Who owns the roof over your head? It could be your landlord, or a little bit of you and a lot of your bank. Your council might have a cut. Perhaps you have it all to yourself. Or, if you’re a leaseholder – it belongs to everyone and no one.
I’ve been discovering this lately, with the creep of black mould in the bathroom of my Sixties flat in east London. What started out as a subtle smudge is now a five o’clock shadow across the ceiling.
So I call the housing association. The housing officer merrily informs me it’s my responsibility, as a leaseholder, to remove the mould, not theirs. It is my ceiling, and belongs to me. Fine. But it is also their building, so the ceiling belongs to them, so I shouldn’t touch it and risk disturbing its traces of asbestos. OK, so they’ll come and remove the asbestos, given it’s their building, making them the proud owners of the asbestos? No, that’s my responsibility – but I shouldn’t do anything myself… and on and on, until my lungs give out. And that’s just from calling the housing officer.
All the while, Schrödinger’s mould continues to sprinkle the white ceiling, like a starry night sky in negative. I love my flat, the estate, and have just about accepted two storeys of new flats being built on top of it (turning our world into a giant Meccano set for two years and counting).
But this mould standoff is one example of the headache of being a leaseholder – particularly when your landlord is focused only on the value of the land it lords over.
Fitting an extractor, repairing the garden fence, and once, biblically, fixing a communal wastepipe are all things I can’t sort myself. But the housing association won’t either, because I’m a leaseholder.
No tenants on my estate – council, private rental or leasehold – have any control. Our latest itemised service charge bill lists £33.68 for “estate horticulture”. But there is none. The two communal gardens have both been building sites for the construction work for over two years. We’ve also been hit with £46.85 for “estate cleaning”. Well, I haven’t seen anyone bothering to spritz the scaffold with Flash lately. And our building insurance costs have doubled over the last two years.
No one really feels sorry for leaseholders. As one activist against the system put it to me, the attitude is usually: “Oh boohoo, you’re on the housing ladder.” When renters’ rights are so appalling in this country, and social housing is scarce, it makes sense that the ten million or so people who own their leases across England and Wales aren’t top of the list for radical reform.
Nevertheless, we’re stuck paying ballooning bills to the freeholders – often faceless companies – who really own our homes. The injustice of leasehold has this year reached the top of the political agenda. Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, who pledged to abolish this “feudal” system, has failed to do so. It’s been dropped as a policy. Lisa Nandy, his opposite number, has made the same promise – and Labour tried to embarrass the government into a vote on it last week (no Conservative MPs voted to abolish leasehold).
Legalistic and tedious, the pitfalls of leasehold tenure are hardly the stuff of slogans. But the Tories take an electoral risk betraying these voters. Many are young professionals who have “done everything right” by the government, using Conservative interventions like help-to-buy and shared ownership to buy their first homes. On the brink of starting families and upsizing, they should also be teetering on Toryism as they age – a trend that has stalled.
And in any case, leaseholders aren’t all just millennial Londoners in one-party Labour boroughs like me. I’ve spoken to people from all sorts of demographics in marginal seats stuck in the leasehold trap.
Even the sacred “Red Wall” isn’t immune. In the former pit village of Thurcroft, near Rotherham in south Yorkshire, are rows of solid redbrick semis once owned by the National Coal Board. Dennis Plant, 69, a pipe fitter and welder, bought his family home here 35 years ago for £19,000. As the pits closed, the land was parcelled up and sold to various outfits with “limited” in their letterheads.
Overnight nine years ago his ground rent went from £10 a year to £2,450. No one would tell him why. The ensuing legal wrangling, while he was suffering from bladder cancer, caused years of misery. One neighbour had a heart attack. It cost him £28,000 and nearly a decade of his life to finally buy the freehold. This was money he’d saved for his retirement. He has been working since 15, and now he still has to.
