Words from leasehold and commonhold reform APPG

Approximate words spoken at the meeting of the the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on residential leasehold and commonhold. The meeting was chaired by Jim Fitzpatrick MP and Sir Peter Bottomley MP. There were 60–70 people in the room: MPs, Peers, conveyancing firms, big homebuilding companies and people suffering under bad leasehold terms.

Yes it’s 900 years away but why should anyone produce or sign a contract that commits them to spend this? (source: Telegraph)

I spoke after Patrick Collinson from the Guardian, who has written extensively about leaseholds in England and Wales and the issues some leaseholds cause for people; Bob Bessell of Retirement Security; and Phillip Rainey QC a specialist in property litigation and expert in leaseholds.

Phillip discussed various policy options to tackle the challenges. The options includes banning ground rents or limiting how much they could increase in value and many other subtle tweaks.

Apologies to Patrick for the typo in the surname. Do read this article if you’re not aware of some of the current problems.

I then had 5 minutes.

Hello, thank you for inviting me. I’m from the Open Data Institute (ODI). You may not have heard of us. (murmers of agreement)

We were founded 4 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor the web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt. Our CEO is Jeni Tennison, she apologises for not being here. So do I as I’ve ended up creating an all-male panel. That’s bad.

We are global. We connect, enable and inspire people to innovate with data. Or “to get stuff done that make things better by being more open” as I sometimes say.

I am not a housing or leasehold specialist, my job is to get data to people who need it. Leasehold Knowledge Partnership are part of our current UK startup programme. They’ve been helping us understand the problems in leasing, we’ve been helping them understand whether more data can help.

At the ODI we think of data as a new form of infrastructure. It has become essential infrastructure without us realising it.

Like most physical infrastructure - for example roads - data creates most value when it is as open as possible while respecting privacy.

When data is open and available for anyone to use it is easier for people to use it to make decisions and solve problems.

Take leaseholds. Let’s imagine if more information was open while respecting the privacy of homeowners.

  • People expect easy access to data in the web age. Many homebuyers use sites like RightMove and Zoopla as they look for a home. Opening up leasehold data would enable those services to help people make an informed decision. For example they could compare terms with other properties, leasehold or not, in the area and see what’s reasonable. Some of the cases Patrick mentioned happened because people lacked information when buying a home.
  • Conveyancers and estate agents would have access to more data too. They could get things done faster and give better advice to homebuyers.
  • Researchers would be able to model the market; help people understand how it is working and suggest improvements
  • Legislators would be able to get better information about problems, where legislation is needed or where soft power could be used to influence things
  • With better access to data government could test a policy idea, like the ones Phillip suggested, in a region before deciding whether to roll it out nationally

Much of this data is available but it is locked away. In government offices, in the offices of house building firms, in law firms or in contracts held by leaseholders and freeholders.

Some of our big public registries and institutions - things like the Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Met Office — were created to make this type of information available to people who need it but it feels like they haven’t adapted to changing times and 21st century needs.

Getting this data open can take time and cost money. Not that much, technology can be cheaper than some people might tell you. But getting the data open and using it to change markets, like leasehold, can also affect business models. That’s usually more significant.

We need to support those organisations to change their business models; move to a future where we have data infrastructure that is as open as possible while respecting privacy; and help meet society’s 21st century needs. That might mean they also need to help open up data held outside government.

In closing I’d ask both the members of the APPG and all of the leasehold experts in the room to think about the power of the web, what people expect in the modern age and how the tools and techniques of the web and data can help build a better housing market. One that can reduce the number of cases like those that Patrick Collinson has written about over the last few months.

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After the various speeches questions were asked by people in the room. The questions were from a more diverse group of people than the the all-male panel (grr!).

I was asked whether there was enough data available for someone in Ellesmere Port to get a reasonable view on whether their leasehold flat will be worthless in 10 years time. I’m checking that today.

Someone else raised the issue of freehold management companies surprising people with unnecessary administration fees — for example £250 for a simple bit of paperwork that is necessary if the homeowner wants to sell their home. That’s an issue my wife and I are well aware of having just sold our leasehold flat in London. We plan to blog on how data helped and where some data was missing.

Someone else asked whether we knew if the problem with leaseholds was bigger than in the 1970s. The answer from the panel was a bit vague but Phillip Rainey raised an important point. He said that the problem was getting worse because lawyers were producing new tighter leasehold clauses that benefitted the freeholder. He said that lawyers used the web to share these new clauses so they were all getting better in a way that made the situation worse for leaseholders.

You see technology can be used for good and bad and — as a very wise person once said — knowledge is power.

To help level out power imbalances we need to share the knowledge and the skills to use it with everyone.

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After these questions the event was closed by Peter Bottomley who discussed next week’s leasehold reform debate in Parliament and how he intends to name names.

{Update 22 December: the Hansard transcript of the debate is now up}