On 29th March 2022, the House of Lords debated a report on the Building Safety Bill, and amendments to the bill. The Bishop of St Albans tabled amendments and spoke in support of other members’ amendments. Lord Blencathra spoke on behalf of the Bishop in the first part of the debate:
Lord Blencathra (Con): I rise to comment on the disabled amendments that the Government have laid, including the one that was just moved. I will also comment briefly on Amendments 46 and 47, which have not yet been spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and speak to Amendments 39 and 40 on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, since he is unable to be with us at this time of the morning.
I commend the Government for listening to my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson in Committee and on all the amendments that they have brought forward today. Having been bored on the train when I was heading up north last week, I counted on the Order Paper more than 220 government amendments and 50 proposed new clauses. That is an extraordinary achievement and shows the extent to which my noble friend the Minister has been listening, as well as what he has been able to drive forward—principally because the Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Michael Gove, gets it and understands what needs to be done. So, although my noble friends and I may move a few amendments today, and perhaps force them to a vote, I do not want the Minister to think that we are being churlish. We appreciate the huge distance that the Government have travelled; we just think that there may be one or two more gaps that we need to fill.
I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure me as to why the disabled amendments that we have just heard noble Lords speak to may not be necessary or why there may still be an essential gap there. I thought that the government amendments were adequate but I am keen to hear his explanation.
I will speak briefly to Amendments 46 and 47 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. In Committee, I tried to make the point that the burdens on leaseholders are much heavier than those on building safety managers and others, who seem to have unlimited rights to impose fines and penalties and invade homes to check on things without good reason. I am keen to hear what the noble Baroness has to say about her amendments, which state that such persons should be able to access leasehold flats only when it is essential to do so.
My main purpose this morning is to speak to Amendments 39 and 40 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, which I was pleased to sign up to as second fiddle. The good news is that I shall not need to make my own speech and bore the House. The bad news is that my speaking on behalf of a right reverend Prelate may do irreparable damage to the Church of England, so I hope that does not occur. He says:
“First off, I would like to express gratitude to the Minister for tabling his Amendment 38 and the overall listening approach he has taken to the concerns of the House throughout the passage of this Bill. I hope that this is at least some indication on the Government’s part that they are still working through the imperfections of this Bill, and that they might respond with amendments at Third Reading in response to problems noble Lords and Baronesses”
have raised and will raise today. He continues:
“I will be frank and say that although I am pleased the Government did respond to the concerns I raised at Committee stage by tabling Amendment 38, the content of it is admittedly limited. The reality is that the principal accountable person could take representations from or hold consultations with the relevant tenants or leaseholders on matters”
relating to building safety
“without necessarily integrating their concerns into the Residents Engagement Strategy. It appears entirely discretionary on the accountable person as to what enters into this strategy. In fact, because Amendment 38 also requires the accountable person to act in accordance with the strategy”
that, from conversations he has had with others,
“would seem to imply that a failure to act in accordance with the strategy could be flagged up to the Building Safety Regulator. The question then is simple: why would an accountable person commit to include something in an engagement strategy that could later be used against them?”
However, the right reverend Prelate says:
“I do not want to hastily dismiss what the Government are trying to do here as the foundations contained”
within the amendment require only
“an ever so slight tweaking to better ensure that the accountable person acts in accordance with a strategy that actually reflects the views of residents, rather than the current vague requirement to just ‘take any representations … on the consultation into account when next reviewing the strategy’”.
Personally, I think that he has made a very good point there. He continues:
“Amendment 39 would mildly alter Amendment 38 to ensure that the accountable person takes any representations made on the consultation into account”
and then changes
“‘the strategy to reflect the balance of representations made’. This remains imperfect but it does at least in part remove the discretionary basis for deciding the content of the strategy by adding a protection to ensure that the strategy reflects”
that balance. He then says:
“Even with this change, the accountable person will hold immense discretionary power since it is … incumbent on them to interpret the balance of representations made”
so that the accountable person still has the whip hand.
“However, it would alter the relationship when formulating the strategy from the accountable person as its absolute sovereign to the accountable person as the interpreter of the general will. The accountable person will ultimately be the individual who determines the content that enters into the residents engagement strategy. Amendment 39 provides just an inch of breathing room to better guarantee that it does reflect the views of tenants and residents”.
