Amendment 60

Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords am 9:00 pm ar 24 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage:

Moved by Baroness Taylor of Stevenage

60: Clause 48, page 57, leave out from line 23 to line 23 on page 58Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would leave out the proposed new section 87B of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 and so ensure that RTM companies cannot incur costs in instances where claims cease.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, our amendment in this group refers to the fact that the Bill currently makes an exception to litigation costs being borne by landlords in the case where right-to-manage claims have been withdrawn or otherwise ceased early and the right-to-management company has acted unreasonably in bringing the right-to-management claim, allowing the landlord to apply to the tribunal for any reasonable costs.

The key arguments for the amendment are that, first, leaseholders should not be put at risk of having to pay costs simply for exercising statutory rights, in this case the right to seek to acquire and exercise rights in relation to the management of premises in which one has a leasehold interest. There is also concern that unscrupulous landlords might use the rights provided for in new Section 87B of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 as a means of recovering costs from right-to-manage companies that act reasonably and in good faith and, by implication, that it would discourage right-to-manage companies from initiating a claim because of the financial risk it still entails for individual participating leaseholders. Put simply, the fear is that new Section 87B will incentivise unscrupulous landlords to fight claims on the basis that they are defective in the hope of recovering costs by means of it. Our main concern regarding Clause 48 is that the use of the words “reasonable fee” and “reasonable costs” would not allow either of the above situations to occur. I ask the Minister: who will determine the definition of “reasonable”, and how?

I will comment on other amendments. We think that the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bailey, are very reasonable, and we support his aims here. In fact, colleagues in the other place submitted similar amendments in Committee.

I also look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, introduce his amendments, which would incorporate local authorities and their properties, both within the HRA and without, but I ask whether he had discussions about this proposal with the Local Government Association or local authority stockholders. Most good local authority landlords already have substantial arrangements in place for liaison with leaseholders and tenants around the management of property, and there is certainly no issue with improving that through more effective right-to-manage arrangements. However, as much local authority property will be occupied by a mixture of local authority tenants and leaseholders, it would be important to ensure that there were no unintended consequences. I urge that that level of consultation takes place before any proposal such as this proceeds further. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, will forgive me if he has already done that consultation, but it was not clear from the amendments. With that, I beg to move Amendment 60.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak after the noble Baroness. I will come to answering her question. To give a blunt answer, I have not undertaken the consultation that she refers to, but I will explain when I get to that part of my introduction why I think that this stands on its own.

As I said at Second Reading, I strongly support those parts of the Bill which facilitate the exercise of the right to manage on the part of leaseholders in residential blocks. There are several measures in the Bill which do that. The right to manage is, in some ways, the crucial key to unlocking the levels of dissatisfaction which some leaseholders have with the way in which their blocks are managed. I strongly support it.

There is a particular issue which the Bill does not address. As a consequence of my general support for this—contrary to my remarks in earlier debates— I hope that the Government will give me a softer and more welcoming answer. As a result of my proposal, perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench will even give me one of those answers which invites me to attend a meeting. In fact, I have had a meeting with my noble friend about this, though she may not recall it. We met last summer to discuss this issue with officials, and she was very sympathetic to it. That gives me additional reasons for thinking that this might be a welcome amendment.

The amendment arises from a particular case, but it raises questions of general importance. I shall refer to the case later, but I want to address the question of general importance first. When the right to manage was introduced through the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, certain exceptions were placed on it. The Government intend to ease some of those restrictions, and I welcome that. One restriction was that the right to manage did not apply where the landlord of the building was a local housing authority.

I have tabled two alternative amendments—this is my point about consultation. Both amendments would reverse that assumption. One would eliminate it entirely. It would bring within the ambit of right to manage all blocks where the local housing authority was the landlord, including those within the housing revenue account. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, said that this could raise certain difficulties in cases where a block had so many long lease holders that it could exercise the right to manage but would be left with certain local authority tenants in the block. I have experience of local government, as does the noble Baroness. I recognise that she is correct in saying that there might be certain sensitivities about this. I think it could be managed. Indeed, it would be liberating for all the tenants of the block in many ways. The local authority tenants would also have a say in the management of the block. They would not be excluded from it simply because they were local authority tenants.

Recognising that this is a slightly daring proposition, I have suggested an alternative which would simply take out of the provision local housing authority-owned blocks where they were owned simply as an investment. I have left it vague as to whether that is a commercial investment or one held in the local authority’s pension fund. These are probing amendments. I should be happy to discuss these issues with my noble friend the Minister.

