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Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill (Second sitting)

Debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: † Dame Caroline Dinenage, Clive Efford, Sir Mark Hendrick, Sir Edward Leigh

† Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

† Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)

† Davison, Dehenna (Bishop Auckland) (Con)

Edwards, Sarah (Tamworth) (Lab)

† Everitt, Ben (Milton Keynes North) (Con)

† Fuller, Richard (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

† Gardiner, Barry (Brent North) (Lab)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)

† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)

† Maclean, Rachel (Redditch) (Con)

† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Rimmer, Ms Marie (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)

† Rowley, Lee (Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety)

† Smith, Chloe (Norwich North) (Con)

Strathern, Alistair (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)

Huw Yardley, Katya Cassidy, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Witnesses

Professor Nicholas Hopkins, Law Commissioner for property, family and trust law, Law Commission

Matt Brewis, Director of Insurance, Financial Conduct Authority

Harry Scoffin, Founder, Free Leaseholders

Karolina Zoltaniecka, Founding Director, Commonhold Now

Cathy Priestley, Founder and Co-ordinator, HorNet

Halima Ali, Joint Co-ordinator, HorNet

Mr Andrew Bulmer, CEO, The Property Institute

Angus Fanshawe, Specialist in leasehold enfranchisement

Kate Faulkner OBE, Chair, Home Buying and Selling Group

Beth Rudolf, Director of Delivery, Conveyancing Association

Professor Tim Leunig, Director, Public First

Dr Douglas Maxwell, Barrister, Henderson Chambers

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 16 January 2024

(Afternoon)

[Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill

Examination of Witness

Professor Nicholas Hopkins gave evidence.

Q Good afternoon, everyone. Lovely to see you all. We will now hear from Professor Nicholas Hopkins, the law commissioner for property, family and trust law. We have until 2.30 pm with this witness. Will the witness please introduce yourself for the record?

Professor Hopkins: I am Professor Nick Hopkins. I am the law commissioner for property, family and trust law. I have led the Law Commission’s work on enfranchisement and commonhold since our work began in 2017. Since 2020, I have also led our work on the right to manage.

Will Members please indicate whether they would like to ask a question of the witness? We will start with Matthew Pennycook.

Q I again put on the record my declaration of interest that my wife is a joint chief executive of the Law Commission, which Professor Hopkins is representing.

Professor Hopkins, thank you for coming to give evidence to us. I have two questions, perhaps three if we have time. My first relates to those clauses that implement options or recommendations made by Law Commission reports. Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill implement not all but a subset of those recommendations. I expect that the Law Commission will have had a dialogue with Government about what the clauses look like, but ultimately what goes into the Bill is a political choice for the Government. With a view to strengthening the Bill, I will be grateful if we can get a sense from you whether any of the clauses that draw on those options and recommendations is in any way problematic? Do they contain flaws? Are there omissions that mean they will not work in the way that the Law Commission intended them to?

My second question is related to the Law Commission’s reports as a whole. My understanding is that they were meant to work as a complete package. In drawing on only a subset of recommendations, is there a risk that some of the underlying rationales for the options and recommendations that you made will be blunted or limited by the fact that others have not been included?

Professor Hopkins: To answer your first question, I am confident that the clauses of the Bill that implement the Law Commission recommendations achieve their desired intent. I know from my team that there will be a number of technical amendments. I do not think that that is necessarily unusual, given the complexity of the legislation, and it reflects the continuous process of examining iterations of clauses to ensure that robust scrutiny is applied.

I should explain the Law Commission’s involvement in the clauses. We have worked in much the same way that we would in producing any Bill: Law Commission staff have written instructions to parliamentary counsel, scrutinised drafts and iterations of the clauses, and commented back to parliamentary counsel. We have provided our usual role in the development of draft clauses.

As for the robustness of the clauses, as you said, our reports—in particular on enfranchisement—gave recommendations that would have wiped away the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 and the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, to provide an entirely new and unified scheme for houses and flats. In the process of instructing counsel, the Government have made decisions on what to implement. We have had to think about how to carry over that policy in the context of legislation that performs keyhole surgery on existing legislation, rather than starting with a blank sheet. With that constraint in mind, however, I am confident that the clauses achieve their desired purpose.

Q To ensure that I have understood you correctly, do you expect some technical amendments, whether minor or not, to come to clarify the provisions?

Professor Hopkins: There will be some technical amendments to come that refine the operation of the clauses.

Q And on the package as a whole working?

Professor Hopkins: On the package as a whole, the Bill implements key recommendations that would be most impactful to leaseholders, in providing them with much greater security and control over their homes and in putting the financial value of the home in the leaseholder’s hands rather than in the landlord’s hands. It will also enable leaseholders to take control of the management of their block through the right to manage, enabling more leaseholders to do that than can do so at the moment. In particular, it extends the non-commercial threshold from 25% to 50%, which is a doubling, and it also enables more leaseholders to own their block through meeting that threshold.

What is there in the Bill will have a considerable impact for leaseholders exercising enfranchisement rights, whether individually or collectively, and for leaseholders who are exercising the right to manage. There are other things in our schemes that are not there, and other benefits that will not be obtained. For example, sweeping away the ’67 and ’93 Acts, and providing a unified scheme, would bring with it the ability to remove some procedural traps that can arise. So there are other things in our scheme as a whole that are not in the Bill, but what is there will have considerable impact and a very positive impact for leaseholders.

Q On what is not there, the Government have chosen to include none of the recommendations on commonhold. We very much think that commonhold should be the default tenure going forward. Without enacting all of the 121 recommendations on commonhold, are there any that could be included in the Bill fairly easily, and in a way that would pave the way for commonhold in the future?

Professor Hopkins: During Second Reading, the Secretary of State said that he thinks commonhold is preferable to leasehold, and I concur with that. We concluded that commonhold is a preferable tenure to leasehold. It gives the benefits of freehold ownership to owners of flats—the benefits that owners of houses already enjoy.

Commonhold does of course have a history. It was introduced in the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 and has not taken off. Our recommendations as a whole were designed to provide a legal scheme that would enable commonhold to work more flexibly and in all contexts—to work for complex, mixed-use developments. With commonhold having failed once, there is a risk of partial implementation, meaning that commonhold has a second false start, which would probably be fatal to it. I think that the legal regime for commonhold needs to be looked at as a whole, to ensure that it works properly for the unit owners, developers and lenders who lend mortgages over commonhold. We need the legal regime that works. We need to remove any other blocks on commonhold.

Q Do you think that it is a missed opportunity not to take those recommendations on commonhold forward?

Professor Hopkins: It is our job at the Law Commission to make recommendations for Government reform and of course we would like to see those recommendations implemented, but ultimately what goes in the Bill is a matter for the Government to decide, not the Law Commission. There is a lot in this Bill that is very positive for leaseholders, albeit the commonhold recommendations are not there.

Q Have the Government spoken to you about why they have seemingly rowed back on the direction of travel on commonhold?

Professor Hopkins: Since we published our reports in 2020, we have been supporting the Government as they work through the reports and develop their legislative plans, but I cannot speak for what decisions they have made and what has led them to make those decisions on what is and is not in the Bill.

Q Good afternoon, professor. You have provided several recommendations to the Government on leasehold enfranchisement. Do you believe that the provisions in the Bill will make it easier and cheaper to buy a freehold or extend a lease?

Professor Hopkins: Yes, they certainly will, and I will draw attention to a number of provisions. First, those that deal with the price that leaseholders will pay will ensure that it is cheaper. For the first time, how that price is calculated is mandated, and it is designed to identify the value of the asset that the leaseholder is receiving. At the moment, the focus is on compensating the freeholder for the asset they are losing. The price will consist of two elements. There will be a sum of money representing the terms and buying out the ground rent, but that will be capped so that onerous ground rents are not taken into account in calculating that sum, and a price representing the reversion, which would be the value today of either a freehold or a 990-year lease that will come into effect at the end of the current lease. In calculating those elements of the price, the deferment and capitalisation rates will be prescribed, so that will remove the current disputes.

The price is mandated and the price is cheaper, and there are other things in the Bill that will help, such as the ability of leaseholders to require the landlord to take leasebacks of property when they are exercising a collective enfranchisement so that, for example, they do not have to pay for the expense of commercial units that they do not want responsibility for. There is a lot in there. There is reducing price and also reducing the ability for disputes to arise.

I will also refer to the provisions on costs that will generally ensure that parties pay their own costs in relation to a claim. Leaseholders will not be paying the costs of freeholders.

Q Is it fair to say that you are content with the provisions that the Government have put in the Bill?

Professor Hopkins: It is fair to say that what the Bill does will be of substantial benefit to leaseholders.

Q Thank you for all your work. Can you remind the Committee how many recommendations you made in total?

Professor Hopkins: Across enfranchisement, right to manage, and commonhold, we made around 350 recommendations.

Q You had to go through a long process. When did you start your deliberations on the commonhold provisions?

Professor Hopkins: We began it as a package of work that was being conducted in parallel. We began in 2017 as part of the 13th programme that we published in December of that year. We published three consultation papers on enfranchisement, right to manage, and commonhold. We ran public consultations from September 2018 to January 2019. We received around 1,800 responses across those papers, and around 1,600 responses to leasehold surveys that we undertook for enfranchisement and right to manage. Then, in 2020, on the basis of all the evidence we had, we published four reports: a report setting out options relating to valuation to reduce the price payable, and then a report on each of enfranchisement, the right to manage, and commonhold in July of that year.

Q Without going through all the work that you have just described, what is the risk if the Government adopt policies or measures such as making commonhold the default position?

Professor Hopkins: We have to separate the two issues. Our work on commonhold was designed to provide the legal fixes needed so that commonhold can work. In our report we concluded that commonhold is the preferred alternative to leasehold. The question of whether commonhold becomes a default or whether it is mandated was not a matter on which we were asked to provide advice to the Government. You need the legal fixes to be in place, though, and then the decision must be made about what is done in order to ensure that commonhold is given a fair chance.

Q Thank you for that clarification. As a follow-up, if any Government adopted a policy on commonhold such as has been talked about sometimes, but without doing the legal fixes, what would be the risk?

Professor Hopkins: The risk at the moment is that the legal regime that governs commonhold is too rigid. It does not apply effectively in larger, mixed-use developments, because they were not envisaged at the time. The risk is that you mandate a legal regime that does not work. You need a legal regime that works, which could then be mandated if that is what the Government chose to do.

Q First of all, let me thank you for the Law Commission’s work, which was extensive and hugely helpful. I am conscious that the recommendations on structural dependency rules have not been adopted by the Government in the drafting of the Bill. Even those leaseholders who are going to benefit from the uplift of 25% to 50% of the non-residential limit in the Bill may still be disqualified, because of the shared plant room in underground car parks and so on. Do you believe it would be preferable and helpful to introduce into the Bill at Committee stage some of the recommendations that you made on that?

Professor Hopkins: I do not think I would like to comment on whether specific amendments or recommendations could be introduced. They would have to be seen in the light of what they would do to the scheme that is in the Bill and how the provisions interrelate. That basic uplift from 25% to 50% is significant and will enable many more leaseholders to exercise their rights. There are perhaps things around the edges, but what is there is beneficial.

Q I totally agree. It is certainly beneficial that there is the uplift from 25% to 50%. However, if one were to adopt the view that the commission take on structural dependency and those shared services, some groups would be prevented from benefiting unless we adopt the terms that you have recommended.

Professor Hopkins: Yes, although you have to look at what impact that would have in terms of what is in the Bill as it stands.

Q Of course, commonhold is not within the scope of the Bill. Indeed, the way in which the Government framed your remit meant that your report was closely constrained in what it could say about recommending that as a tenure. Following on from what the hon. Member for Redditch said, do you think it would be helpful to move to a system where all new build flats had a share of freehold and that that was the only tenure going forward? In effect, that would give us a foretaste, and all the caveats that you outlined to the hon. Member for Redditch could gradually be put in place around that.

Professor Hopkins: It is certainly the case that it is easier to do things with new builds than it is for existing leasehold blocks. Our report includes recommendations on the conversion of existing blocks, which is undeniably more complex than building a commonhold block from the start.

We concluded in our report that commonhold was the preferred tenure because it gives the advantages of freehold; leasehold is really performing a job it was never designed to do. When I gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, as it then was, I said that if commonhold works, you do not need leasehold. But whether you then mandate commonhold is not just a legal question; there is a political question there.

Q Indeed. Currently, a leaseholder who has three or more flats in a development is instantly disqualified from participating in an enfranchisement claim. The Law Commission concluded that that regulation should be scrapped because it is hard to enforce and can be easily gamed by what I think you called sophisticated investors. You said that the practical effect of that 1993-era policy is to deprive leaseholders of the ability to buy out the freehold and to enfranchise. Are the proposals we are talking about ones you would be pleased to see introduced in Committee to get rid of that barrier?

Professor Hopkins: Again, all these things are Law Commission recommendations, and I am always going to say that the Law Commission would like to see our recommendations implemented—

I am delighted; that is what I wanted you to say.

Professor Hopkins: But I cannot say whether they are the right things or the most impactful things to add to the Bill. What is there is great and is going to be hugely beneficial. There are lots of other things in our recommendations that would benefit leaseholders—

Q Improve the lot of leaseholders, yes. At one point slightly earlier, you seemed to give the impression that we were—I think this is the polite way of saying it—polishing an excrescence in this Bill. Is that broadly your view, and should we just get on with commonhold eventually?

Professor Hopkins: No, that is absolutely not my view. Whatever happens with commonhold, leasehold is going to be with us for a long time. There are people who own 999-year leases. The system has to work. When we published our reports, we published a summary of what they were seeking to do. We identified them as having two distinct aims. One is to make leasehold work, and work better, for those who now own the leasehold and who will own it in future. Secondly, it is to pave the way for commonhold to be available so that everyone can enjoy the benefit of freehold ownership in future. But we always saw those as two entirely legitimate aims that legislation would need to pursue.

Q One way of tackling this would surely be to enable all leaseholders ultimately to gain the benefits that freeholders, or people who have a share of the freehold, currently have, by enabling them to convert to commonhold.

Professor Hopkins: Yes. Conversion is always going to be more difficult than building from the start. We have recommendations that would enable conversion and enable more people to convert than can at the moment, where unanimity is required, but leasehold is going to be with us for a very long time.

Well, it has been with us for a very long time, hasn’t it?

Professor Hopkins: Yes. So the system has to work, and that is what the Bill achieves in relation to leasehold.

Q Can we talk a little about discount rates? I think there are two, but there may be more. There is the capitalisation rate and the deferment rate. Could you explain how, if at all, the Bill changes either of those discount rates and what the rationale for that change is?

Professor Hopkins: The Bill ensures that those rates will be prescribed by the Secretary of State. At the moment, on every enfranchisement claim—whether it is the lease extension or the purchase of the freehold—the rate used to capitalise a ground rent and to determine the price paid for the reversion has to be agreed for the individual transaction. That is a significant source of dispute, and it is a dispute where there is a real inequality of arms.

