By Harry Scoffin
Speaking to MPs in Westminster Hall last month, housing minister Esther McVey said leasehold and commonhold reform “is something that all colleagues want to get right” and declared that “abuses will not be accepted by any of us”.
Ms McVey began her remarks by lavishing praise on APPG co-chair Sir Peter Bottomley for not only securing the debate, but for being “a determined and formidable campaigner”.
She also said she was “grateful to the Opposition Members who, with my with my hon. Friend, have been making solid progress on this important matter.”
“With more than 4 million leasehold properties in the UK, we need to ensure that the system is working correctly, and that where it is not—where we see unfairness and exploitation—the market is held to account and changed,” she added.
Sir Peter set the tone, opening the debate by emphasising the amount of goodwill there is across the green benches for the government in its efforts to bring an end to the leasehold scandal.
He said that politics has come a long way since the time “when a succession of temporary Housing Ministers could not see that there is a problem, which partly was because the Department did not have many officials working on the issue of leaseholds and commonholds,” with responsibility for promoting the uptake of commonhold tenure left to a disinterested Ministry of Justice.
The Tory big beast also thanked the government for having engaged the Law Commission to produce “practical and fair proposals that can be enacted” on enfranchisement, right to manage and commonhold – with new work on changing controversial forfeiture rules recently commissioned by ministers.
Jim Fitzpatrick, a fellow LKP patron and APPG co-chair, made possible the cross-party love-in. The Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse spoke about his party’s unwavering support for Sir Peter in his mission to end an asset class in ordinary people’s homes.
This, combined with Mr Fitzpatrick’s recognition of the government’s damascene conversion to the cause since 2017, helped unlock moderation and a sense of mutual respect in the room:
“I and other Labour Members are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments, and I congratulate him on securing the debate.
He does not have any support from other Government Members at the moment, whereas Labour Members are mob-handed in Westminster Hall today. However, I can assure him that we are here as his fan club and support structure, because it is the prominent role that he has played—leading the all-party parliamentary group, as co-chair—that has ensured that we have been able to press the Government on the issue.
To the Government’s credit, they have made a number of commitments on leasehold during the past five years, and we are very keen to hear the Minister’s response to this debate.”
But it was Ms McVey’s manner that suggested to MPs that she would be approaching leasehold and commonhold reform with a much greater sense of urgency and empathy than her predecessor.
Ms McVey agreed to meet with veteran Labour politician Sir George Howarth and his like-minded colleagues, saying that she “did not realise he was such a good reader of body language, but he is quite right… the system is not working right and those who agree with the market can see that it is not working right for the market either. Such cases should not be happening.”
She highlighted the government’s intention to mandate peppercorn ground rents, “if we have them at all”, and its commitment “to improving consumer fairness for leaseholders.”
“The reforms will remove the incentives for developers and freeholders to use leaseholds to make unjustified profits at the expense of leaseholders.”
She spoke of the Communities Select Committee’s comprehensive report into the leasehold sector and said that action to right historic wrongs will involve retrospective legislation which means “legalities to unpick, but we are working on understanding how to do that”.
Ms McVey allied herself with leaseholders saddled with toxic ground rent doublers as well as those affected by other unscrupulous practices. “We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that people are having with those charges, but we clearly have to look at how to unpick those contracts, which are set in law,” she said.
The minister also acknowledged the strength of feeling from leaseholders that their tenancy agreements were mis-sold as home ownership … A far cry from Heather Wheeler’s victim-blaming.
MP Heather Wheeler dismissed claims of mis-selling in toxic leasehold deals Appeared to play down number affected saying it could be 12,000 not 100,000 She said she would prefer to rely on developers and property companies voluntarily giving families better terms than setting new legislation Are you trapped in a leasehold nightmare?
One of the MPs who co-authored the well-received Communities Select Committee report advised that an independent body be funded by the volume housebuilders to come to the aid of leaseholders who want their freeholds.
Responding to Matt Western, Ms McVey suggested that she was all-ears. “All the ideas that have come forward are being looked at to figure out what the way forward will be. That may well be something that ends up happening. At the moment, I cannot say, but we will look at every idea that comes forward.”
Campaigners feeling underwhelmed by yesterday’s Queen’s speech can find some comfort in Ms McVey’s positive, can-do attitude to addressing the miseries of leasehold living.
After all, she was once a leaseholder who bought freedom …