I come now to a particular case. There are blocks where local authorities have acquired property as an investment. Doing so immediately extinguishes the right of the long lease holders to exercise their right to manage—there are no local authority tenants. I think that is wrong. The case I am thinking of concerns a block acquired by a London local authority from a commercial property investment trust, bought at market value as an investment. The local authority, the new owner, was dissatisfied with the accounts inherited from the previous manager—it had their own manager for the block. As a result, it has not been able to put satisfactory accounts together for the last three years. As a consequence, it has not had the legal standing to issue invoices to its tenants for its service charges. It has been running the building’s operating costs out of the capital sums that had been set aside as a sinking fund to pay for future improvements to the building. It is all very unsatisfactory.

That is a classic situation in which long leaseholders would normally exercise the right to manage but, completely arbitrarily, are precluded from doing so. That is wrong. We should facilitate this.

At the very least, my noble friend should welcome my second amendment, Amendment 62, and say that where a local authority acquires a property for commercial purposes—not for the housing of its tenants but as an investment, either in its own name or as part of its pension fund—the right to manage would be restored. The financial interests of the local authority would be preserved, as they are under the current arrangements. It is simply that the right to manage the building would be taken over by the long leaseholders, as elsewhere, and they would manage it in just the same way as in all the other right-to-manage arrangements we are so much in favour of.

I will stop at that point because I have simply made my case, but this is a strange omission from the current arrangements, and one that we now have an opportunity to correct. I would be very happy to attend the meeting.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 65A and 65B. The Government should be applauded for their ambitions as laid out in the Bill. Let us hope that we can achieve them all. I put on record that I am pleased with the Government’s direction of travel, because some of my interventions up until now may have seemed slightly belligerent, but can my noble friend the Minister provide some reassurance around the Government’s stated aim of a revolution in the right to manage? That would help to address what, for me, is at the heart of what I consider the leasehold scandal, which is really about control. Leaseholders in England and Wales are unique in the lack of control that they have. Worldwide, leaseholders and those with commonhold and many other types of tenure have much more control. I believe that is something the Bill can address, and the Government have to demonstrate that they want to deliver on it. Indeed, it was our own Secretary of State who said that he wants to see a revolution in the right to manage.

I put on record my colleagues Nickie Aiken and Barry Gardiner, who brought a very similar amendment in the other place. Amendment 65A seeks to ensure that leaseholders in mixed-use property who would otherwise qualify for the right to manage because 50% or more of the floorspace is residential, but because of a technicality—a boiler or an underground car park—are prevented from having that management given to them, still have that right. The current test means that you have to demonstrate that your building is self-contained or that the residential part is partly self-contained, but the layout of the building might suggest that it is not self-contained due to an underground car park or boiler room, when actually it is.

The Law Commission saw these two tests as too strict. It suggested that a third test could be set whereby, if it could be demonstrated that people are reasonably capable of managing the residential area fully independently, they should be given access to this power. As I have stated in most of the debate, the thing that most drives me is the potential for the abuse of service charging. Giving residents control over their assets is clearly the answer to that.

The amendment does not mean that leaseholders can take over the management of shops, hotels or commercial premises. That is not the idea of the amendment. The right to manage applies exclusively to the residential parts, such as corridors and lift lobbies —parts of the building used only by residents. The amendment does not seek to change that position.

At Second Reading, I made the point that even the leading freeholder lobby group pointed out that free- holders own, at best, only 2.5% of the capital interest in the buildings they have the freehold of. That leads me to my other amendment, Amendment 65B. We must lower the threshold at which a group of people can take over the management of that lease. It is currently at 50%. I suggest that it should be at around 35%—again, to help the Government achieve their stated aim of a revolution in right to manage.

Modern blocks, modern life and modern investment vehicles mean that it is often impossible to get hold of 50% of the residents. People live abroad or sublet, and so on. If we want people to have that control, and I dearly do, we need to lower that threshold. I am pleased to note that the Law Commission believes that this recommendation, if adopted, would curtail some of the litigation. There is a real culture of litigation around the right to manage and the technicalities. A lot of bad actors are able to get away with their residents taking the right to manage over that building. Similarly, leaseholders will need to show to other leaseholders that this can be done properly, and that is easily done. What is often talked about is leaseholders running the contracts themselves. Of course, they would not; they would get a management company in. They would be able to kick out a management company that is ripping them off and replace it with one that is actually offering them a service, keeping their bills low and therefore increasing the value of the investment they have made in their flat.