The leaseholder is only interested in what they have to pay for their home and the landlords have an eye not only to that particular property, but also to what it would mean for their portfolio of investments—so they agree a particular rate on one flat in a block, for example. The Bill ensures that those rates are fixed by the Secretary of State and mandated, so there is then no argument about what rate applies in an individual case. It takes away that whole dispute and ensures that the same rates are applied in all claims.

Q What is the merit of allowing politicians to fix the rate? Does that not that create other hazards?

Professor Hopkins: The politician will be fixing the rate through advice that they receive.

Q Well, we do not allow politicians to set interest rates any more, because we realise that that was subject to political whimsy and error, so we gave that to the Bank of England—which of course is always right. I am just wondering, does there not seem to be some hazard here? I understand the point about trying to get the rate fixed and the imbalance in individual discussions, but why is it not in the Bill that it would be based on market conditions or prevailing rates? Why not go for something like that, which everyone can see and is transparent—you can feed it into a calculator—rather than allowing politicians to have that role?

Professor Hopkins: In our report on valuation, we set out a number of options for reform to reduce the price payable. In relation to the fixing of rates, we identified two separate options: they could be fixed at market rate; and they could be fixed at below market rate to reduce the price leaseholders pay to a greater extent. We put the decision on how to fix the rates as a matter for the Government to consider, and now the power is given to the Secretary of State.

Q If I may, I have another question. We always do an impact assessment on Bills. This one has quite a large impact assessment, which is in the billions of pounds—£2.984 billion is the present value for costs. I looked in detail at that, and the vast majority is about a transfer of value from freeholders to leaseholders; it is not about benefits from more efficient systems. If I look at the first section, £2.8 billion is transfers and £400 million is benefits. Is there a particular reason why it is so heavily weighted to transfers?

Professor Hopkins: The impact assessment is not a Law Commission impact assessment. We have provided technical input to the Government in preparing that assessment. I am not sure that I can give a definitive reason why so much more was in one pot than the other. It is probably because the Bill removes marriage value from the premium, which adds a significant sum to premiums now for leaseholders who have 80 years or less, so I think a lot of that sum is the saving.

Q And that was the Law Commission’s objective.

Professor Hopkins: The terms of reference that we agreed with Government for the project in relation to premium were that we would provide options to reduce the price payable while providing sufficient compensation to landlords, recognising their legitimate property interests.

Mindful of the fact that we will be drawing this to a close at half-past, I call Matthew Pennycook.

May I press you a bit further on valuation? This is a phenomenally complex area to understand, and the standard valuation method in schedule 2 is extremely technical. The Law Commission set out options—it did not make recommendations—but the Government have chosen to allow the Secretary of State to prescribe the applicable deferment rate.

In all your work, did you wrestle at all with the fact that there may be some leaseholders who do not benefit from a fixed rate, in the sense they could have negotiated higher and more favourable rates in certain circumstances? Is that potentially a risk? Related to that, will it be the case that the Government need to set multiple rates to account for regional variations? Is a single fixed rate going to be an issue?

Professor Hopkins: In answer to both questions, I cannot sit here and say that every leaseholder will pay less. I can identify the fact that leaseholders with 80 years or less on their lease will pay less, because they will not pay marriage value, and that leaseholders with onerous rents will pay less, because of the cap on those taken into account.

Overall across the system, having the prescribed rates will be a considerable saving for leaseholders on the whole, because that takes out the legal and valuation costs in negotiating a rate and a price. It takes out that entire source of dispute, which will be beneficial—

Order. I apologise for interrupting you. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask you questions. I thank our witness very much on behalf of the Committee.

Examination of Witness

Matt Brewis gave evidence.

We will now hear from Matt Brewis, director of insurance at the Financial Conduct Authority. We have until 3 pm for this next session. Will the witness please introduce himself for the record?

Matt Brewis: Hi. I am Matthew Brewis. I am director of insurance at the FCA, so I am responsible for regulation of all brokers and insurers that operate in the UK.

Thank you for coming to give us evidence, Mr Brewis. The FCA published a report in September 2022 on insurance for multi-occupancy buildings. In a general sense, on the basis of the recommendations and potential remedies you outlined, to what degree do clauses 31 and 32 faithfully enact those recommendations? Furthermore, it would be useful to know whether the FCA might have any ongoing role in the arrangements that those clauses will introduce. Finally, in that report, the FCA made a recommendation about a pooled risk insurance scheme. Could that be introduced into the Bill as an additional means of providing leaseholders with protection?

Matt Brewis: I will set out what the FCA is responsible for and what it is not, because that is the context for this and probably the questions to follow. Insurers write a policy and brokers sell it to a freeholder or property management agent who is the customer. They pass on charges to the leaseholder, who is partly a beneficiary of the product, but the primary beneficiary is the freeholder. The FCA is responsible for the insurer and the broker, the creation and selling of the product. That is where its role ends.

Traditionally, the customer has been the freeholder, who has been the beneficiary, but our review found that there was no benefit in freeholders shopping around to get the best price, because they simply pass on the cost to the leaseholder, often with significant add-on charges and other functions. We found that the risk price that insurers charged between 2016 and 2021 pretty much doubled. The brokerage charge by brokers increased by more than three times, or 260%-ish. The service charges added on increased by about 160%, so they more than doubled.

In our report, we recommended a number of pieces, including that leaseholders should be partially party to the contract, in that they should be provided with a copy of the documentation—previously, they have not been—and that insurers and brokers, when creating and selling products, should consider the needs of leaseholders, the people who are paying, in a way that insurers and brokers have previously not been required to.

We also made a number of recommendations about the parts that were not relevant to FCA regulation but were part of the chain and to do with freeholders and property management agents. That is where the clauses that you mention, 31 and 32, come into effect—where there is a restriction on the commission that can be charged by the brokers or by the property management agents to the leaseholders. I think that how much impact these clauses will have will depend on how broadly or tightly the secondary legislation around these points is drafted. Of course, I and my colleagues will work closely with the Department as that gets put together.

In terms of your second question, “Should a pooling scheme be included as part of the legislation?”, we believe, based on how parts of the market currently work, that pooling does work. By putting together buildings under one roof, as it were, for an insurance contract, you spread the risk; that reduces the cost of insurance. We see that as how it operates at the moment. We recommended that the Association of British Insurers work with the market in order to put together a pooling arrangement, which they have been working on—

Q For a very long time.

Matt Brewis: For a very long time. Unfortunately, I do not have the power to force anybody to write business that they do not want to. But the ABI has been working closely with a number of firms, and progress is being made. I believe that pooling remains the best option to reduce the cost to leaseholders. In terms of how that could be achieved, I think it is appropriate that the market try to do that. It is always possible for the Government to step behind that, albeit that would be at a significant cost—

Q But it would not necessarily require primary legislation—or would it, in your view, in terms of how you would implement such a recommendation?

Matt Brewis: It does not require primary legislation for the market to do it itself, as it is seeking to do at the moment, working with us, working with the brokers and working with colleagues at DLUHC.

Q Mr Brewis, thank you for coming here. Is it within your remit or do you have any helpful information for the Committee to understand a point that has been put to me and that I am seeking to test with you, which is that when some of these freeholds have been sold off in the past, the insurance obviously is then sold off—sorry, let me start again; it is very complicated. The contention is that in the past some leaseholds have been sold off or converted, so now the freeholder, which may be an insurance company or a pension scheme, does not have that income stream that it used to have, and there is a consequent risk on insurance companies or pension funds that have previously been reliant on that income stream to make the returns to the pensioners. Is that something that you recognise? Do you have any powers to update us on it? Do you have any powers to investigate it? Do you have any thoughts on it?

Matt Brewis: If I understand your question correctly, you are saying, “Is there pressure on freeholders to charge more to make increased returns to pension funds?” I cannot answer that question, I am afraid; it was not part of our review to date. Sorry, I cannot tell you—

Q Okay, but do you recognise that as an issue, if I can put it that way? It is a fact that in the past some leaseholders have been able to buy out their freeholds, so the freeholder then would not have the income stream from the insurance—

Matt Brewis: I understand. What we have found in the past is that actually, for the insurance part, it is not necessarily a panacea for leaseholders to take over the freehold, because, as I was just explaining, when you have a pooled number of properties, that can reduce the cost. We have found, for leaseholders who have tried to insure their building on their own, that it has proved more costly when they have done so. That is more to do with market dynamics and trying to insure one building as opposed to a portfolio of buildings. It does not necessarily follow that it is cheaper for leaseholders who have taken over the freehold to—

Q That is really helpful, although it was not quite what I was trying to get at. If you are a freeholder, you may also be an insurer. A lot of big freeholders are insurers, and pension funds and so on, that are underwriting the pensions of many people in the country—in the NHS and so on. The claim that they have made is that in the past some of the leaseholders have bought out their freeholds. I might have slightly misunderstood the situation, but it has been put to me that, now that this flow of insurance is no longer coming to the insurers—or, to put it another way, now that the service charges and so on that are paid by the leaseholder to the freeholder are no longer coming to the insurance industry—that will somehow destabilise the insurers’ balance sheets and make them unable to meet their commitments. Is that something that you recognise, from your industry perspective? I am not talking about the individual leaseholder.

Matt Brewis: I do not believe that the size of the insurance part of the market is significant enough to destabilise any firms. I have not heard that claim before, but I do not think that this part of the market, in the types of firms that we are talking about, is of a size that would cause structural issues.

Q In September, Sheldon Mills, an executive director at the FCA, issued a strong statement:

“Insurance firms must now act in leaseholders’ best interests and ensure that their policies provide fair value.”

Now I will give you a live case, which happens to be in a neighbouring constituency to mine. It is called The Decks. They have a remediation day and Taylor Wimpey has accepted responsibility, yet insurance premiums are going up again—poor value and high cost, as I think was cited in the review. New year was going to be a new broom to intervene and shape the market, yet you have got insurance companies like this, and many more up and down the country, laughing at people in this room—key stakeholders such as yourselves. What are you going to do? What powers have you got to intervene? Also, we have discussed insurance. Are clauses 31 to 33 in part 3 sufficient to deal with the issue?

Matt Brewis: Our new rules around ensuring that these products are fair value came into force on 31 December last year. The cost of insurance of multiple-occupancy buildings has increased, and our report of 2022 found that this was not an area where insurers were making significant profits, or super-profits, of any form because of a number of different parts—around fire safety risks, but more to do with some of the structural issues around the quality of the buildings and how they had been constructed. Escape of water was something that was causing significant losses in these buildings.

We found some of the biggest issues around the brokerage charges, which were increasing, and the payaways—payments that insurance brokers were making to property managing agents for services that they were apparently providing for them. So our new rules require them to be very clear what value they are providing and how they are doing that as brokers, as managing agents, and for that to be made clear to the leaseholders. We are undertaking reviews of those with a number of firms. This will provide leaseholders with more information so that they can challenge their freeholders, so that they can challenge the insurers and the brokers at a tribunal if necessary.

Where this Bill goes one step further is that although, as I have explained, we are not responsible for the managing agents or the freeholders, by effectively banning those payments of any commissions, as the Bill does in the clauses that you mention, it will go significantly further than I can with the powers that the FCA has to restrict the payments to other parties and therefore to reduce the cost to leaseholders. In my view, this is in line with the recommendations that we made in that report and results in a better product—a cheaper product—for leaseholders.

Q This morning, we heard from the founders of the National Leasehold Campaign about some of the poor practices that their members had told them about. Do you think that provisions in this Bill make it easier for consumers? Do they address the challenge of transparency and the ability to obtain information from freeholders in a way that will be noticeable to owners of leasehold properties?

Matt Brewis: In terms of the provision of information, yes. And it goes alongside the rules that we have introduced that require brokers and insurers to pass information to the freeholder to pass on to the leaseholder. This further tightens up that. It allows for leaseholders to take their freeholders to tribunal to reclaim costs, as necessary, that have been incurred. So this does go further, and I welcome that.

Q With regard to the redress element, again, it is a small, individual leaseholder taking a ginormous freeholder, managing agent, or whatever, to court. There is an imbalance there.

Matt Brewis: Yes.

Is that suitably addressed in this legislation?

Matt Brewis: We have talked with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about how to do that. The tribunal is a mechanism, but from talking to leaseholders, we recognise that taking a firm to court is a big step for anyone. There are a number of routes that strengthen that in this Bill, and we welcome that, albeit—

Q So are there no other ways that the balance of power could be shifted to make it easier for the small homeowner who is facing the challenge of dealing with something that is far, far bigger than themselves?

Matt Brewis: There are other mechanisms—an alternative dispute resolution mechanism—that we have seen used in some parts of financial services. The Financial Ombudsman scheme is one, where it is not a legal test; it is more of a fairness test about how you are treated as a consumer. But the tribunal is another mechanism—the insurance part is a very narrow part of a much wider piece, and I am not equipped to talk more broadly about the leasehold ownership structure.

Q Mr Brewis, I think we all welcome the FCA’s work to try and make things more equitable for leaseholders, so thank you for your endeavours there. I am sure you will be familiar with the Riverside case from before Christmas, in which it was discovered that an FCA-regulated broker could not provide a written contract of the insurance to the first-tier tribunal. Do you find that strange?

Matt Brewis: I cannot talk about individual cases. However—

Q Okay. Should there be a case in which an FCA broker is unable to provide a written contract to a first-tier tribunal, would you find that strange?

Matt Brewis: Yes.

Q Thank you. After a three-year campaign, that poor leaseholder managed to find out, through the leasehold tribunal, that £1.6 million had been paid to her landlord for the insurance services. You will be aware that this Bill outlaws commission as a permitted charge for landlords to charge. However, you will also be aware that, in that first-tier tribunal case, it was not regarded as a commission. In fact, it was accounted for as a fee, which is chargeable under this proposed legislation. How will that leaseholder know that this legislation does not allow her to be ripped off in exactly the same way as she was ripped off before?

Matt Brewis: The value assessments I talked about require firms to approve what value they are providing, for there to be transparency to a leaseholder around—

Q How do you do that if you cannot get a written contract?

Matt Brewis: Under our new rules, which came into force at the start of this year, that needs to be provided.

Q But that is not actually here in the Bill, is it? Would it be helpful if, under clause 31 or at another appropriate place, we were to say that a written copy of any insurance contract must be provided to all leaseholders? Then they can at least see what it is they are supposed to be benefitting from.

Matt Brewis: The new Financial Conduct Authority rules around this do provide that, in a way that was not the case previously.

Q But the Bill does not.

Matt Brewis: I believe that would be duplication of a clause that is already in the new rules from the regulator, which require a broker to provide that information.

Q No, sorry; there is a distinction here. You are talking about the broker providing it to the landlord; I am talking about the landlord providing it to the leaseholder. If you want transparency here, surely that also has to be part of that transparency? Ultimately, we know that it is not the landlord paying for the insurance services—it is the leaseholder. Indeed, in the case that you cannot particularly talk about, it was the landlord getting £1.6 million of a kickback for the privilege.