Amendment 40, says the right reverend Prelate,
“admittedly is far more wide ranging and acts as a direct extension”
of his previous amendment in Committee,
“which would have mandated recognised residents associations for the purpose of consultations on building safety issues. I did recognise the Government’s discomfort at the prospect of mandating anything, particularly where there exists an amicable relationship between the freeholder and the leaseholders or tenants. For this reason, I have tried to create a conditional avenue by which a freeholder must set up a residents association. The condition being that as part of consultations on the residents engagement strategy, the accountable person must consult with residents on whether to create a recognised tenants association, and create one, for the purpose of consultations on building safety decisions, where it turns out there is a simple majority demand from residents”
to so have one. He continues:
“I believe a conditional requirement for recognised residents’ associations would help mitigate some of the abuses that do exist within the system. In Committee, I referenced the case of a freeholder who charged residents a 100% markup on window repairs and also spent £74,000 in a court battle to prevent residents from forming a recognised tenants’ association. I cannot speculate on how many other leaseholders have suffered similar abuses at the hands of their freeholder. However, I know the Minister is as appalled by these abuses as I am.”
I share that point of view. He continues:
“The Government do recognise the need to reform the leasehold system”—
something we all look forward to in, we hope, the next Queen’s Speech on 10 May.
“For this reason, I do not want to press the Government on Amendment 40 other than to ask the Minister to look seriously at how recognised tenants’ associations can be more widely promoted and more easily set up, as well as perhaps to expand their remit to encompass matters relating to building safety issues so that there is actual accountability and scrutiny when it comes to the charges they incur.
However, I would still impress to the Government the need to strengthen Amendment 38 so that there are greater safeguards to guarantee that residents’ engagement strategies better reflect the views of residents. I believe Amendment 39 presents a sensible compromise to solve this problem. The authority to decide on what is contained within the residents’ engagement strategy remains with the accountable person but in a manner that is more conducive to capturing the balance of residents’ views.
Finally, I would just like to note a few other amendments in this group. I welcome the sentiment of Amendment 36 within this group and the duty it places on the accountable person to achieve best value. I welcome the Government’s decision to remove the building safety manager”—
I think we all welcome that—
“and I would congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, on making the strong case for its removal in Committee. Of course, some of the costs previously contained within the building safety manager will naturally be rebadged and passed on, it is inevitable. Nevertheless, since it is now discretionary on the accountable person to decide how to meet their obligations under this Act, and since any costs incurred for meeting this obligation will be met by the tenants or leaseholders, there is no incentive for the accountable person not to reimpose the costly building safety manager. Therefore, I do believe that some duty to achieve best value would represent a sort of financial safeguard for leaseholders and possibly encourage freeholders to take a more considered approach to meeting their obligations rather than taking the path of least resistance in hiring a building safety manager.
I would also quickly offer my support to Amendments 13, 20, and 35, and the protections they afford to those living with disabilities, which I welcome.”
It has been a privilege to deliver this speech on behalf of the right reverend Prelate. I say to my noble friend that this was not Blencathra talking; I was speaking from a much higher authority today and expect him to pay particular attention to Amendment 39.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Young of Cookham (Con): I will very briefly support Amendments 39 and 40 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and so ably spoken to by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who may find himself invited to deputise at pulpits in and around St Albans as a result of his performance. If there is no provision in the Bill to ensure that residents have a collective voice, the accountable person—normally the landlord—will have a huge interest in ensuring that residents are not organised and enabled to resist any costs that the landlord wishes to impose on them. The current government proposal just says that the accountable person should design an engagement strategy, whereas the amendments rightly go further, requiring a tenants’ association to be set up where that is what the majority want.
The amendment goes entirely with the grain of successive Governments’ policy to even up the terms of trade between leaseholders and tenants on the one hand and landlords on the other. I hope that the Minister can look benevolently on these proposals and perhaps at a later stage consider strengthening them further in the direction proposed by my noble friend.
Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): I turn to the amendments in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for introducing these amendments and look forward to his first sermon in the not-too-distant future, we hope. Again, these two important amendments draw attention to areas that need to be looked at further. Government Amendments 37, 38 and 41 to 45 look specifically at tenants’ associations and principal accountable persons. This was also much discussed in Committee, where it needed further work. I would like to talk a bit about the resident tenants’ associations because, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said, they need to be more widely promoted. This is a really important part of managing safety going forward.