On Monday, the Minister talked about measures that the Government want to bring in to provide transparency around the charging regimes that landlords put in place. When I lived in a leasehold property, I did not want to know how I was being ripped off; I wanted to know that I had the ability to do something about it. The right to manage is the way to do something about it—to reduce those bills, create greater competition in the market and get better service for leaseholders countrywide.

In short, both these amendments are designed to push forward the Government’s will, their desire, to boost the right to manage. But we have to lower the threshold—the number that one needs to take hold of that right. We also have to make sure that bad actors, bad landlords, cannot avoid that on a technicality by saying that the plant room or the underground car park, for example, means that the building cannot be managed separately. In many cases, it is managed separately and leaseholders often use that to demonstrate that they could take over the purely residential parts.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing) 9:15, 24 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I have asked to speak to the amendments in this group, which is a bit shorter than it would have been had the Clause 47 stand part notice remained. That was certainly something on which I would have urged the Government to stand firm.

We strongly support Amendment 60 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage. Anyone who has done a bit of googling on the right to manage can see that right-to-manage claims by leaseholders are often fiercely opposed by freeholders. What is meant to be a so-called no-fault process can involve costly and stressful litigation for leaseholders, as freeholders drag the right to manage claim into the tribunal system. Freeholders gameplay and try to block RTM bids, because the right to manage signifies loss of their control and ability to rip off leaseholders in perpetuity.

Against this backdrop of right-to-manage cases going to tribunal and becoming the subject of “lawfare” by freeholders, it is surely reasonable to ensure that right-to-manage companies cannot incur costs in instances where claims cease. The way things stand, it is clearly intended to be a disincentive to leaseholders to seek the right to manage, and that imbalance cannot be right. Some noble Lords may remember the Canary Gateway case: it took an outrageous four years for the shared-ownership leaseholders to secure their right to manage, with the freeholder-driven litigation going as far as the Court of Appeal.

Turning to Amendments 61 and 62 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, we on these Benches would support them in principle as they are increasingly sold as access to the right to manage. However, they stand in stark contrast to the noble Lord’s other amendments, which sought to reduce leaseholder access to collective enfranchisement and right to manage.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing)

I hesitated and thought about cutting that bit out, but go on.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

The noble Baroness could not expect to get away with that. Any attempt to cast me as a as a poodle of freeholders and opposed to leaseholders is bound to be foiled because it is untrue. I have made it clear throughout that I strongly support the right to manage and its extension. This is very different from expropriation of somebody else’s property. This is simply a technique for managing a building and managing it well.

I should also say while I am on my feet that when we exercised the right to manage in the block in which I live, many years ago, the freeholder was highly supportive because they were sick to death of the managing agent as well, and realised that their building would be managed a great deal better by us, as it has been. They have an interest in the building being well managed: they want the roof to be repaired; they want the facade not to fall off in chunks in the street because, after all, they, too, whatever else is said, have a long-term interest in the building.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing)

My comments were not about right to manage. That was a good segue into another short speech by the noble Lord.

However, we are conscious that expanding right to manage to leaseholders under local authority landlords was never considered by the Law Commission, nor put out to public consultation. We are unsure whether the Government have done policy work in this area. It is a whole other ball game and will be challenging. But, in principle, given that many local authorities have been guilty of significant and tragic failures of service, to put it mildly, this should be a right of local authority tenants too. But it will be complex, for many of the reasons that were well outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that local authority leaseholders have, since 1994, been able to take over management through tenant management organisations. I do not believe any work has been done regarding their success or otherwise. But such a review could ignite and inform this topic on another occasion. We welcome the probe by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, and also the subtleties of his alternative proposals, and will certainly attend the said—and very popular —meeting.

Finally, I come to Amendments 65A and 65B, in the name of Lord Bailey of Paddington. The aim of Amendment 65A is a good one: to ensure that leaseholders in mixed-use buildings can avail themselves of the right to manage. At the House of Commons Public Bill Committee in January, MPs heard that many leaseholders in mixed-use buildings would still be unable to benefit from the reforms in the Bill to take over management—because, as the noble Lord said, of the existence of, say, a shared plant room or car park, under rules regarding structural dependency and self-containment. The existence of a plant room or other infrastructure is something decided by the original developer and leaseholders have no control over these factors, so it feels unfair to exclude them from right to manage based on the way a block has been designed, especially if they qualify under the new 50% non-residential premises limit.