Matt Brewis: In the event that the freeholder is not forthcoming with the contract, it is incumbent on the insurer to provide a copy of the contract to the leaseholder directly. It is in our rules that the leaseholder has the option of going directly to the insurer now, in order to get a copy of that contract, in a way that was not previously possible.

Q To be absolutely clear: a leaseholder can write to the insurer—the insurance company—to obtain a copy of the contract that their landlord has, which insures their property?

Matt Brewis: Yes, and they will be in breach of the FCA rules if they do not provide it.

Q Does that rely on the landlord telling the leaseholder who the contract is with?

Matt Brewis: Which insurer it is?

Q Because at the moment, there is no compulsion on the landlord to do that, is there? It is certainly not in this Bill.

Matt Brewis: If you follow that chain of events, when they do not know who the broker is and they do not know who the insurer is, and the landlord refuses to provide the documentation—

Q Then the leaseholder has no access to the contract.

Matt Brewis: One would hope—expect—that it is a very low-likelihood situation, but that would be the case.

Q We have made legislation on the basis of optimism before, and it has not proved successful.

Matt Brewis: For some buildings that have material issues around fire safety or other issues, it can be very difficult to place insurance. It is about time and cost. There is value in the services that brokers provide, and sometimes some of that work is outsourced to property-managing agents. Assuming that is done appropriately—itemised and billed—I have no issue with the payment of commission or brokerage, where it is for services that have been rendered effectively. Where it is a blanket case, in the way that you described—

Q Of course, those fees for insurance services are chargeable under clause 31, in proposed new section 20G of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, but there is nothing in the Bill that says they have to be reasonable. The Bill says that excluded insurance costs have to be

“not attributable to a permitted insurance payment”,

but not that they have to be costs that are reasonable. There is a difference between a permitted insurance payment and a reasonable permitted insurance payment, is there not?

Matt Brewis: My understanding is that the secondary legislation that will follow will set out what those are.

Q God bless the Secretary of State! So we are waiting to see whether the Secretary of State introduces the word “reasonable”—or would it not be better to have the word on the face of the primary legislation?

Matt Brewis: One would still need to define reasonable.

Q To further explore Mr Gardiner’s point about fees, not commissions, what is your understanding of proposed new section 20G of the 1985 Act, which defines these excluded insurance costs? What would that cover? Or is that something for the secondary legislation as well? In which case, what should it cover, to fully protect leaseholders from all types of insurance costs that might be passed on unreasonably?

Matt Brewis: It is quite a significant list. The question effectively is: what are the reasonable costs of writing an insurance policy, and then the appropriate checks to be carried out to ensure that that policy is enforceable? From my perspective, that is focused on providing the information to the insurer or the broker that allows them to appropriately price the insurance—to understand the risk factors of that building, to determine the likelihood of escape of water, the quality of its fire defences and other things, all of which in sum add up to whatever the risk price is. There are different methods for determining what is an appropriate brokerage fee. We have seen some firms come out to suggest that it should be a maximum of, say, 10% of the cost. Others take a time-and-costs-incurred approach, based on how much work they have done. Being clear about things that are directly relevant to the pricing of the insurance is the best starting point for what should be allowed to be charged.

Q In general terms, do I take from that that we should seek to define excluded insurance costs fairly widely, beyond a strict definition of commission, to ensure that we are broadly protecting leaseholders from the problems that you outlined in your September 2022 report?

Matt Brewis: Yes.

Thank you. If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witness. We will now move on to the next panel.

Examination of Witnesses

Harry Scoffin, Karolina Zoltaniecka, Cathy Priestley and Halima Ali gave evidence.

We are now going to hear from our seventh panel, which is Harry Scoffin, founder of Free Leaseholders; Karolina Zoltaniecka, founding director of Commonhold Now; and Cathy Priestley and Halima Ali, co-ordinators of the Home Owners Rights Network. We have until 3.40 pm for this session. You are all welcome. Would you please introduce yourselves for the record?

Harry Scoffin: Hi there. I am Harry Scoffin, founder of Free Leaseholders. I am also deputy chair of One West India Quay residents’ association—a block on the Isle of Dogs, east London.

Karolina Zoltaniecka: Hello. I am Karolina, founder and director of Commonhold Now. I am a right-to-manage director, leaseholder and commonhold owner in Australia under what is called strata. I have been a director over there for 30 years, and I am also a forensic analyst who does audits on service charges.

Halima Ali: Hi. I am Halima Ali. I am a joint campaign co-ordinator for the Home Owners Rights Network. We campaign for regulation and, ultimately, for adoption and for management on private estates.

Cathy Priestley: Hi. I work with Halima. We have worked together since 2016—a little longer than the National Leasehold Campaign has existed, in fact. We both reached the same stage in our journey of horrors at about that time. We were put together by Paula Higgins at the HomeOwners Alliance. We decided that there would be other people out there who had discovered the same situation and who felt entrapped and angry about where they were—they were tied into paying estate charges, and most were unaware at the point of purchase that that was the liability they were taking on. So we set up a website, social media and so on, and we are 11,000. We have continued our journey of exploration and learned a lot during the last eight years, and I hope we can help you.

We are very grateful that you are here, Cathy. Thank you very much. I call Matthew Pennycook to start us off.

Q Thank you all for coming to give evidence. I have two questions—one for Harry and Karolina and then one for Cathy and Halima.

Harry and Karolina, we heard earlier from Professor Hopkins from the Law Commission, which had 121 recommendations on commonhold. It is clearly not feasible to add all those to the limited Bill we have in front of us at Committee stage. Professor Hopkins says there is a risk of partial commonhold legislation that might create unintended consequences. Are there any of those recommendations that we can reasonably add in that might make things easier in the future and pave the way for commonhold? That is my question to both of you.

Cathy and Halima, clause 59 in part 4 of the Bill seeks to amend the Law of Property Act 1925. Would you agree that section 121 of that Act needs to be done away with? Are we attempting to, if you like, ameliorate an historic law that should really just be freehold forfeiture and should be done away with? On part 4 generally, we have sought to introduce by amendment an RTM regime for private estates. Are there any other tweaks to part 4 that we could reasonably look to make?

Harry Scoffin: In terms of the commonhold point, obviously, attitudinally, I have accepted that it will be seen as out of scope of the Bill. But we also have to remind ourselves that England and Wales are the only two jurisdictions in the world that persist with this fundamentally unfair system. The Law Commission—we heard from Nick Hopkins earlier—gave a big endorsement of commonhold in 2020. They flew officials out to Australia and Singapore, where I grew up and where we lived under strata title, a form of commonhold where residents are in control. But there is no point crying over spilt milk.

There is a good alternative, interim measure before second-generation commonhold eventually comes through. Bear in mind that I have been campaigning now for six years—that is six years of my life that I have wasted trying to abolish leasehold. The fact is that the time to have brought in commonhold was now. We did not even necessarily have a guarantee that this Bill would be here. After the Queen’s Speech in 2022, it was dropped at the last minute because of pressure from No. 10. So I am not going to hold my breath for commonhold.

However, one thing we can do, which is a pragmatic halfway-house compromise, is to say that all new leasehold flats come with a share of the freehold. That still persists with the leasehold system, but residents have control from day one. They are like Alan Sugar on “The Apprentice”: if they are being ripped off, they say, “You’re fired,” and they get a better company in—that is capitalism, that is choice and that is the right way forward for now if we are not doing commonhold, which is obviously too meaty.

Secondly, all new leases must be 990 years. At the moment, shared ownership leases under the new model lease through Homes England and the Greater London Authority must be 990 years. I think it is obscene that, after this Bill comes in, people can buy a brand-new flat from one of these developers and be hit with a 99 or 125-year lease. They need to be able to get a 990-year lease from the beginning, given that Parliament has already got rid of ground rents—two years ago, it got rid of ground rents—and our argument is that the value in the freehold is now valueless.

Ground rents have gone, so why do you not just require developers to hand over a freehold with a resident management company? I understand that Matthew Pennycook is halfway there with an amendment to bring in resident management companies; we just need the freehold. If we do not have the freehold, we will allow the expensive middleman, the rip-off freeholder, to have some form of control going forward. I know of developments with an RMC, where you might think, “Bob’s your uncle, they’ve got control,” yet they are still being ripped off on things like insurance, even though they appoint the managing agent.

From that point of view, let us not let perfect be the enemy of the good, but leasehold must stop and, with leasehold, we must get rid of its toxic forms so that everyone has a share of the freehold from day one. As we heard from Nick Hopkins, it would be much easier for those guys to convert to commonhold later, but we should give people the ability to have the freehold to begin with.

It is not just me who says that; in 2006, an academic who is on the Commonhold Council—this is in my written submission—expressed the view that, if people have super-long leases of 990 years and zero ground rent, it is asking nothing of developers to hand over the freehold, because the freehold is valueless. They might as well give the freehold, as opposed to expecting leaseholders to go through the rigmarole, stress and cost of buying it later. Also—we might get on to this later—getting 50% of a large block is impossible, so doing that is absolutely the right thing.

Another point is that the market for leasehold flats has collapsed, so the gap between the average price of a house and that of a flat is at its widest in England in 30 years. The fact is that buyers have woken up to the toxicity of leasehold, particularly after Grenfell and the cladding situation. They have worked out that this is a hideously one-sided deal. It is like the sub-postmasters, this idea that, every way you turn, people say, “You signed the contract. You’re responsible for the shortfalls. That’s the law, that’s the contract,” but it is so hideously one-sided.

If you can do only one thing to the Bill, even though it will not directly help existing leaseholders, it should be to say that all new flats must be share of freehold with a resident management company. Give us control of our homes, our lives and our money, please. It is 22 years since the last Act. Let’s do this.

Q Halima and Cathy, on part 4 and rent charges—unless you have something to say, Karolina. I am leaving it to you to self-police.

Karolina Zoltaniecka: The Bill is very welcome. It does remove a few of the barriers to commonhold, but I feel that a few more things could be done, through amendments, to take steps towards commonhold and to make it easier to convert once we enfranchise and buy the freehold. We could lower the agreement rate from 100% to 75%. They have that in Australia already; you only need that amount to have a special resolution. There is already a trial for 20 blocks in the country. We cannot say it is not working, because it is working.

There is a lot of miscommunication around commonhold in the industry. There could be an education and awareness campaign. The Bill could also be amended to introduce a sunset clause for existing flats. There could be some sort of agreement between the commercial and the leasehold residential blocks to pave the way for how this will be defined when we get to commonhold and people can convert. That would prepare people and get them ready, in practical terms, for how to run and maintain their blocks. There could be long-term maintenance plans and we could give people real, practical skills in how to do that.

Commonhold is so much easier. Having a strata, I know that. You do not have complex laws. You talk to each other and work problems and disputes out. You have meetings. Laws are prescribed, so it is easy for people to know what to do each step of the way. I do believe that there are things that could be done with commonhold in the Bill to pave the way and say that we have a future with commonhold and it will happen en masse.

Q Thank you. Halima and Cathy on part 4, please?

Halima Ali: Overall, I want to say that the model of maintenance that has been implemented is a scam, and all this Bill is really doing is legitimising the scam. Homeowners are being fleeced. This needs to be brought under control. In terms of the Law of Property Act, this is a positive step, but I would argue as a homeowner that a management company should not have its foot on my neck. This is my property. It is my hard-earned future for my family and kids, and no management company should have any rights over it. I feel that the model should be abolished altogether. There are two different tiers—fixed rent charges and variable rent charges—that are being allowed to continue in the private estate model. This needs to be abolished altogether.

Cathy Priestley: I do not really have anything to add except to say, would all the measures in the Bill really be necessary if the fundamental, underlying problem of private estate management was addressed? The estates we are talking about are not gated; they are not private. They contain public facilities, public open space, play parks and community centres. They might have private sewage systems and pumping stations. They almost always have sustainable urban drainage systems, because that is the way that flooding is mitigated these days. In the past, all these areas would have been adopted by the local authorities, but they are not being. If they were, there would not be any need for regulating managing agents or for the abolition of section 121.

Q I agree with you about the underlying point, and we may seek to address that, but if we have to work with this new regulation of estate management regime, are there any ways you would like to see it strengthened or tightened?

Cathy Priestley: It would be helpful for those who are on truly private estates and who do have private management, but we do not see any reason why homebuyers on estates should suddenly become estate managers for their local community.

Halima Ali: It is exactly as Cathy said: normal homebuyers are not qualified to manage estates. If we are given the right to manage, if we are looking at a development of over 100 homes, it is really hard to get in touch with 100 people who will agree and be on the same page. It is not workable. The Government are insisting on regulating, but realistically the Bill is not doing anything for us. Literally all it is doing is maintaining a scam.

I am mindful of the fact that we will have to bring this session to a conclusion at 3.40 pm and five more Members have indicated that they would like to speak, so you can time yourselves accordingly. I will start with Andy Carter.

Q I will be brief. Cathy and Halima, can I pick up on your point about estate management? Do you have any examples of members of your forum who are paying fees on a regular basis, but there is no delivery of management? Do you have examples of where things are just not happening?

Halima Ali: I am the perfect example. I have living on a fleecehold estate for 13 years.

Q Yes, but tell us what you would expect to be happening.

Halima Ali: The management company should respond in a timely manner, do the work and communicate with the residents. The situation is horrendous. On our estate alone, we are paying £30,000 to maintain a field that is half the size of a football pitch. That makes no logical sense.

Q So they are not cutting the grass and they are not tidying—

Halima Ali: They are cutting it, but at a substandard level. On top of that, the grounds that they are maintaining have not even been built to a standard for local councils to adopt.

Q Have you talked to the council about its ability to be involved in this?

Halima Ali: I have had meetings with the head of planning. I have raised so many complaints.

Q What did the council say?

Halima Ali: They just do not want to know, literally, because they are not regulated and it is not their concern. They just will not do anything.

Q The problem we will find, if we are not careful, in putting through legislation that allows the right to manage is that there is still no route to get somebody to make things happen if you have a council that does not want to get involved. Who is the ultimate person that you can say—

Halima Ali: It has to be central Government. They need to regulate that councils need to start adopting all new build estates going forward and in the situation that we are stuck in.

Q Halima and then Cathy, let me pick up this business of the fleecehold estates, as you refer to them. They are a relatively new thing in leasehold; they were not there in the same way 20-odd years ago when we were passing the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. They have been seen as a revenue stream for developers. Do you think that it would make sense for local councils, when they sell public land for housing development, to insist that that public land should not be used for a private estate model in this way? Developers can of course build the homes and you can buy them, and they can make their profit from the payments that you make to buy those homes, but they should not then have an ongoing source of revenue from the substandard management, as you described it, of the estate.