Recognised tenants’ associations give owners of leasehold flats important rights. To become recognised, an association must have agreement from more than 50% of qualifying leaseholders. They then have the right to request information from the freeholder of their block, such as about the service charge account, which again was discussed a great deal in Committee. It is really important that resident tenants’ associations are properly recognised and more widely promoted. Again, when looking at consultation, they are a vital part of understanding better what residents’ needs and concerns are.
Lord Greenhalgh (Con, Minister of State): I turn to Amendments 39 and 40 tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, but so ably delivered by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, on residents’ engagement. I thank my noble friend for addressing these amendments, but unfortunately the Government cannot accept them. Amendment 39 would oblige principal accountable persons to change the residents’ engagement strategy to reflect representations made by residents. The amendment is too restrictive, as there will be a number of factors that principal accountable persons must consider when updating the strategy.
The views of residents must also be weighed against other factors, such as the principal accountable person’s ability to deliver what residents want and the cost of doing so, which would of course be passed on to residents. It is right that we allow principal accountable persons the flexibility to determine how best to ensure the views of residents are represented and balanced alongside other building safety considerations.
In any case, government Amendment 38 already requires meaningful consultation with residents. If the principal accountable person fails to take residents’ representations into account when updating the strategy, residents will be able to raise a complaint, and escalate if needed to the building safety regulator.
Amendment 40 would oblige principal accountable persons to establish a tenants’ association where a majority of residents participating in the strategy consultation are in favour of one being established. The Government agree that tenants’ associations can be and are powerful tools for resident representation. However, they work best when established by residents rather than when mandated by landlords or managing agents. Residents already have the right to establish a tenants’ association under existing legislation and any proposed change to the arrangements for establishment of tenants’ associations is not a building safety matter.
Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non Afl): Let us consider this. My home is in this state because, two years ago, there was a fridge fire in one maisonette. The roof of the block caught fire and the other flats, including mine, were drenched by the fire brigade in putting out the fire. It was not too bad and, to be honest, we were so glad that no one was hurt and we were relieved to get out safely. But that was two years ago this month—two years in which 25 families have been effectively homeless. As a leaseholder, the council, which is my freeholder, took my front door key off me—it is not a glamorous house, by the way, but it is mine, or so I thought—and basically said that I would get it back when the block had been made safe. It is now two years later and I am still not back, and I have no idea when I can go home.
I have mentioned this story before. My retelling it is not therapy but to show how what starts as an unremarkable but unpleasant event—a fire, albeit in lockdown—can escalate and turn into a nightmarish, never-ending misery for so many people. At every turn, as leaseholders and tenants, we have been faced with layers of bureaucracy getting in our way, more and more people to deal with, more and more issues being raised to explain why we are not returning home, and dwindling effectiveness in getting our homes back to us. We leaseholders and council tenants have been shown a certain indifference to our plight. If I am honest, all that has been much worse than the original fire, but it is okay because Haringey Council has put up lots of safety signs. Safety trumps all, and is used to say to us, “Shut up and put up.”
I arrived at this place during the time of my eviction from the house and was inspired by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, whom I heard speak on what was happening to leaseholders. I thought, “I’m going to join that debate.” I was inspired by their dedication and what they said, and that is how I ended up here.
The moral of this tale is that I want to make sure that the Bill, which is well-intentioned on safety, does not in the name of safety end up with the unintended escalation of a whole new set of problems for leaseholders, which was the point of the analogy with my flat fire.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 260 and 126. I apologise for not being here this morning. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for speaking to our amendments.
Amendment 260 enfranchises leaseholders and brings them closer to the decision-making processes of their building. It ensures that residents of the building are made aware, within the earliest reasonable timeframe, by the responsible person, when they are served any notice given by the fire and rescue service. It also ensures that, when in complying with the notice the responsible person passes costs on to residents, the residents will have 21 days after being informed to appeal this notice to the court.
The essence of this amendment touches upon the freeholder’s incentives, as there is no incentive for the freeholder to challenge a notice from the fire service requiring remedial work, since ultimately it is the tenants or the leaseholders who will shoulder these costs. The reality is that freeholders often do not have skin in the game and are more than happy to comply with a served notice, with the full knowledge that they will not be the ones incurring costs for complying with the notice. This amendment is not handing leaseholders the power to indefinitely hold up works necessary for the safety of the building. It is simply providing them, as the ones with real skin in the game, with the right of appeal.