Amendment 65B would put rocket boosters under the right to manage, opening it up to far more leaseholders. We on these Benches support the amendment and the intent behind it. Members in the other place have raised concerns that the 50% trigger is too high. The 50% participation limit on right to manage was also flagged as an issue by leaseholder campaigners at the Commons Public Bill Committee in January.

There may be concerns about 50% being less than a majority, but, as the noble Lord said, many leaseholders will never be able to obtain 50% support because of the high levels of buy to let in their block. But ultimately the Committee was persuaded of the case to bring down the 50% threshold. It is not right that just one person—the freeholder or landlord—has such control over leaseholders and can impact almost at will on their finances. As the noble Lord’s amendment suggests, 35% of leaseholders triggering a right to manage, with a right to participate for remaining leaseholders who did not originally get involved, is a far better situation than rule by one freeholder, whose interests, as the Law Commission concluded, are diametrically opposed to that of the leaseholder. Leaseholder self-rule with right to manage and a 35% participation threshold is a much more democratic state of affairs. Let us be honest: many councillors and MPs are elected to govern on much less than 50% of the vote—in fact, usually around 35%.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for Amendment 60, which would leave new Section 87B out of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. This is a new power, inserted into the 2002 Act by the Bill, for the tribunal to order the repayment of a landlord’s process costs for right to manage claims which are withdrawn or cease to have effect in circumstances where a right to manage company has acted unreasonably.

The noble Baroness asked who would decide what was reasonable or unreasonable and the level of reasonableness. The costs will be determined by the tribunal, as is the case with other kinds of litigation or court proceedings.

While we strive to reduce costs for leaseholders, we do not believe it is right to do so where the right to manage company acts unreasonably in bringing a claim and the claim also fails. For example, landlords should not have to meet their own wasted process costs where leaseholders clearly make an unfeasible claim or fail to bring the claim to an end at an earlier stage.

The noble Baroness should be assured that the new power for the tribunal does not automatically entitle landlords to repayment. If the tribunal does not consider that costs should be payable, it can decline to make an order. Removing new Section 87B would expose landlords to unfair costs. For these reasons, I ask the noble Baroness kindly to withdraw her amendment.

I thank my noble friend Lord Moylan for his Amendments 61 and 62. The amendments seek to remove or amend the existing exception to the right to manage for local authority premises so that the right can be used by their long lease holders. I should explain that there is a separate right to manage scheme for local authority secure tenants and leaseholders under the Housing Act 1985 and its relevant regulations. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 therefore excepted local authority leaseholders from the long-leasehold right to manage to avoid creating conflicting schemes.

The Bill delivers the most impactful of the Law Commission’s recommendations on the right to manage, including increasing the non-residential limit to 50% to give more leaseholders the right to take over management, and changing the rules to make each party pay their own process and litigation costs, saving leaseholders many thousands of pounds.

An alternative route to management is available in some local authority blocks that contain a mixture of tenants and leaseholders, where a prescribed number and proportion of secure tenants are in support of exercising the right. This involves setting up a tenant management organisation. It would complicate a system that we are trying to simplify if two separate routes were to apply to a single block, and the Law Commission made no recommendations on local authority leaseholders.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I have some familiarity with the Housing Act 1985 from my time in local government. I am reasonably well aware of the obligation to create tenant management organisations, which are often not block-specific but estate-wide or, in many cases, spread across the entire local authority council housing stock. It seems a strange way to go about trying to exercise the right to manage if we are discussing a block held as an investment that has no local authority tenants. Can my noble friend assure me that the Housing Act 1985 is an effective means for leaseholders in the circumstances I describe to exercise their right to manage, when in fact it is an obligation on a local authority rather than a right granted to long lease holders?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

We believe this is the correct way of doing it. I would be very happy to meet my noble friend to discuss this further but, with the evidence we have, we agree this is the correct way forward. But I really am very happy to meet with the noble Lord.

This Bill will also make it cheaper and simpler for leaseholders to acquire their freehold or extend their lease. This will include local authority leaseholders. I recognise the intent behind the amendment and I have noted what my noble friend has said. At this point I ask him not to press his amendment, but I would be really happy to meet him. He gave us a lot of information in the time he was speaking and I would like to read Hansard as well to understand his arguments further.