I have one estate in my constituency where they were charging residents for the management of land that they did not even own. It took us months to get the documentation to prove that they did not own that land. The fence that they had mended had actually been mended by the council. Other things like that are going on, but if that restriction were put in place in the first place, they would not be able to do it, would they?

Cathy Priestley: Our understanding is that the land belongs to the developer. It is not public until it is made public through section 106 agreements with the council.

Q I understand what you are saying, but I am referring specifically to when a council makes available land that has been publicly owned by it to developers for development and puts that restriction in place.

Cathy Priestley: Well, yes, you would not want more and more privatisation, would you? I do not think any policy is in place that is pushing for privatisation of the management of public open spaces, is there?

Q Mr Scoffin, you talked about this issue having wasted six years of your life; I think it has only wasted about 25 years of mine, since before the 2002 Act. You spoke about future development. What would actually make it better for existing leaseholders? There are things in the Bill that I think do improve the lot of existing leaseholders, but how can we make it even better?

Harry Scoffin: There are a number of quick wins. One is to get rid of forfeiture, because that allows these freeholder overlords to extort money from ordinary people. It is not like mortgage foreclosure, where if you cannot keep up with the mortgage payments you get the difference back less the debt; with forfeiture, in theory, a freeholder could take back a £500,000 flat on a £5,000 bill. Now, what the freeholder lobby will say when they come on later is, “There are only about 80 to 90 cases a year.” That is potentially 80 to 90 homeless families a year. More important, in a way, is that it is the threat of forfeiture that gets leaseholders to go, “Oh my God, I’m going to pay that bill.”

My mum is on £33,000 a year, for a three-bed with no swimming pool, no gym and no garden. The freeholder is one of Britain’s richest men, sheltering in a tax haven in Monaco—a billionaire. Everyone who is not a leaseholder says, “Why would you pay that? That’s more than someone’s salary.” She says, “If I don’t pay it, I’ll lose the property.” So get rid of forfeiture.

Q Was forfeiture not part of the 2002 Act?

Harry Scoffin: Yes. They draw it out. There is a process now in the courts, where you can go, “Oh, I forgot to pay it” or “Here’s the money.” The point is that it does not give leaseholders the confidence to challenge unreasonable bills. They have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads—they are being treated almost like criminals. The Law Commission recommended in 1985, in 1994 and more recently in 2006 getting rid of this iniquitous element, arguably the most feudal element of leasehold. It has not been done. The Government recently asked the Law Commission to update its 2006 report, so we know work has been done, but it is not in this Bill.

I think you spoke earlier today about this section 24 business. That is a really important issue that many Members may not be aware of. Since the Building Safety Act came in, there has been a very interesting regime about the accountable person, trying to make developers and freeholders take responsibility for their buildings. This was heard in tribunal in December—I was there—and I understand that Michael Gove has taken a personal interest in this, but there is again no guarantee that we can get the fix.

The problem is that, at the moment, any building over 18 metres cannot have a court-appointed manager, because the court-appointed manager cannot be the accountable person. It is like an aeroplane being flown with two pilots flying in completely different directions. The freeholder, who has been stripped of his management rights—because, basically, he has defrauded leaseholders or been absentee, is not doing remediation works in a timely manner, or is not giving information—will now be the accountable person. But the manager cannot manage the building, because you will have two managers for one property.

The tribunal for Canary Riverside—I add a disclaimer that this is my sister estate; we have the same freeholder, so I was there at the tribunal—said that, as much as we would like to help the leaseholders at Canary Riverside, Parliament has made it very clear that, while a non-freehold owning right to manage company or a non-freehold owning resident management company can be the accountable person, a court-appointed manager specially vetted by the tribunal is no longer allowed to be one.

What is happening at Canary Riverside is that the freeholder—the same one that we have—is looking at getting back a building that he was removed from controlling in 2016. There was even a letter from the Secretary of State to the leaseholders, which they cleverly submitted to the tribunal, saying that he was the man who passed this Act and he genuinely, honourably, had no idea that that was the implication. That is another thing, because many blocks are not going to be able to buy the freehold or be able to get right to manage. They are in a monopolistic position with these freeholders. If there is no ability to buy the freehold, you are trapped.

In our building, we cannot sell the flats. We cannot even give them away at auction. It needs to be allowed that a manager appointed under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1987 can be the principal accountable person where a tribunal deems it appropriate.

There is one other major point. At the moment, many people may stand to benefit from getting the right to manage or buying the freehold, with the 25% rule going up to 50%. I know that because I have campaigned for it for the last six years. Nick Hopkins at the Law Commission used to have a joke that he would probably have to take out a restraining order against me, because I really pushed on this issue. The problem is that there are so many people who would benefit from that, but if they have that plant room or that underground car park, they still will never be free. They will never be able to get the freehold or right to manage. That is something that the Law Commission already recommended. We can get that into the Bill.

Another point to note is that if you cannot participate, for whatever reason, in buying the freehold—you do not have the money to join your neighbours—in perpetuity, you will never be able to buy that share of the freehold ever again. If you cannot get the money together, you are out. That needs to be sorted. The right to participate was very popular with the Law Commission consultees. That absolutely needs to happen.

There is one last thing. Nickie Aiken MP and other MPs, such as Stephen Timms, have been pushing on this point. At the moment, to buy the freehold or get right to manage, you have to get 50%. In our building, which is 20 years old, we are very lucky that we have managed to get 82% of the leaseholders. Do you know how much work that has involved? It is cornering people in lifts, paying the £3 to the Land Registry, doing some weird investigations. It is Herculean. You have to go back to 1931 in this country to find a political party that has won a general election with 50% of the vote, so why is it fair for residents who are being ripped off to be told, “You need to get 50%”? That should come down, because most big blocks, particularly the newer ones, will never hit 50%, and given that the Government are talking about a long-term housing plan and about building up in the cities, we have to make flat living work. We have the second lowest proportion of flats of any country in Europe, after Ireland—

Q Sorry, can I just ask you to amplify what you were saying about the 50%? I understand the difficulty, if you have 900 people in a high-rise block, to co-ordinate to get 450 plus one to do it, but surely many of those apartments will be buy to let, so you may not ever be able to meet or get in touch with the actual leaseholder. You are going to be able to do that only through a subtenant, and that makes it almost impossible, doesn’t it?

Harry Scoffin: Some leaseholder advocates say, “We do not touch the 50%,” and I do not understand them for it, but the fact is that they just say, “Give leaseholders more information.” I have to be honest: even once you have got in touch with guys from Singapore, Hong Kong, the middle east and all the rest of it, when you try to explain what leasehold is, it goes over their head; when you say “right to manage”, it goes over their head. They say, “Well, I’ve bought the flat. I don’t need to get involved.” And then you say, “It’s £2,000 or £3,000. We all need to do it—each—to club together.” These guys are mean—some of them—and they are not going to get involved. So the fact is that at least on right to manage, where you are not compulsorily acquiring the freehold interest, it should at least come down to 35%, in line with the suggestion from Philip Rainey KC, whom you will be hearing from on Thursday. The London housing and planning committee also said that 50% is very, very difficult in large developments, particularly in London. So that does need to be thought about at least—it coming down on right to manage.

Ms Ali wants to come in.

Halima Ali: I just want to make this specific point. It is clear that rules and regulations regarding leasehold and RTM are not working. It is very—what is the word, Cathy?

Q Unfair? Unjust? Inequitable?

Halima Ali: It is very unfair and inadequate, and it makes no logical sense for freeholders on a private estate to be given the same rules and regulations when it is not working for leaseholders.

Q Harry, can I just ask you a couple of things? On the forfeiture point, is it your view that there is absolutely nothing in the Bill to prevent the forfeiture issue?

Harry Scoffin: There are not specific provisions to improve the position on forfeiture. I would love it to be abolished, but if we have to have some form of mechanism that is still going to be called “forfeiture”, at least say that if it happens, the equity is returned to the departing leaseholder when the flat is sold and it is just the debt that the freeholder gets back. The idea that he gets a windfall is obscene. That has to go. At the moment, forfeiture can kick in at £350, so what some law firms are doing is, for a breach of lease, a 350-quid charge, so forfeiture already kicks in there. So bring that up. Some people have suggested £5,000. I would go even higher—£5,000 is the figure for personal bankruptcy proceedings—and bring it up to £10,000.

There will be these freeloading freeholders that will come before you today or on Thursday and say, “Well, if these leaseholders are not paying, the whole building is going to fall to rack and ruin. It’ll be like this country in the 1970s where the bins weren’t getting collected and bodies were piling up. You’ve got to keep the lights on in a block of flats.” What you say to them is, “Sue for a money judgment.”

Do not worry: I know what to say to them. That is fine.

Harry Scoffin: Yes, you know. Okay, good. The point is that we do not need forfeiture, but if you cannot abolish it, at least get rid of the windfall.

Q Thank you. I will ask a second question, if I may. You mentioned the issue of the pump room. Can you explain very briefly what the issue of the pump room is? Is this for a conversion or an enfranchisement claim? Where is the pump room issue coming into play?

Harry Scoffin: It is for mixed-use buildings that would otherwise benefit from the 25% non-residential premises limit going up to 50%. Let us say that you have an underground car park, a plant room or maybe, more recently, a heat network. Basically, because you are now linked, almost like Siamese twins, with a hotel, for example, or some shops, under the current 2002 Act for right to manage and even the 1993 Act for buying your freehold, you are out. So even though the Law Commission and the Government mean well, saying, “We’re going to liberate mixed-use leaseholders,” for many of those mixed-use leaseholders, where they are completely linked with the commercial, it is game over; you will never be able to qualify. That definitely needs to be revisited because the Government will not get any political benefit from moving, rightly, from 25% up to 50% and even to mandatory leasebacks for when you buy the commercial.

The quick argument—the Law Commission understood it—is that at the moment, the plant room will normally be managed, yes, by the hotel, but the freeholder for the flats will appoint a managing agent who will also have access to the plant room. We are not changing that position. The only difference is that the managing agent that the freeholder appointed, who has access to the plant room, would now be working directly for people like my mum. So it is not disrupting—we are not going to become hoteliers. We are not going to become shop owners. If we rely on a service and are paying for it—53%, mind—we should have access to it, but the key thing is that we need the right to manage. Without right to manage, or without buying the freehold, you are, literally, perpetually in this abusive relationship with a freeholder who has your cheque book and is spending it how he likes, whether that is reasonable or not. That is a fact.

On the point about section 24, that needs to be revisited so that the manager, where a tribunal deems it appropriate, can be the accountable person. In our building, we have mobilised—ironically, it is over 50% of the leaseholders. We now face going back to them—with their cash, by the way—and saying, “We can’t now get one because of this unintended consequence of the Building Safety Act”. That is a quick bit of drafting— I have spoken to lawyers about it. It would be very easy for you guys and that would help, particularly on cladding developments, where the cladding is not getting done because the freeholders are sitting on their hands. You need an officer of the court who is going to turn around the development and be accountable.

Karolina Zoltaniecka: Can I say something about the right to manage? At the moment, the process is so complex. There are three notices that need to be served. I believe there needs to be only one, to say to the freeholder, “We are taking over the right to manage and this is the date we are going to do it on”, and that is it. There are solicitors who specialise in analysing notices to pick holes in them to prolong the process, so that leaseholders give up, and costs just go up and up. And I completely agree with the forfeiture point from Harry. It is unnecessary and a breach of lease, and especially, arrears can be taken to the county court to recover if the arrears are real.

Q Is leasehold ownership home ownership?

Harry Scoffin: No, it is a tenancy scam. You do not own anything. You own the right to sell on a bit of space in a flat you occupy. You do not own, even though you may have paid a freehold price and you thought you owned it—you do not.

Q Given that the Bill does not ban new leasehold flats—70% of leaseholds happen to be flats—is leasehold, the feudal system, still alive and kicking?

Harry Scoffin: Completely, because—

In England and Wales?

Harry Scoffin: Yes, because people are coining it in and they want to keep it that way. I understand that a political decision was made by No. 10 not to have commonhold in the Bill and not to say even “a share of freehold”. Let us do that. Let us work with the Government to get share of freehold in. That is maybe an English fudge, but at least it gets us halfway to the ideal of commonhold, whenever it comes. I am not going to hold my breath for commonhold, sadly, because we have wasted the last seven years talking about it.

Keep going.

Karolina Zoltaniecka: I would not give up on it; it is well worth waiting for.

Harry Scoffin: We need share of freehold in the meantime, at least.

Q Part 4 of the Bill is called “Regulation of estate management”, which I think is a particular area of interest for you. You said that it all starts at the beginning, when councils and developers decide to do that. Do you think that getting control of that is an essential part of the effective regulation of estate management?

Halima Ali: I do not agree that it is. All it is doing is creating a two-tier system where a set of homeowners, like myself, living on a private estate are dealing with this situation, whereas other homeowners are not. I do not see how regulating it is helping, because overall, the management company still get to set the fee.

Q Actually, I was trying to say that we should stop it altogether because—

Halima Ali: Oh right, sorry—

I was not being very clear, I am sorry—it is my job to be clear, not yours. I think what you were saying is that this is trying to fix the problem, but the root of the problem is that councils are permitting this to go ahead.

Halima Ali: Yes, absolutely.

Q I am sure we will have a debate about what is and is not in scope of this Bill, in terms of that very important issue, but I wanted to hear you say that that is a crucial part of what you would understand by effective regulation of estate management.

Cathy Priestley: Yes. There are other detrimental effects on estates, other than those on the homebuyers, because non-adopted areas are not built up to adoption standard, so there is a quality issue. There is also a community cohesion issue, if you have one lot of people paying for everybody else’s open space.

Q The whole issue of adoption may or may not be in scope, but there were some other suggestions that you had, such as that estate management charges may not include fees for areas that are open to the general public. You feel—this is on your website—that someone can walk down a grass verge or by some trees and you are paying for that twice, through your council tax and through estate management charges. Is that right?

Halima Ali: That is correct. I will make a specific point; I am sure this is the situation nationwide as well. When I purchased my property, the council tax for band C was around £1,000. Currently, it is at £2,000. If you look at that and the average family income, there is a big disparity. How are we able to afford all this? Ultimately, we are paying council tax twice. It is unfair on us. It is unfair on vulnerable people who generally do not understand all these arbitrary rules and regulations and who are coming to us for support.

Cathy Priestley: Most of the people in our group were unaware of what they were getting into. They are unaware of the unlimited liability, because this cannot be capped. It is what it is, and it costs what it costs.

Q I think we can look at strengthening some of the provisions at the start and at the end, in terms of the rights if someone wants to sell their property and how people are leant on if they have not paid all the fees, affecting their ability to sell their property. I know we have limited time, but another aspect is the compensation for those who suffer these charges. If we cannot look within scope at adoption and just cancelling the whole lot, what are your thoughts, since there will be a separation of charges and a new cost structure, about enabling people who have estate management fees for common areas to deduct that off their council tax? Essentially, you would not pay twice. There will be a number of those costs that generally would be seen as being covered by your council tax in other circumstances. Do you think the Bill should include a provision where you would be entitled to pay only once for those by deducting that cost from your council tax?

