacity to slice up different rights over land in a way that maximised the incentive to use the property constructively and efficiently.
Put simply, there is a reason why English land law has deployed the concept of a freehold interest for the past 900 years. It makes sense for someone to have stewardship of the long-term future of a building, and it makes sense for their economic interests to be aligned with maintaining the building and investing in it for the long term. Yes, we need to crack down on the unscrupulous activities of morally suspect developers abusing the ground rent system, but I fear that the approach in this Bill is too blunt an instrument. We would be better off with the regulation of professional freeholders, not the de facto abolition of professional freeholders. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will give that the most serious consideration.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.