“I couldn’t sleep at night, I was so stressed,” he told me. “I was in a trance. It was on my mind 24 hours a day – I couldn’t believe what I had to pay. I’ve worked really, really hard, seven days a week, to raise my children and pay the mortgage, then to find out I don’t own it – it’s horrendous.”
Thurcroft is in the Rother Valley constituency, which switched from red to blue for the first time in 2019. Plant also turned Tory at that election. “I’d always voted Labour. That was the first time I voted Conservative, and the last time. All their promises never came to anything. We voted for Boris Johnson to change everything, and it backfired,” he said.
“Why is the government letting companies buy land and treat us like this? I think the Conservatives have their fingers in the pies of property [development]. I shan’t vote for them again.” (A quarter of Conservative Party donations come from donors with property interests.)
He’s not alone. Dawn*, 60, is retired and lives in a grade II listed cotton mill built in 1926 and converted into flats in Astley Bridge, Bolton. On top of new costs since the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, like £12,000 for fire door checks and funding a waking watch, her insurance costs have risen over 270 per cent. “The rights are on the side of the people with power and money. They really can essentially charge what they like, and we have absolutely no choice,” she told me.
This leaves residents unable both to afford or sell their flats. Young couples on their first rung of the property ladder are in limbo. Older people who have downsized, like Dawn, are watching their pensions crumble.
“A lot of old people moved in here, and I was one of them, downsizing after my daughter left home,” Dawn said. “You’re moving in for an easy life and to keep your costs to a minimum. But then the service charge keeps going up and up.”
The Conservatives shouldn’t be ignoring the plight of aspiring couples and increasingly uncomfortably-off pensioners, particularly here: Bolton North East also made a historic switch to Tory in 2019.
Down in the county town of Ipswich, Suffolk, a Tory/Labour marginal, around 19 buildings are affected by the building safety crisis: the post-Grenfell scandal of leaseholders bearing the costs of making their blocks fire-safe.
Alex Dickin, 29, an app analyst, bought a one-bed flat on Ipswich Marina in 2016 – complete with onsite parking and a swimming pool. It wasn’t long, however, until his service charge doubled, he was facing £10,000 to fix fire safety defects, and his home was rendered unmortgagable, valued at £0. Now legal fees are mounting up.
“Taking the first step onto the property ladder at only 23 was a huge personal achievement,” he said. “Why am I punished for taking this bold step earlier than most? My options in life and financial security could have been so much better if I had rented for the past seven years. If this was a game of Monopoly, I’d desperately need a get out of jail free card.”
Once an apathetic swing voter, Dickin says this experience has politicised him. “Manifesto commitments on leasehold reform will assist me in making my decision,” he said of voting at the next election.
A growing anti-leasehold movement, made up of ripped-off residents and political campaigners alike, is pushing for England and Wales to adopt the same system as Scotland: commonhold. This puts occupants in charge of the freehold, with shared responsibility for communal spaces.
In parliament last week, Lisa Nandy called for an end to the “sale of new private leasehold houses” and “a workable system to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold”. This would cause an almighty conflict with property and landowners, as our business editor Will Dunn has reported. Though its housing policies don’t feature in Keir Starmer’s “five missions”, Labour has calculated that there are crucial votes to be won in the topsy-turvy land of leasehold.
“A mass shift to commonhold is not only a policy that appeals to urban-dwelling Labour voters, but also those in what has been described as the Blue Wall, and we’re regularly speaking to leaseholders in marginal Red Wall spots too,” said Harry Scoffin, co-founder of the anti-leasehold campaign group Commonhold Now.
“If Labour are serious about being the party of home ownership, which is their new positioning under Keir Starmer, they also need to speak in these voters’ language and make far more of their policy to abolish the antiquated and grossly unfair residential leasehold tenure. Ordinary voters need to be told about Labour’s stance here.”
Perhaps it’s not just the Red Wall or the Blue Wall that will influence the next election, then, but the mouldy wall too.
*Name changed on request of anonymity; some neighbours of this source did not want to put off potential buyers.