Cathy Priestley: I do not know what councils would think about that. About 50% of the estate charges are just administrative fees. Councils could do it much cheaper. I do not think it would be acceptable to councils, but it would be great for us, yes.

It would make them adopt them quicker though, wouldn’t it?

Cathy Priestley: It certainly would, yes.

We need to be careful on this. Councils are constantly picking up bills from other people, and these costs are the costs of poor developers. There are different ways of dealing with different aspects of this. One is safety development. To take a leaf out of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, you design, you develop, you construct—for use, maintenance and everything. Why not do the same for future housing developments, so that we do not have estates built without roads or pavements or these nice park features that would be lovely for children to play out on?

Nobody’s going to maintain them and they end up like a rubbish tip. People tip there, because nobody cleans it up. And what happens? More people tip there. No developer should be allowed to develop things that cannot be put right. They should pick up the costs on development, so people know what they have got. Then you have the old properties—I call them asset-rich and purse-poor. The properties are worth a fortune. They are beautiful big old houses—you would give your right arm for one of them—but when it comes to maintaining all this and their paths, the older people cannot do it. To bring that up to standard is a cost. It is not a cost for the council to pick up.

No, I was picking up on that point. The lady present understood it. She was saying that it is not that the councils are paying twice for something; everybody looks—

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the allotted time to ask this panel questions. Apologies, Marie. On behalf of the Committee. I thank all our witnesses for coming in.

Examination of Witnesses

Mr Andrew Bulmer and Angus Fanshawe gave evidence.

We will now hear from Andrew Bulmer, CEO of The Property Institute, and Angus Fanshawe, specialist in leasehold enfranchisement. We have until 4.15 pm for this session. Will the witnesses please introduce yourselves for this session, starting with you, Andrew?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: I am Andrew Bulmer, chief exec of The Property Institute. There was supposed to be a third chair here today, in that an organisation called ARMA—the Association of Residential Managing Agents—was invited to attend as well. For the benefit of the Committee, if I may clarify, The Property Institute is the merged organisation made up of the former Institute of Residential Property Management, which was 6,000 individuals with qualifications to manage buildings, and ARMA, which used to be a trade body for the managing agent firms, with approximately 350 managing agents. Between them, they manage about 1.5 million leaseholds.

Angus Fanshawe: Good afternoon. I am a valuer specialising in leasehold enfranchisement, specialising in helping people to extend leases on their flats and to buy their freeholds. I am a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, or RICS, and of the Association of Leasehold Enfranchisement Practitioners, or ALEP. I am based in central London, and all my work is in central London. I probably act about 50:50 for leaseholders and for freeholders. My first case was in 1994, so this year is 30 years since I did my first extension case—in Belgravia, I think it was. Acting for both leaseholders and freeholders, I hope that I can bring a balanced view to the Committee today.

Mr Andrew Bulmer: Apologies, Chair, I should declare that I am on the Commonhold Council.

Q Thank you, gentlemen, for giving us your time this afternoon. I have a question for each of you. Andrew, in the regulation of managing agents, do you think it is necessary to ensure that the provisions of the Bill work effectively? Your Best working group report is slightly out of scope, but if we do not introduce the parts—if not the entirety—of it, on the regulation of managing agents as it impacts on the Bill, would that harm the operation of the measures in the Bill? That is my question to you.

Angus, we have exchanged correspondence on valuation, and I know that you take the view that the deferment rate should not be fixed by the Secretary of State. I wanted to explore that a bit further, in the sense that the 2007 Cadogan v. Sportelli judgment, which has broadly set deferment rates, was made in the context of 0.5% interest rates. I have heard it put to me by people in other parts of the country that it may work in London, but it is very out of kilter with what works in different regions. If the Government are minded to remain of the view that the Secretary of State should fix the deferment rates, how best should the Secretary of State do that? What would need to be taken into account? Is there a need to set multiple rates for different parts of the country to deal with the variations? I want to explore the prescribed rates a bit more and how they can function most effectively if schedule 2 is to remain.

Mr Andrew Bulmer: Thank you for the question. On the regulation of managing agents, I should also declare that I was on Lord Best’s working group. There were three components to Lord Best’s recommendations: first, there should be a regulator; secondly, the regulator should have a code of practice through which to hold the industry to account; and, thirdly, there should be mandatory competency standards. That applies to sales and lettings as well as to block, or leasehold block management. He made a distinction with block: because of the large sums of money and the high risks involved, block should be qualified to a higher standard—indeed, minimum level 4.

There is a compelling reason why regulation is required. The way to think of it is the apocryphal tale of “The Ambulance Down in the Valley”, a famous poem. There is a large cliff, and people fall off it. Should there be a fence at the top of the cliff or an ambulance down in the valley? Redress and the first-tier tribunal, as well as the ombudsman, are the ambulance down in the valley, but it would be better to prevent harm occurring in the first place. Minimum competency standards and a regulated sector are the fence at the top of the cliff.

Lord Best made his recommendations four or five years ago now and I wholeheartedly support them—we support them. If we take Lord Best’s basket of reasons, put it on the table in front of us and acknowledge that, we will then have to consider where the industry has moved. Since that time, we have had the Building Safety Act, which was supposed to introduce a building safety manager. That was abandoned and the building safety manager is now in effect the property manager. The property manager now has to learn half of a new profession. The responsibilities and the technical knowledge that go with that are considerable.

For leaseholders who are RMC directors, the Building Safety Act also makes the RMC the principal accountable person, and to whom do they turn? The first port of call is the building manager. The Building Safety Act has the unfortunate consequence of inevitably driving leaseholders, who may be very intelligent individuals—such as the lead violinist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a brilliant individual but not an expert in building safety management—to their building manager. That means the Act is now driving lay consumers into the hands of an unregulated sector. That is another basket of reasons, in addition to Lord Best’s basket, on why the sector should be regulated.

Then we come to this Bill, which we warmly welcome and very much support. We can go into the details of it, but let us be very clear that we think it is a Bill that is going in the right direction. One of the Bill’s effects is going to be empowering leaseholders to look after their own affairs, and that is a good thing. But, again, we have the leaseholder, who is not daft—they could be a brilliant surgeon, or a lead violinist—but are none the less not property experts, so, again, the move towards self-determination and self-control means that they are being driven into the hands of an agency sector that is entirely unregulated. If Lord Best’s basket of reasons were not enough, if we add to it the Building Safety Act, then we add to it the inexorable drive towards leaseholder control of their own homes and their own affairs, it is surely now time that the sector was regulated.

If there is no appetite to regulate in this Bill, with its limited time going through Parliament, at the very least we should introduce minimum competency standards. It has been done already, swiftly and elegantly, following the death of poor Awaab Ishak, where mandatory qualifications were brought in in the social sector.

Many buildings are mixed use. A building manager will be walking down a corridor, qualified to manage the units on the left-hand side but not the units—or homes, I should say—on the right-hand side. That is inequitable and it makes no sense. Further, it also assumes that those in the private sector are not vulnerable. Vulnerable people live in the private sector too. The argument for, at the very least, having a code of practice and mandatory qualifications for building managers is, in my view, all-compelling.

Angus Fanshawe: On fixing rates and the deferment rate, before the Cadogan v. Sportelli case, which you mentioned, the deferment rate was always a contentious point. In my years of practising, that case has probably been the most important; really, it removed the deferment rate as something that was in dispute. Since that case, I cannot recall that I have ever had a disagreement on a deferment rate or a problem with agreeing the deferment rate.

Cadogan v. Sportelli set the rate at 4.75% for houses and 5% for flats. There are a couple of exceptions—well, maybe one or two more than that, but there are two significant exceptions where you can depart from 4.75% or 5%. My concern is that if we fix the rate, we will remove the opportunity, as is the case now, for leaseholders to agree a higher rate than 4.75% or 5%.

As I say, there are two cases where there are significant exceptions. The first is that if you have an intermediate leasehold—so, you have a head leaseholder who has a reversionary period—then commonly you would agree that at something higher than 5%, normally 5.5%, to the benefit of the leaseholder. Also, with some buildings there is an element of obsolescence—so, will the building actually be there at the expiry of the lease in, say, 80 years’ time? With a building built in the 1960s or 1970s, which perhaps has a life expectancy of 50 or 60 years, is there certainty that it will be there at the end of the term? In those circumstances, you can agree—I do not think with too much controversy—a slightly higher rate than 5%, again to the benefit of the leaseholder. If you are going to fix the rates, that will bring an unfairness, either to the leaseholder or the freeholder, depending on what rate you are going to fix.

It also ties in with capitalisation rates, if you are going to fix the capitalisation of the ground rent. There was a case on capitalisation rates—Nicholson v. Goff in 2007—that set out very clearly how the capitalisation rate should be assessed: so, the length of the lease term, security of the recovery, the size of the ground rent and the rent review provisions, if any.

Every ground rent is different; every circumstance is different. Again, if you are going to fix the capitalisation rate in the same way that you are going to fix the deferment rate, that could certainly bring about unfairness. It could be unfair to freeholds, it could be unfair to leaseholders, but the problem with fixing the rate is that it does bring unfairness.

Q Just to probe you further on why, from your point of view, the Cadogan v. Sportelli rates are 4.75% and 5%, is that just for central London or is it your view that it works broadly across the country?

Angus Fanshawe: Yes, you are right. The case was about a flat in Cadogan Gardens—so, London SW3, prime central London. However, it was very clear. It set out how the deferment rate should be assessed. If the rate is to be assessed, I think the Cadogan v. Sportelli case sets out very clearly how it should be assessed. That would be the starting point: if the Government decide to do that, that is the starting point.

Q If there were to be amendments to the Bill on regulation of estate management and so on, what would be the most important thing to keep in mind to avoid any unintended consequences?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: First of all, let us be clear that we—

Q Could you speak up a little, please?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: Sorry—yes. I am afraid that I do not have a voice that projects, but I will do my best.

We warmly welcome regulation of managed estates; it is an anomaly that the management of those estates is unregulated. I was in the room earlier and I heard some eloquent discourse around the fact that some of these estates exist at all as managed areas and that those common areas are not adopted. I have personal experience of managing estates where there are two grass strips, a couple of gullies and a little piece of road, for which you need to set up a limited company, find directors, get them insured, do a health and safety risk assessment and a whole load of other stuff—a whole load of on-costs—for what amounts to, as I say, two strips of grass and a couple of gullies. Clearly, for that kind of small estate, that is utterly disproportionate and I strongly recommend that those areas are adopted by the council. There has to be a way through it, through planning legislation, section 106 agreements, commuted sums and so forth. I would strongly make that point.

On the regulation of those estates that either exist and cannot be adopted or alternatively perhaps are part of a much more complicated scheme and it is therefore inevitable that they will be managed areas, then, yes, absolutely bring them in. I would recommend that you align the regulations and the processes for reporting and service charge accounts, or charge accounts, as closely as you possibly can to the reformed leasehold regime so that there is consistency.

Q Mr Bulmer, would it not be easier for your members to just pursue a claim in the county court, rather than go through the whole business of forfeiture in order to recover what are sometimes actually quite trivial sums?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: Would it be easier? I am not entirely sure. A substantive point was well made earlier. At the very minimum, there was a call for the equity that is left in a forfeited property to be returned to the leaseholder.

Q Just so that the public and everybody is absolutely clear on this, at the moment, for a debt to your freeholder in excess of £350, you could lose the entire property, valued at several hundred thousand pounds, and the difference is not given to you. Is that correct?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: As I understand it, that is absolutely correct. Yes, the freeholder takes a lot.

Just to be clear, it might just be worth saying that we represent only managing agents. We do not have freeholders as members and we do not represent freeholders. That is sometimes misunderstood and, while I am clarifying, probably 50% or thereabouts of the estates that my members manage are RMC controlled. We also have members in Scotland who are freehold entirely, so we are very comfortable with freehold, commonhold and resident control.

Q Your members do come in for a lot of flak, I know, and I just want to put it on record that I do not think that they are only the agents doing wicked freeholders’ biddings. They have a difficult job to do and many of them do it well. Do you find that your members’ mental health improves when they are dealing with tenants who are in a right-to-manage block, where they have that sense that it is they that are in ultimate control, as opposed to dealing with people on behalf of a freeholder who has that control?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: We do a mental health survey of our members. We have done it now for, I think, three years. I am sad to report that the answers of property managers to the question of “Is your life worthwhile?” are in the bottom 17% of the UK population, which is certainly a cause for concern. We ask for the sources of stress, and they include the cost of living and things external to their work, but it is roughly equally balanced between freeholders and leaseholders.

Q So people can be equally bloody minded whatever they are.

Mr Andrew Bulmer: I think it rightly places property managers roughly in the middle of all this. Shall we say that?

Q In terms of sinking funds and reserve funds, do you believe that there should be a separation and an accountability for income and expenditure in and out of those funds to the tenants?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: I would go further than that and say that we have been calling for a standardised chart of accounts for quite some time and that standardised chart of accounts would be able to separate out and highlight the various funds. It is important that each individual leaseholders’ funds can be readily identifiable in terms of their own account.

Q Thank you. That is extremely helpful and I am sure the Minister has taken very good note of it. You will remember that this was something in the 2002 Act, and the British Property Federation have lobbied for it. Would you agree that there should be separate trust accounts to make sure that there is no financial mismanagement by the freeholder?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: Yes. The Property Institute standard, the old ARMA standard for member firms, requires separate accounts for each development and for those to be trust accounts—it is leaseholders’ money held on trust.

Q You mentioned the code of conduct for your members. ARMA also had a code of conduct, did it not? It introduced a code of conduct back in the early noughties. What went wrong?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: First of all, it still does have that code of conduct. We are in the middle of rebranding from ARMA to TPI. Just to be clear, the legal entity is The Property Institute, but we are still running on the ARMA and IRPM brands for the next few weeks, when the branding will finally change. I am not quite sure what the phrase, “What went wrong?”—

Q Let me put it this way: what does the new code of conduct specify that you consider to be a great improvement on the old one?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: There is a plethora of codes. I am good with this: when I was residential director at RICS, I project managed the delivery of the third edition of the RICS code. There is a fourth edition of the code, which I think sits with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities at the moment. Separately from that, Baroness Hayter’s overarching code of practice, inspired by RoPA, is in draft form and goes across all agents. There is then the ARMA standard. There is a plethora of codes. It is the RICS code that the Secretary of State adopted, so again I would love to answer your question, but I do not quite understand it yet. How can I help you?

Q I want to know how you feel that the latest code of practice you have instigated has helped to tighten probity and ensure that the transparency and probity of the dealings between a freeholder and a leaseholder have been improved by what you have done.

Mr Andrew Bulmer: We are not a regulator. For firms to join us, they volunteer to do so. It is to their credit that they do so, but there is a limit to what we are able to enforce. We can embrace standards, and our job is to raise standards by pulling—

Q You can throw somebody out of the institute, can you not?