I recognise that allowing any individual tenant the right of appeal is messy and may lead to a flurry of unnecessary appeals, which in turn could create unnecessary work when it is least needed. Nevertheless, in principle, leaseholders deserve enfranchisement and mechanisms to challenge decisions that are simply imposed on them. Appeals being done through a representative body—a recognised tenants association, for example—would represent a more sensible position, as that would prevent rogue leaseholders going against the majority to appeal decisions, while at the same time allowing appeals to occur through a body that is both representative and accountable to the leaseholder, and which retains regular communication with the responsible person.
I now turn to Amendment 124, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. The definition of a qualifying lease and its implications are concerning, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, has pointed out. I am pleased that the Government have extended this definition to three dwellings in total, but it is still problematic. The protections under the waterfall system in Schedule 9 are only available for qualifying leases. Technically, an individual who owns three flats valued at £900,000 per dwelling would meet the cap of £15,000 for remedial costs, whereas an individual with five investment properties in the north of England valued at £200,000 per dwelling would be offered no protection and be liable for the entire remedial costs for each dwelling.
Is this not the sort of regionalism that the Government want to avoid in their levelling-up policy? Under the Government’s scheme, the individual, up in the north, for example, whose total property holdings are valued at £1 million, is required to pay for all their remedial costs, whereas their equivalent in London, with total property holdings of £2.7 million, would have their costs capped at £15,000. This example is to make the point that simplistically saying a number, whether it be one, two, four, whatever, for the number of leases allowed under the definition of a qualifying lease, says very little about the value of those apartments. It is evidently unfair that an individual with a much lower portfolio in value might incur much higher costs.
I accept the reality that, under any scheme, there will be winners and losers. However, I wonder whether the Government need to go back to the drawing board on how they determine whether a private landlord qualifies under the definition of a qualifying lease, as it is almost entirely void of context. It would be much wiser to determine the definition of a qualifying lease for private landlords based on the value of their entire property portfolio, rather than simply on the number of leases that they own.
This point about context brings us to the crux of what Amendment 124 would do, which is to provide some level of security to those receiving a state pension. Young landlords who may fail to qualify under the definition at least have the ability and the time to incorporate this setback into their retirement plans. It does not make it any less painful, but it would at least be a more manageable state of affairs for which they might be able to plan accordingly over many years if they have that time ahead in which to work. Furthermore, it would be assumed that many private landlords would be in receipt of an active income, probably a reasonable income, if they were able to afford multiple leases and not be classed as a qualifying lease. Regardless of whether this means that their exclusion is fair, at the very minimum they have the possibility of greater future earnings. The hope is that those individuals may at least be able to weather these costs in the long run and secure for themselves the financial future they want in retirement.
However, pensioners do not have this luxury. Beyond their state and work pensions, savings and any income they get from renting out properties or other dividends, there is almost a negligible prospect of them finding additional ways to raise money. The whole point of planning for your pension is the knowledge that whatever you have in your possession at the point of retirement is what you will be required to live on for the rest of your life. What concerns me is the notion that, as a result of this definition of a qualifying lease, some pensioners who have worked their entire lives and saved and invested diligently so they can enjoy their retirement without financial worry will be suddenly forced to raise enormous amounts of capital to fund remedial works. How does one expect a pensioner to raise such funds? I hope that my concerns are not well founded, but I fear that unless the definition of a qualifying lease makes reference to those on pensions, retirees may find their entire financial life’s work in tatters.
I am not a fan of the simplistic way in which the Government are deciding which private landlords do or do not qualify under the definition. However, if I am forced to work within this framework, I think that the provisions contained within Amendment 124, in ensuring that pensioners who own up to six leases in total also fall under the definition of a qualifying lease, are fair ones that protect those who will find it exceedingly difficult to adjust financially to the bills that may come their way.
In this vein, I also support the provisions contained in Amendment 123, extending that number of leases up to five. However, I believe even this is a sticking plaster, for the reasons that I have just outlined, as it says nothing about the value of an individual’s property portfolio.
I really hope that the Government will be able to do something more on this and, at a minimum, offer some assurances to those pensioners affected that they will not see their life’s financial planning reduced to ruin. More comprehensively, I hope that between now and Third Reading the Government will look at this definition of a qualifying lease for private landlords and how in reality it is to the benefit of private landlords with a few but highly expensive leasehold properties.