I thank my noble friend Lord Bailey of Paddington for Amendment 65A, which would allow leaseholders in buildings or parts of buildings that are capable of being managed independently to claim the right to manage, even though buildings do not meet the criteria of being a self-contained building or a self-contained part of a building. I understand the intent of the amendment, which would reduce the incentive for landlords to challenge right to manage claims on technical arguments as to whether the existing “self-contained” tests are satisfied. The amendment would mean that the right to manage company would be eligible to acquire the right to manage on the grounds that such buildings are reasonably capable of being managed independently.

The Government support the aim of the amendment to improve leaseholders’ rights and we are taking forward key recommendations of the Law Commission that do this. The Bill delivers the most significant measures to increase access to right to manage and makes it simpler and cheaper for leaseholders to make a claim. To implement the wider recommendations, the Government need to proceed carefully and undertake further work to ensure that the regime will operate satisfactorily. The Government will keep the remaining recommendations from the Law Commission’s right to manage report under consideration following the implementation of the Bill’s provisions. I hope my noble friend agrees with me that the Bill does take forward the most significant measures on the right to manage, and the Government will need to carefully consider further right to manage recommendations.

I now turn to Amendment 65B, tabled by my noble friend Lord Bailey of Paddington, which would reduce the requirement for participating leaseholders claiming the right to manage from one-half to 35%. This has been brought up a number of times and we recognise that the participation requirement can cause difficulties if leaseholders cannot reach the threshold, but we believe a participation requirement of one-half of the residential units is proportionate, ensuring that the minority of leaseholders are prevented from exercising the right to manage, which may be against the wishes of the majority of leaseholders in a building. Reducing the participation requirement to 35% is disproportionate and would lead to undesirable outcomes, such as an increase in disputes. It would risk a situation where competing groups of minority leaseholders could make repeated claims against each other.

The Government accept the Law Commission’s recommendation to hold the participation requirement for the right to manage at one-half, following comprehensive consultation. I hope, hearing that, that my noble friend agrees that it means that a minority of leaseholders cannot unfairly take control of a building, potentially to the detriment of other leaseholders in the building.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr 9:30, 24 Ebrill 2024

I have heard what my noble friend the Minister has had to say and I am minded to do as she asks—if I could get one of those meetings that she has to offer. I am sure then that we could come to an accommodation.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will be very happy to spend a week in here so that noble Lords can come in and out and speak to me as they like—and I would love to meet my noble friend to talk about this further. He talked also about transparency and it not being terribly necessary. The problem is that, if you do not have transparency, sometimes you do not know you are being ripped off, because you do not have the required information—so I think transparency is actually really important.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, it was not that I do not like transparency. I agree with my noble friend that transparency is very useful so you know whether you are being ripped off. I was making an appeal for the ability to intervene in the process of being ripped off. I have been on the other end of this situation, where people have quite happily told us what they are overcharging us for, but we had no mechanism to interfere in that. That is what I was more concerned with.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank my noble friend for that but, for the reasons I have put forward, I kindly ask him not to press his amendments.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I am grateful, as ever, to the Minister for her responses. It seems she is going to be very busy over the next few weeks, having all these meetings with all of us. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, for reminding me that, had the right reverend Prelate been here, I too would have objected strongly to the proposals he was making on Clause 47, because they would simply have opened the door to retaining the 25% limit, virtually across the property sector. I believe that would have gone against the intentions of the Bill, so she was right in what she said there and I thank her for her support for my amendment.

From this side of the House, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bailey, that we welcome belligerent interventions from either side, but especially from the Benches opposite, so just keep going with those. We particularly agree with his Amendment 65B. If his meeting does not achieve the desired effect and he chooses to pursue this, he will certainly have our support.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, very much for his explanation. I had not realised that these were either/or amendments, but I understand his point about property owned as an investment by a local authority or pension fund. I agree with his point about the principle of right to manage being extended as far as possible. That is absolutely right, although anything affecting local authorities needs to have some consultation with the sector, because we just do not know what any unintended consequence of that might mean. I hope he will consider that if he chooses to pursue this amendment, but perhaps the meeting with the Minister might allay his concerns in that regard. That said, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 60 withdrawn.

Clause 48 agreed.

Clauses 49 and 50 agreed.

Amendments 61 and 62 not moved.