Mr Andrew Bulmer: And we have done so. We can raise standards by pulling firms and members along. We can have adventurous conversations, we can set standards and, in extremis, we can remove agents from the institute. We have done that for both individuals and firms. But, ultimately, we are not a regulator, and if you are truly to drive standards you need both pull and push. The role of the regulator would be to push.

I think you have given a very eloquent explanation of why, try as you might, we need to ensure that within the primary legislation we have the adequate safeguards, because they cannot be done by voluntary effort outside in a complete and effective way. Thank you.

Are there any further questions from Members? No? Okay, in which case I thank the witnesses for attending today. We will move on to the next panel.

Examination of Witnesses

Kate Faulkner OBE and Beth Rudolf gave evidence.

Q We will now hear from Kate Faulkner OBE, the chair of the Home Buying and Selling Group, and Beth Rudolf, the director of delivery for the Conveyancing Association. We have until 4.50 pm for this session. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record, starting with you, Beth?

Beth Rudolf: I am Beth Rudolf. As you say, I am the director of delivery at the Conveyancing Association. I started my working life as an estate agent, became a licensed conveyancer and now work with the Conveyancing Association to improve the home-moving process for the consumer.

Kate Faulkner: Hi, my name is Kate Faulkner. I am chair of the Home Buying and Selling Group. If you are not familiar with it, it is a massive volunteer group. Our steering group has more than 30 different organisations, because that is how complicated it is to buy and sell a home in this country, be it leasehold or not. We have participants who are practitioners, as well as all the trade bodies, regulators and redress schemes. Our aim to improve the home buying and selling process, to prevent the one third of fall-throughs when a sale has been agreed after the offer stage and to reduce the length of time, which impacts on people’s uncertainty of life when they are buying a home. I have worked in all property sectors, from part-exchange to helping people who need to move into a retirement home and working with agents. Most of my work involves trying to communicate to consumers from an industry or Government perspective.

Q Thank you, ladies, for your time. Unless I have overlooked them, there are no provisions in the Bill to mandate or impose any requirements on time and fee for providing home buying and selling information. Several witnesses referred to that being a problem and to not having relevant information at the point of a sale going through. Should those clauses be added to the Bill?

Kate Faulkner: There are various issues. I heard one of the best descriptions of this recently, which was that, if I ask you to bake a cake with 20 ingredients but I only give you five of them, it is a bit difficult to do. Once you have made the offer and the legal companies have had a look at it and at the agreements, in a couple of months’ time you might get up to 10 of those ingredients. Eventually, four or five months later, you might have all 20 and you can then buy and sell that property. That is the biggest problem we have.

One of the massive opportunities with the Bill is to mandate the information required for people to understand what they are purchasing with a leasehold property. A key thing that we do not have in the property sector that other areas have—I have worked in the health, beauty, food and drink sectors—is an awful lot of natural education on how to buy things. We have nothing; there is no natural education of the public in our sector, apart from in the media, where any property story is particularly negative.

The work we are doing now has been fantastic. It has improved consumers’ education so that they really understand what they are buying into and that leasehold is very different from freehold, but they have now got the impression that leasehold is a bad thing. When leasehold works, it is not a bad thing.

From my perspective, and certainly from all the work we do with our participants on the Home Buying and Selling Group, it is essential that information be provided up front. Fantastic work has been done by the group that worked with trading standards, who now require up-front information, but it is not mandated. Although agents are supposed to understand all the property rules and regulations, from the discussion you had earlier, apparently nobody thinks that they should be qualified, and there is no regulation, so one problem is that agents have no idea about the trading standards up-front information that is coming through. A lot of good work is being done; the issue is that it is not working on the ground.

On leasehold specifically, people have to get hold of leasehold packs. There is a cost associated with them, and the time it takes can be excruciating. Anything that can be done to cap those costs would be welcome, but we need to make sure that quality is still required. The danger of the cost being too low is that we do not get quality leasehold packs, and they are essential due to the complexity of leasehold. The time it takes is also essential. Mandating up-front information specifically for leasehold would help us to reduce fall-throughs and reduce the time it takes, but most importantly, it would mean that people could get on with their lives more quickly than they currently can.

Beth Rudolf: I am the co-ordinator of the leasehold property enquiry form and the freehold management enquiry form, which are supported by TPI, RICS, the Law Society, the Conveyancing Association and right across the sector. The intention of the forms was to create a standard template for the information required. It is noticeable that, of the questions raised, only five are time-sensitive, such as failings to pay ground rent or the current budget—the kinds of things that change over time. Most of the information is standardised across the whole of that estate; nothing is going to change. Certainly, when we were looking at the regulation of property agents with Lord Best, it was clear that some of the bigger managing agents already have templated tenant portals where people can go to get that information. That needs to be put across the whole of the leasehold sector, the rent charges and the managed freehold estates, because we are seeing charges of up to £800 for the information.

We are also seeing the duplication of those charges. We will go to the landlord and they will say, “We only answer the ground rent ones, but we still want £400 to answer those. You will need to go to the managing agent to get the information about the service charges.” The managing agent says, “Right, well, we charge £400 for that, but you will need to go to the Tenants Association to get information about disputes and consents,” and so it goes on.

The timescale to getting the information having paid for it is about 57 days. For the consumer, it is an absolute nightmare. As Kate says, guidance from National Trading Standards came out on 30 November 2023 which sets out the material information—the information that would be relevant to the average consumer. It is not all the information. What we need mandated is what information and what data should be reviewed to identify what the relevant material information is, because without that how do we know if somebody has the information from the leasehold property inquiries or from the seller’s or the estate agent’s guesswork? Certainly, without the regulation of property agents, there is nothing to say, if they do just make it up, that anybody can take anything against them. We absolutely need that to be incorporated. It was promised and there was an announcement, I think, in 2018 that the leasehold property inquiry information should be made available at a cost of £200, with a refreshment fee for those time-sensitive elements of £50, and that that information should be made available within 10 working days. We have still not seen that and there is nothing in the Bill that identifies that.

Q I have one question for each witness. Kate, if I can come to you first. You made the point that leasehold works for some leaseholders. We know that there are something like 4.98 million leasehold properties. How many would you say it is working for? That might be impossible, but what is your gut feeling?

Kate Faulkner: I do not think we have ever asked that question, so it is very difficult to answer. Also, the issue with property is that people change a lot. As a result, you could have a block that works brilliantly because we have a wonderful violinist or—my grandma used to own a little place at The Poplars in West Bridgford in Nottingham and, through complications, the family still owns a garage where my grandma used to live. The two guys who run that estate—the guy who does the accounts and the guy who does the overall management—are absolutely fantastic. They are a pleasure to deal with, and it is an extraordinarily well-run block. Now, if either of those were to move on, who knows whether there is anybody to replace them?

If we take another situation—I must say that this was quite a shock for me and I was a bit green in those days—I owned a flat and I thought it was safe to buy because it was owned by a housing association. Thirty per cent of those flats were owned privately. We were treated abominably by that housing association, and I would go as far as to say that they really did not like private leaseholders. I understood; they were social homes originally and they did not want us to own them. I felt we were treated as if we were an ATM machine. The original agreement that we signed up for with the housing association was a good one, but we found that they were changing that agreement over time and changing it so fast with so much paperwork that by the time the roof needed to be replaced, all the reasons we had bought that property, which we thought was safe, had been taken away from us. I know what I am doing and I asked all the right questions, but we still ended up with a situation where we had no control whatsoever over what was happening.

You have two cases there. In one, you have a wonderfully-run estate, but that could change overnight if different people take over, and in the other, you have a situation where I thought I would be safe with the housing association, only to find all the rules were changed.

To give you some idea, I think it is the complexity of this that is so scary. However good anybody is, the missing qualifications are just horrendous. That just has to be sorted. The best way I could describe it to you is that when I moved, I had a bag. Do you remember those big Asda bags? Not the ones that they do now, because they seem to have got smaller, like everything else. I had a big Asda bag, and after owning this flat with the housing association for 10 years, I had three lever-arch files full of paperwork.

When we brought the complaint against the housing association about how they had dealt with the roof renovations, it took a year to take that to a complaint situation. When I suggested that I take it to a first-tier tribunal, I was told—this is one of the good things—that if I drove my other leaseholders into taking them to a first-tier tribunal, it would cost more than £30,000. I was asked whether I wanted that responsibility on my shoulders. Taking that cost off is one of the good things, but my worry is that however good we do, until you give the leaseholders parity with the legals—the surveying and the accounting expertise of the freeholder or agent or whoever it might be—we will still never dig ourselves out of the situation we have. That parity service has to be free, or every leaseholder puts in a hundred quid a year or something to provide them with some sort of service.

Q I am conscious of time, so I ask you to be brief in your answers. It is interesting and useful for all of us to hear the other side of the argument. I am not nailing my colours to the mast here. I am just making the argument that some people would argue in favour of leasehold, because it suits some people in certain situations. You have made that argument, but you have been very clear that it is obviously complicated: people can move on, and then they have no protection, and so on. Do you still think there is value in leasehold as a concept, if it can be addressed by the measures in this Bill or maybe some others? Do you still think leasehold should exist, as long as it can be reformed?

Kate Faulkner: Absolutely. That is in one of my notes. If we make sure all houses are freehold, but we keep flats as leasehold, is that a problem? Well, actually, we can make leasehold work. We spend so much time looking at how to solve the bad bit, but what we do not do in this industry—which I have always done in others—is learn how it goes right, and how we can pull everybody up to that standard. We spend so much time looking at what happens when it goes wrong.

Q Yes, because there are obviously egregious cases, and it is those that reach our attention. Thank you so much for that, and I will obviously scrutinise your evidence.

Beth, it is often presented that your industry and your members are perhaps part of some of the problems we see, because conveyancing is not done to high standards. We have heard so many times that people do not know what they are buying. Surely, that should be the role of conveyancers? Is it your view that there are some poor people practising in your industry? How much of this leasehold problem would have been avoided if we had had decent conveyancing right from the beginning?

Beth Rudolf: We have to go back to the understanding that, as Kate said, if you only have a few of the ingredients up front, then you are going to give misinformation. For example, let us think that without any information going to the buyer, they have decided to buy that property. Now, their intended use and enjoyment of the property is then what the conveyancer needs to do the due diligence on, to ensure that the buyer gets the information and understands what it means to them.

The issue we have with the current conveyancing process is that because of the dematerialisation of deeds, there is no need to keep deeds packets in fireproof safes any more. Consequently, they are just returned to the property purchaser, who loses them without realising their use, or they keep them really safe and then take them with them to the next property. All of that information goes missing, which means that every time the property is sold, the information and archive of the data has to be reconstructed. If I, as a conveyancer, was selling a property back in 1990, I would just get out the deeds packet and send through the contract pack on the day that a buyer was found. Within that, I could put old local searches, planning and documentation, warranties and guarantees, and insurances.

Now, when I get instructed, I have to start from scratch. I have to go to the lease administrator and planning authority and get all the information. That takes time. The trouble is that, as a buyer’s conveyancer, I am trying to report to the client on the information as it comes in. I hopefully get in the material information that the estate agent gets when they put the property on the market, but then I have to do the transaction form that the Law Society requires, which duplicates what has already been provided, but is slightly different, so you do not get the right information there.

On top of that, I get the search results in, but I probably do not order those until I get the mortgage instructions in. But the mortgage instructions are based on a valuation done by a valuer who did not know what information was available on the lease, so I then have to go back to the valuer and say, “No, you’ve got the wrong information.” By the time I have reported to my client on each thing, I have had to change my story each and every time. So conveyancing transactions take about 20 weeks before you can even exchange contracts, because each time you are trying to recreate the information about the property.

What we need is for the property data to be digitised and stored in property log books at the end of the transaction so that it can then be used when the seller wishes to instruct an estate agent to sell their property. To advertise it, they can then pull down the property pack, get the relevant material and information out of it, and ensure that when the buyer puts their offer in, they know what they are buying, and that the valuer for their mortgage company knows the details about the valuation. Where that happens—in Norway, Denmark and Australia—we see binding offers with cooling-off periods, and the only stress is trying to work out what you are going to move and what stuff you are going to give to charity.

Kate Faulkner: You have to bear in mind that when people are moving, they are also having a baby, getting divorced or getting married—or somebody has died, or they are in debt. Maybe they are trying to get in for a school time. As much as I wear a consumer hat, they are not in the most rational mode.

One of the difficulties that the conveyancer, the agent or anybody else has is actually getting people to sit down and understand the paperwork and what they are doing. We have a huge problem: consumers do not really understand, and do not always take the time to, either, because they just need to get into the property. We have a real education issue. One of the things I would do is work with companies to help them to educate consumers. I have to say that, in all my jobs, getting them to understand from a property perspective is the toughest thing.

That is why we have to bring everything up front. If we wait until they have made an offer and had it accepted, we have lost them—they are interested in what colour the walls are and what the sofa is, and if anybody, such as a surveyor, gets in their way and says, “You shouldn’t buy this property”, they are almost cross with them. The mindset of a consumer during the buying and selling process with property is very different from any other consumer mindset I have ever worked with.

[Chloe Smith in the Chair]

By way of explanation, for the next 10 minutes I am Caroline Dinenage.

Kate Faulkner: Many congratulations!

Otherwise, my name is Chloe Smith. I am temporarily chairing the session to allow for a very short break.

Q I was really struck by your comments around the natural education process of buying and selling houses. You are quite right; most of us probably do it once or twice in our lifetimes, and we do not know the questions we need to ask. We rely on conveyancers and those in the legal environment to give us that information. Looking at the Competition and Markets Authority’s report on mis-selling, it strikes me that some really shady practices have been going on. Beth, I will ask you this question first: what would be in an up-front pack if we were to mandate to say, “If you are going to sell a leasehold house, this is everything we need to know about”?

Beth Rudolf: What you have in there is the energy performance certificate; the title to the property, including a plan and any documents referred to in the title, such as a lease or a conveyance containing covenants; the searches—the local authority search, the drainage and water search and environmental data, which will tell you whether the property is impacted by coastal erosion or flooding; and the BASPI, or the buying and selling property information, which is completed by the seller and provides information about their understanding and ownership of the property.

You verify the identity of the seller digitally to ensure that they are the person registered as the proprietor to avoid seller impersonation fraud, through which people have lost £1.3 million. Those are the things that you need available. For a shared amenity property with a leasehold or managed freehold estate rent charge, you also need that shared amenity information—the LPE1, or the leasehold property enquiries form, and the FME1, or the freehold management enquiries form.

[Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

Q That is the bit that I am glad you got to, because that seems to be the bit that gets forgotten with leasehold properties. What are the ongoing service charges—what are you paying your money for and when do you pay it? Constituents who have purchased leasehold properties tell me that they have not been told about that.

Beth Rudolf: It is about building safety. Is remediation required? What will be the impact on you? How much will you have to contribute? Are you a qualifying leaseholder? How the hell do we know?

