Examination of Witnesses

Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:40 pm ar 16 Ionawr 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Kate Faulkner OBE and Beth Rudolf gave evidence.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation 4:30, 16 Ionawr 2024

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.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

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.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

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.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

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.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

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]

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip

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

Kate Faulkner:

Many congratulations!

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip

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

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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]

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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?

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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—

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

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.