Q Is that something you think we should be mandating for people buying a leasehold? Should that be in the Bill?

Beth Rudolf: For any house, yes, absolutely. It needs to whack up the material information under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which impact estate agents by saying, “These are the prescribed documents.” The home report in Scotland shows that that is pretty much what they have done. They have 60% fewer fall-throughs than we have and their transaction time is much faster. If we can go that way, it will absolutely deliver. When estate agents and conveyancers have worked together to deliver this already, it has knocked transaction times from 22 weeks to 10 weeks and fall-through rates have plummeted.

Kate Faulkner: Obviously, I work right across the property industry, from self-build to the leasehold side, and a lot of the work that has been done, including the rent reform and the work that has been done here, focuses on what happens after. For me, there is a problem with property from a consumer perspective, because there is a shortage of properties and owning a property is such a complex thing. You cannot compare it to buying a toaster—it often is, but please let us get rid of that.

For property to work for consumers who are moving, buying property or selling after deaths, divorce and so on, you have to make sure we have no bad freeholders, no bad landlords and no bad or poorly qualified agents. The good thing about the leasehold Bill is that you are doing some of those things. The Renters (Reform) Bill is not doing those things; most of it is after the event, but that is too late because consumers have to put a roof over their head and get their kids into school, so they will compromise on their rights. They will compromise when they are told, “You need to understand this information from your conveyancer, which means you should pull out of this deal.” We therefore have to put the protection in first. We must regulate agents and make sure the bad elements cannot be there. There is such a massive scale, ranging from the brilliant people I work with right through to the criminal, and we have to move everybody up.

Beth Rudolf: Just to catch you there, because we are short on time, the regulation of qualifications is a key point.

Q I was going to ask you about that. Is the Bill sufficiently robust in that area at the moment?

Beth Rudolf: No. It is wonderful that you are opening up the jurisdiction of the tribunal, but it still does not cover administration charges—I have talked about how ridiculously expensive they are—and their duplication. The point is that, as Kate says, the consumer is not educated, and nor is the estate agent. The material information guidance has come out, but none of the estate agents knows about it. When conveyancers ask them whether they can help them prepare the summary of the material information, the estate agents say, “Well, why? What are you talking about?” They have no idea.

The point is, as Andrew says, that we want to put a fence at the top of the cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. The tribunal is the ambulance at the bottom; regulation of property agents is the fence at the top. That will ensure all people are educated, including the consumer, the estate agent and the property manager, and we also need to include the landlords and the developers in that. They need to be regulated too, because otherwise it is all going to slip through the net. The enterprise reform regulations do not incorporate anything where you are not instructed to work on behalf of somebody else, so your landlord is not going to be regulated, and they already do not have to be part of a redress scheme. Bringing these things in will help with education, so that they know what they are supposed to do and they will not make these mistakes that cause people to have a nightmare in their own homes.

Q I have one more question, if I may. In relation to the challenge of estates not being adopted by councils, I am conscious that you may not know a great deal about this—

Beth Rudolf: No, I have so much to tell you about this. In Worcester, the county authority has a £35 million overspend on adult social care. Because of that, it is not putting any money into the adoption of public open spaces. It is not putting any money into supporting those. It will absolutely look for developers that will take on those open spaces, create these estate rent charges and make a bit of wonga by collecting all that money.

Q In your experience, is this driven by councils?

Beth Rudolf: It is council resources, as much as anything. Then, on top of that, developers see it as being a financial asset, because they continue to have an economic interest in that land by gathering the referral fees, the commissions on the insurance and things like that.

Q Finally, do you have any data on how many of these estates are not adopted and are being operated in that fashion? Is there any knowledge around that?

Beth Rudolf: All I can tell you is that currently the council that I am aware of will not adopt anything. The dowry that it used to receive for adopting is no longer enough to cover the cost of bringing it up to an adoptable standard and, as was mentioned before, if the developers leave before bringing it up to an adoptable standard, you are completely stuffed: there is no resourcing and no money available to fund this.

Q The challenge that we are going to face is that we are going to build hundreds of thousands of homes over the next however long, and how those estates are looked after and the cost—

Beth Rudolf: Bring in commonhold. Enable commonhold on managed estates, because then people will at least have their control. With commonhold, you immediately get people saying, “You don’t have professional property managers running it.” Well, require that, when the commonhold association takes over, it has in place a professional, regulated property manager with a limited contract, so that the association can tender for a replacement if it turns out that that estate manager is not good. That means that you are starting to drive it on the basis of customer satisfaction: if you do not do it fairly, well and reasonably, the commonhold association is going to replace it. We did a survey of the commonholders—

I am conscious of the time. Others may want to—

Beth Rudolf: I know, but I was going to say that the commonholders did not complain about being commonholders. Some of them had been leaseholders, and they said that they would prefer to be commonholders.

Kate Faulkner: One of the things from the developers’ side—and I was not clear about this—has to do with where this leaves people with shared ownership, because you cannot have two-tiered systems. The housing associations and shared ownership should be as protected with these rules and regulations, because, unfortunately, not all housing associations do a good job.

Beth Rudolf: One more thing: the ground rent capping referenced in the Bill requires the lease to be a qualifying lease, so it will not impact leases under 150 years. But the majority of the mis-sold leases with onerous terms and escalating ground rents were well under 150 years. They will not be touched by this, so that needs to change.

Thank you very much. I do not think there are any further questions, so I thank you both very much for attending today.

Examination of Witness

Professor Tim Leunig gave evidence.

We will now hear from Professor Tim Leunig, who is the director of Public First. We have until 5.15 for this session. Can the witness please introduce himself for the record?

Professor Leunig: I can. I am indeed Professor Tim Leunig. I was an employee of the Department that is currently known as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, where I served as economic adviser on housing supply to three Secretaries of State—Clark, Javid and Gove respectively—and any number of Housing Ministers, to be honest, one of whom is here. I served almost all of them between Brandon Lewis and Rachel Maclean.

I am now the director of economics at Public First consulting and am chief economist at the think-tank Onward. I am employed by University College London Consultants to train Treasury civil servants. I run a Substack and I am a visiting professor at the London School of Economics school of public policy.

Q It is nice to see you, Professor Leunig. Why do we have leasehold in this country when other countries do not have it?

Professor Leunig: I think that is a question that people often ask medics: “Why do I have this?” Who cares? The question is, “Am I going to get any better?” I have not got the faintest idea about the origin of leasehold, but I contend to you that that does not matter; all that matters is whether this is an effective system and, if it is not, what we could do either to improve or replace the current system. Those two questions I can answer, but I am afraid that I get an E grade for my answer to the question that you actually asked.

Q Okay. You are very frank about that. I just thought that you might have some ideas, but let us move on to the point that you just made, which is that we do have leasehold; we are where we are.

We have a Bill in front of us. What is your view on the Bill? Does it address the problems that we have all heard and are familiar with?

Professor Leunig: It is a step forward; there is no doubt about that. I do not suppose that any person has appeared in front of you today and said, “Oh, this is a terrible step.” I do not suppose anyone has argued that we should keep leasehold for houses or that we should have 99-year leases or 49-year leases or anything like that.

No.

Professor Leunig: In that sense, it is obviously a step forward. I have not been here all day, but I am guessing that you have had a consensus on that throughout your evidence sessions. I am part of that consensus. I think that it is very good that leaseholders have increased rights to information and that we are eliminating ground rent for longer leases, although I agree with the person who was sitting here before me—whose name, I think, was Beth Rudolf—that 150 years is a rather long thing before you get rid of ground rent. The case for ground rent seems to me to be extraordinarily weak. I think that it would be better to move to commonhold.

First of all, I should say that I am not a lawyer. Indeed, once, when I made a remark about the law in a meeting with one of your predecessors as Housing Minister, said Minister remarked that, as an analyst, I should know better than anyone else that the first four letters of analyst stand for, “am not a lawyer”, which, I have to say, was wittier than most Housing Ministers.

I am not a lawyer. I am an economist, but I can say that leasehold is a peculiarly economically inefficient construct, because it usually constrains a person, for whom the largest single thing they will ever invest in is a leasehold—their house—from doing all sorts of things. It constrains improvements, for example. It also holds them open to the risk of forfeiture, and the risk of forfeiture is particularly bizarre: for a very small amount of service fee, you can lose the entire value of your flat or, occasionally, your house. That is disproportionate to any sense of economic, moral or any other kind of fair play, and it acts as a disincentive to people.

In that sense, leasehold is a fundamentally economically inefficient construct, as well as having dubious morality. For sure, if you do not pay your service charge, there needs to be some way of enforcing, whether it is commonhold or leasehold, but that is why we have things like the small claims court. Ultimately, we have bailiffs if you do not pay a bill. You do not lose your entire property because you failed to pay your telly licence or something like that, and nor should you for a service charge. In that sense, I think that leasehold should be killed off.

I also think that leasehold is, on occasion, an absolute magnet for sharks and other wretched creatures who disgrace our society and the good name of capitalism. I think it was Edward du Cann who made a remark—before I was born and before at least some of you were born—about the “unacceptable face of capitalism” when companies behave very badly. We see that happening in leasehold with the companies who had doubling ground rents until a property was worthless and the companies who pursue forfeiture over tiny bills. Bluntly, if I am allowed unparliamentary language—I think I am but you are not—there are bastards out there, and your job is to construct the law to constrain those people who have bastard tendencies. Leasehold does not do that; commonhold does. That is why I think that commonhold is a much safer construct for people who are currently leaseholders. It should be the norm and the requirement for all future building, whether that is flats or houses, and we should be looking to move leaseholds to commonholds over time.

Q One of the arguments against making commonhold mandatory now is that it would destabilise the existing leasehold system. There are many millions of leasehold properties, and it is argued that that would result in a lack of confidence, in a lack of investment and in even fewer properties being built. We all know that we want to build more houses, more flats and so on; part of the long-term plan for housing is to build more flats, as I think Mr Scoffin alluded to. What do you make of that argument? Secondly, what do you make of the linked argument that freeholders are providing a very good service in some ways, because that asset class is funding the pensions of NHS and care workers and policemen in the country?

Professor Leunig: The final point is factually incorrect, because of course the nurses pension scheme is unfunded, so there are no assets behind—

That is probably a bad example.

Professor Leunig: It is, but people always put forward nurses and policemen when they want an “Oh, woe is us” story. Well, the NHS pension scheme is unfunded; it is underwritten by us as taxpayers and is thus completely and utterly secure.

Although I accept that there are some people who have these in their pension funds, any good pension fund is diversified. No sensible pension fund has more than a trivial amount of its money invested in this class. Of course, if you have a self-invested pension plan and you decided to put it all in this, that is a risk that you took when you decided to invest all your money in it.

Changing to commonhold will make not a jot of difference to the number of houses that are built over the next year, or the number of flats. The number of houses and flats built is determined entirely by whether the builder believes that they can make a profit. This is a for-profit sector, and that is right and proper, as is the manufacture of pens, mobile phones, bits of paper, quasi-plastic cups and everything else. It depends on whether the buyers have enough confidence to buy, on whether they think their job is secure and on whether they can get a mortgage at a rate that seems acceptable and is competitive with renting. That is what matters. It also matters whether the builder thinks the market will be radically better in the following year, in which case they will quite understandably delay building for a bit.

Frankly, the difference between the value you will get for a leasehold and what you will get for a commonhold is at best slight; in so far as it exists, it is based on confusing and bamboozling buyers. Sometimes the builders of a leasehold flat say, “Ah, but we can sell them for less, because we make some money by selling off the right to the ground rent.” If that is true, the buyer is not better off, because they have got it for less, but they have to pay ground rent. The buyer would be perfectly able to pay a little more, because their monthly or annual outgoings would be exactly the same.

The only way in which the builder is able to do better is if the buyer does not realise that they have to pay ground rent and is unable to do a net present value calculation in their head, which I grant you is more than likely—I challenge any of you to tell me on the spot what the net present value of £250 a year discounted by 3.5% a year is, over any number of years you like that is greater than five. Does anybody want to do that off the top of their head? No? I even typed into Google last night, “What is the net present value of £250 discounted at 3.5% over 10 years?” Google did not give me a number as an answer. It is not the sort of thing that we have to hand.

Yes, some people might be bamboozled into this, but a good economy never says, “Great: we can build some more houses by tricking people into being poorer later.” That is not the way to have a well-functioning market—and a well-functioning market is the best guarantee that we will get the houses we need built where we need them and when we need them.

That’s all right, Dame Caroline. Let’s stick with net present values, shall we, Professor?

Professor Leunig: Go for it—I’ll get out the calculator.

Q You will be aware that impact assessments are required now for all legislation, very helpfully.

Professor Leunig: Indeed, yes. It’s a very long one, by the look of it.

Q The top line says that the best estimate of present value is £90 million, but then it says that the low estimate is minus £1.5 billion and the high estimate is £1.5 billion. Doesn’t that indicate that the Government don’t have a clue?

Professor Leunig: Oh, yes, absolutely. That is not necessarily reprehensible, because sometimes you just cannot have a clue.

I am often asked to forecast the future. I say, “Why did economists get the last four years wrong? Because we didn’t predict that Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine.” Making predictions about the future as a social scientist is, by and large, a mug’s game. All you can do is stand up from first principles and say, “When do market economies work well? They work well when contracts are simple and plain and everybody understands them.” That is much truer of commonhold than of leasehold, which is why I support commonhold rather than leasehold.

Q What is clear, though, is that the business net present value is scored at minus £1.7 billion, so presumably we can pretty much say that the impact on business is going to be—

Professor Leunig: Does it have a range?

Q Not on my copy; I presume it must have, but this figure is listed at the front.

Professor Leunig: I have not seen the impact assessment.

Q Well, let me draw on that. The core of this is something I mentioned earlier. If you look at the benefits, there is a total of £2.8 billion of impact monetised, which is under a heading of “transfers” —so transfer of value—and there is £418 million under the heading of “benefits”. The numbers might be different because of other things later, but that is not material to the main point. What strikes you about the intention of the Bill if three quarters, 80% or 90% is about transfers and not efficiencies or benefits?

Professor Leunig: I would want to read it before giving a definitive answer, but the information that you have given me tells me that this Bill is above all a redistributive Bill. However, both of those are static estimates. The main change in property rights is usually dynamic; for example, what does it do to the incentives for people to improve their own homes? I would be surprised if that were captured in those benefits. If it is captured, I would be interested in seeing over how many years it is captured, and so on and so forth. Of course, a lot of this Bill, as I understand it—assuming that it is like every other Bill—leaves all the important stuff to secondary legislation and regulations. I imagine that those figures, in particular the figure of £2.8 billion under “transfers”, are heavily dependent on exactly how the secondary legislation is written.

Q So it is redistributive, primarily. It sounds that way from those numbers, but there may be some hidden benefits that have not been monetised in the report. That is helpful.

Professor Leunig: Yes.

Q That is helpful. What is your instinct? Most of this is about removing marriage value payments. In your understanding, what would you expect the geographic distribution of that transfer redistribution to be?

Professor Leunig: The biggest winners and losers will be in the south-east and in London, because that is where the marriage values are greatest because that is where property prices are highest. If you own a flat in Peterlee, one of the lowest value housing markets in Britain, the marriage value will be trivial at the moment, so changing the rules on marriage values will have a very small effect.

Q Is it right to say that this Bill is a wealth transfer from rich freeholders to rich leaseholders? This is primarily just moving money between rich people, isn’t it?

Professor Leunig: No. Not every leaseholder in London is rich, by any means. If you are buying a flat for £300,000 in London, that will make you rich by the standards of someone in Peterlee, but I do not think a young couple buying a flat for £300,000 would meet The Daily Telegraph’s definition of “the rich”.

Q So the geographic dimension—there are more leasehold properties in London—and the redistribution argument is stronger than the “all properties in London are expensive compared to everywhere else” argument.

Professor Leunig: Yes.

Q That is helpful to know. Therefore, does redistribution matter—it could be a social good or not—and does it matter who and how that redistribution happens? Are those things material? Should we be looking at them in detail?

Professor Leunig: Redistribution is ultimately a political issue; it is about who you think should have the money. Government engages in redistribution all the time. Sometimes it does so explicitly through the tax system— I am looking forward any day to my tax cheque coming back from HMRC for the money I overpaid last year—and in other ways it does so implicitly.

For example, as somebody who has been employed in universities for most of my academic career, my income was constrained by the fact that Government limits university fees. I teach at the London School of Economics. The fee that we charge for a master’s suggests that we could charge much higher than £9,250 to undergraduates, but the Government do not let us. That is a legitimate decision by the Government. It makes me directly poorer. That is a transfer away from someone like me—broadly speaking, on the richer end of the spectrum—to people who are currently not very well off but who later on will be rich.

That is just the right of a Government to define property rights in such a way that some people are winners and some are losers. The right to borrow Jeffrey Archer’s books from the library, for which he gets virtually no compensation, is exactly the sort of political decision that you are entitled to make by dint of having a democratic mandate. Apart from agreeing with you that there is redistribution, I do not think that there is a great deal that any of us at this straight table can say to those of you around the horseshoe. It is your right, privilege and responsibility to make that decision.

That is very helpful. I will stop there, but I want to come back on discount rates later if I have time.

Professor Leunig: Excellent.

Thank you. I make it 296.91, actually, but please correct me if Google thinks I am wrong.

Professor Leunig: May I ask whether you used a calculator to work that out?

Of course.

Professor Leunig: Phew! I was once involved in setting a question for Carol Vorderman on “Who Do You Think You Are?”. They wanted her to work out something like that, and I said, “You’ve got to give her a calculator.” They said, “No, she’s Carol Vorderman.” No one can work out 1.02794 in their head, not even Carol Vorderman. They finally agreed to put a calculator to hand, which she used, I believe.

So she didn’t do it in her head.

Professor Leunig: Even Carol Vorderman cannot do that in her head. If you had said that you had done it in your head, I would have put you above Carol Vorderman.

Q No, no—on my calculator.

Back to the Bill. There is an argument put forward for ground rent—the Government’s proposal is to take it down to a peppercorn or indeed abolish it entirely—that these are inalienable property rights, so there must be compensation and there must be proportionality. Could you elaborate for the Committee on whether the same argument was used when we compensated slave owners for the loss of their property, and whether you think that there is an analogy there?

Professor Leunig: Property rights are never sacred in the sense of being inviolable, because a property right is over and above the right to be compensated for the loss of property, so a properly inviolable property right would ban the emancipation of slaves, ban compulsory purchase and so forth.

But the Government often take actions that, de facto, end someone’s business. One of the saddest things I did in Government when I was economic adviser to the Chancellor was meeting a group of people affected by Brexit. One of them was a seed potato exporter. Under EU law, seed potatoes cannot be imported into the EU, so on the day that we left, this person’s business was completely kaput. He asked for compensation, but it was not granted. We can argue the rights and wrongs of that, and we can argue the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but it seems to me that the fundamental sovereign right of Parliament is to make decisions that some people like and some people do not like. If people are really unhappy, they can judicially review it. A lot of rich people own ground rents, and they may well be judicially reviewed. Sometimes almost anything is reviewed, certainly in the world of property.

I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that there is a plausible case for Parliament to stand up and say, “We believe there are social advantages to doing this, and we have therefore done it.” That is the standard defence in law, and we did this at the end of covid. I was involved in the compulsory arbitration for a commercial rent scheme; indeed, it was one of the things I came up with as an idea in my time as a civil servant. At the end of covid, just about every restaurant had a huge accumulated rent debt. The standard commercial clause says that on any day you are behind with your rent, the landlord can go in, occupy the property and seize everything that is in it. We put that into abeyance for covid, without compensation, because we had a public policy reason for wanting restaurants shut.

Q Indeed, we actually did it after the Custins v . Hearts of Oak Benefit Society legal decision in 1967, which had reversed the Government’s decision on marriage value. We then legislated to make it absolutely clear that marriage value should not be counted.

Professor Leunig: There we are.

Q In 1993, that was turned over. But it is public policy that trumps those property rights.

Professor Leunig: Correct, and that was what we decided at the end of covid, when restaurants, particularly those that served fine wine, came to us to say, “As soon as we restock our cellar, the landlord will turn up, reoccupy the property, seize all the wine and sell it for the back debt.” They said, “We are literally not willing to bring wine on to the premises.” It was clear that that was an inefficient outcome that risked undermining the high street, risked undermining the future of hospitality and risked undermining a sector that is the biggest employer of young people. We therefore created a compulsory arbitration scheme to prevent that from happening. Nobody judicially reviewed that, even though there were some unhappy landlords, because they understood that we had a public policy purpose for doing so. The weight of evidence that you have heard today suggests that there is a public policy purpose here but, as I say, I am no lawyer.

Q Thank you. That is extremely helpful. Please do refuse to answer if this is outwith your bandwidth, but in terms of the way in which leasehold in particular enables the freeholder to extract a revenue stream and the way in which developers develop properties precisely to extract that revenue stream, do you believe that that has had any bearing on the value of land in the UK and the fact that it appears to be at a higher price—obviously there are density and population issues, but on the whole it seems to be of a higher value—than land elsewhere in comparable populations?

Professor Leunig: Let us be clear: land for housing is of higher value and agricultural land is of slightly higher value, but industrial land is often not.

Q And there is a huge premium when land is transferred from agricultural to construction use, is there not?

Professor Leunig: Gobsmackingly. The field with three horses next to Heathrow airport that I go past if I ever go to Heathrow is a tragedy. It is a really dreadful little bit of land. It is used for nothing other than three horses, but its value is constrained, because it is zoned for agriculture. I think the answer is: very little. Most of the large developers are not in this in order to make a fast buck out of ground rent and so on. Indeed, from memory, I think I can put on record that Taylor Wimpey behaved very honourably, having inadvertently had doubling rents in the north-west—

Q You would say that of Persimmon and FirstPort.

Professor Leunig: Hang on; I will exercise my right to finish the sentence. It actually bought them back from the people to whom it had sold them, and it had not sold them at a particularly high price. It was just a local convention in the north-west that houses were sold on leasehold. The national companies hired solicitors, who did the normal thing in their area. Just as there is in government, there is often a lot more cock-up than conspiracy in the private sector. I am much more worried about the people who buy the leases later on with a view to finding the loopholes and exploiting them, just as people buy up medicines that are not quite out of patent to force the prices up. That is why I think it is good to set up a legal system that prevents the sharks from sharking, or whatever the verb is, but I would not want to tar all developers with that brush. In terms of property prices, I should say that I think it is overwhelmingly the planning system—we can see that if you look at somewhere like Manchester, which has lots of flats where land prices are not that high. Land prices are high in London and the south-east because we do not release enough land for housing.

Q I think you are looking at this from a historical point of view. Your example of the north-west was perfectly apt, but there have been modern developers and companies—and I would cite Persimmon and FirstPort—that deliberately go about creating this as an extractive opportunity. Yes, it is much more modern, but surely it then has an impact, if it is allowed to continue, on land value.

Professor Leunig: It could do for sure, yes. If you can extract more money for the product that you are able to sell, you are willing to pay more for the constituent parts. However, I would not want anybody here to think that if we move from leasehold to commonhold, houses will suddenly become affordable in the south-east. That would not be a credible economic prediction.

Q I am trying to keep my interventions very brief, because I will be speaking a lot next week, but I could not resist asking you a couple of questions given your history, knowledge and background that is much more than my own. You have emphasised very clearly and articulately the rights of the people sat around this horseshoe to make decisions that will have economic impacts. Can I get your understanding of what you think the economic impact of the Bill as it stands broadly is?

Professor Leunig: First of all, I repeat what I said earlier, namely that it seems to me that a lot of it is up to the secondary legislation. In particular, I think that issues of compensation are entirely in secondary legislation and regulation. As I say, I am not a lawyer; I find it very hard to read a Bill. It is not my skillset at all. I would not like to have your job.

I think that the biggest effect is the dynamic effect of creating a much cleaner and clearer property market. We have a rather ossified property market in Britain; it has become more ossified over time. There are all sort of reasons for that, including the fact that far more people are now under stamp duty, as well as the effect of financial regulations that mean someone needs a relatively large deposit to get on the housing market. There is a bunch of other costs that we really could simplify and get rid of. Take searches, for example. You can buy a house that is two years old and you have to do a completely clean set of searches. Why? When did we last find a mine in central London? We know this stuff pretty well.

I think this is part of clearing up the housing market and if we do so it can have quite big dynamic effects—for example, facilitating the better movement of people in response to opportunity. Such opportunities may be economic. I do not want to sound too Norman Tebbit and say, “Get on your bike.” However, there can be opportunities to go and live next to an aged parent who has suddenly fallen ill, in order to provide better care for them, or opportunities to move nearer to better schooling. Whatever the opportunity is, a more flexible housing market allows people to move to a house that is better suited to their needs.

All those things are good dynamic effects that in the medium term are strongly pro-growth and I see this Bill being part of it, but it is a small step forward. A move to commonhold would be a better step forward to a nice, clean system, where everybody knows exactly what they are buying and nobody is left wondering, “What sort of freeholder is this? Are they an exploitative one? Are they a reasonable one?” Many freeholders are perfectly reasonable.

Q Understood. Question two of three: what are the risks of getting things wrong that the Committee should be aware of when we go into line-by-line analysis of the Bill next week? Where do you see the biggest risks in the legislation?

Professor Leunig: I see no risks in anything that you plan to do; I really do not think that there are any meaningful risks in moving to 999-year leases over 99-year leases. I certainly do not see any risk in ending leasehold for houses.

However, you might have people coming back with very specific cases of supported housing, for example—you always want to check with specialist groups about things like that—but I see no meaningful risks in this Bill as far as it goes. If you had gone much further, there would have been no meaningful risks either. The fact that commonhold and similar things work in places like Australia shows that it is a perfectly possible and viable system.

The time when you want to be really worried is when you are the first person in the world doing something. Of course, that does not mean you are wrong—right? When we privatised the first utilities, or when we privatised British Telecom, that was not a wrong decision, but there were definitely grounds for caution. However, when you are doing something that is already done in many countries—of all the things you lot have to worry about, I would not worry about that one. Sleep well tonight.

Q Thank you. I have a final question. I know that you were not here all day, but we have heard some very compelling testimony and questions from colleagues about the potential for going further and adding things to the Bill. Next week, we will get into a discussion, as colleagues know, about what we can do and the practicalities of that; we are not going to be able to do everything. However, we think that a very sensible set of propositions have already been put forward. If you had to prioritise, where would you go first in terms of additions, because there is a necessary prioritisation that needs to come in next week’s discussions and on Report?

Professor Leunig: The only prioritisation meeting I had was with the current Secretary of State for Levelling Up on the LURB—the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill —because the first draft of the Bill had twice as many clauses as could get through Parliament. We had a meeting for about two hours with the Secretary of State and each part was read out, including what its intention was and how many clauses it required. That is the cost-benefit analysis.

If I say to you, for example, “The lady before said 150 is too big”, I would agree with her; I imagine that is a very sensible change to make. By contrast, I am sure that other people have said, “Go for commonhold for everything in future”. That strikes me as requiring a lot more clauses than the number that would be required to change the 150 figure to 99, or 75, or something.

What I urge you to do is to ask the lawyers—the people drafting the legislation—how many clauses would each change that has been proposed cost. Then you think, “Okay, we can probably manage another 24 clauses”, or whatever it is, “or we can change 24 clauses. Which ones do best in that cost-benefit analysis?” I do not think that it would be sensible for me to give you an answer without knowing that legislative cost.

Q The Minister has just asked three questions to help the Committee; I wonder whether I can ask a question to help the Minister. Do you think that he should include flats within the scope of the Bill? Flats are currently excluded. What is your view on that?

Professor Leunig: Yes.

He should?

Professor Leunig: Yes, and it is increasingly important as more and more of us live in flats. Unless we are going to make London look like Houston and stretch all the way from the white cliffs of Dover to Oxford, more people are going to have to live in flats in London. They are going to have to live in terraced houses and flats; that is just a simple, basic sense of physics and geography.

So yes, flats are going to be more important over time. I can see no reason why new flats should not be built on commonhold for anything where planning permission has not already been granted. That gives builders amply long enough. At that point, they cannot turn around and say, “Oh, but our economics were predicated on this.” You have not put in for planning permission. Do it on commonhold. Get on with it. Adjust to the new world order.

I think we had a couple of follow-up questions, first from Rachel and then Richard.

I am sorry, Dame Caroline. When you told me that there was not time, the question went out of my head. I apologise.

In that case, we will go to Richard and it might pop back in again.

Professor Leunig: Oh no, he is going to test me on net present value.

Q No: discount rates. As I understand it, there are two discount rates that are currently used in the calculations—the capitalisation rate and the deferment rate—and one is sort of fixed by a legal process. In terms of making changes to the marriage value, there is also a change in the way in which the discount rate is going to be determined; it will be done by the Minister by regulation. What are your thoughts about that?

Professor Leunig: The default rate chooses 3.5% because that is the rate in the Green Book. Again, it is fundamentally a political decision, because you put the rate one way and the value goes up. You put the rate the other way and the value goes down. It is just a political decision. I really do not think that there is a right or wrong answer to that.

The only thing to say is that I would be very cautious in using the current Bank of England base rate because it is so volatile. The idea that if we had made the calculation two years ago we would have used a discount rate of 0.25%, but today we would use 5.25%, is absurd. You need one number that you stick with through thick and thin, and the default rate, I think, is the Green Book discount rate of 3.5%. I am happy to believe that if we were in the Department and I was employed, you could sway my belief that 3.5% is the right answer, but that is where I would start.