I am pleased to see Amendments 165 and 165A and their attempt to address the question of how a flat will be valued under the definition of a qualifying lease. However, I express a degree of concern about Amendment 165, as there are leaseholders I have met, not necessarily very wealthy, who purchased a leasehold flat for marginally over £1 million in London only to find that, as a result of requirements to undertake remedial works, the value has dramatically dropped and is now far less than the purchase price. Valuing their flats at the purchase price would likely mean that many leasehold flats which have lost significant value were brought into a cap which no longer reflected their current value. For this reason, I welcome Amendment 165A, as it would force the Government to consider issues surrounding negative equity when drawing up their mechanism to value these leases. I know that the Minister gave some reassuring comments during a meeting we had and hope that he might expand on them today so that leaseholders can be reassured that their leases will be fairly valued.
Finally, I support all those amendments in this group seeking to reduce the costs that can be passed on to leaseholders, along with Amendment 115, which would extend the cost protection to leaseholders in buildings of all heights. Taken together, these amendments could provide a package of measures that would deliver justice to those unfairly caught up in this scandal.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Blencathra (Con): In the meantime, I would like to speak on Amendment 115, which I strongly support, and Amendment 123. I would like to comment on Amendments 155, 156 and 157, and to my Amendments 158, 159 and 163. Before doing that, although I will not speak to them, I was privileged to support Amendment 117 on enfranchising leaseholders, Amendment 124, moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, on pensioners, and Amendment 153, moved by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham.
Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non Afl): On those caps on historical remediations, we have heard some important and persuasive arguments from the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, about anomalies. I think there are lots of inequities still left in the Bill. The least of these inequities is contained in the way the Government have assessed who can afford to pay what. For example, it might sound as though someone is well off if they own a flat valued at more than £1 million; that must mean that they are wealthy. I appreciate that it is not necessarily popular anywhere in the world to be defending people who own flats worth more than £1 million, but I think it is reasonable to point out that often a leaseholder who bought a flat worth £1 million might well be asset rich but could well be cash poor. Maybe a flat was bought after a lifetime of work, meaning they are enjoying their retirement in that flat, but as of now they are not working full-time. So, they are just not well equipped to pay a much greater cap of £50,000 over 10 years, compared to the £15,000 for someone who, ironically, has a flat valued at £999,999.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has pointed out, that flat might not be worth £1 million, and I think that is a really important issue not to forget. This has also been raised by Stephen McPartland, an MP in the other place, and I think it is a general issue. I would like the Government to consider looking again at this valuation of houses for caps.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con): My Lords, there are many amendments in this group, and I have concerns about the open-ended financial implications while it remains unclear who is responsible for a perpetrator who cannot be found, or who is beyond the reach of the law—thus the importance of the review that the Minister has, I believe, agreed to bring forward much sooner than five years’ hence, although, without my amendment, he would need another Bill if we have to make changes, which seems inevitable.
There have been many powerful speeches, not least from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I will not repeat what has been said. I have, however, given my support to Amendment 123, and I would like to take the opportunity to commend my noble friend Lord Naseby who in Committee highlighted the unfairness of excluding buy-to-let premises from the safeguards in the Bill for reasons we have heard. The Government have acknowledged that he was right.
Lord Greenhalgh (Con): I will turn now to Amendments 123 and 124, which deal with the definition of a qualifying lease. The Government have already tabled amendments which will see people with a total of up to three UK properties eligible for the protections. Amendment 123, tabled by my noble friends Lord Young and Lord Blencathra, proposes to increase this to a total of up to five UK properties. Amendment 124, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, proposes to increase the total to six for individuals in receipt of a state pension. I am afraid that the Government will not be able to accept these amendments.
As I have previously discussed, it is important that the Government take a proportionate approach and ensure that our measures are fair to all parties. This includes considering where certain groups of leaseholders are likely, on average, to be able to afford to contribute to the costs of remediation. The Government need to focus their protections on those who need it most, primarily leaseholders living in their own homes and those who have moved out and are subletting. We also recognise concerns about people with small numbers of additional properties, and that is why we are ensuring those with up to three UK properties will be protected.
I turn now to the amendment from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has been a stout campaigner on this matter over the entire passage of this Bill. The right reverend Prelate’s amendment aims to provide further cost protections to leaseholders, including the right of appeal to a court under the fire safety order. First, in practice, there will already be a requirement for responsible persons to communicate such fire safety matters which are relevant to residents. Secondly, this amendment potentially has unintended consequences which could be detrimental to fire safety. It could mean that the cost of fire safety reparations in response to an enforcement notice, even those of relatively small cost incurred as maintenance or reparations of wear and tear, could be taken to a court. This could mean that important fire safety works in more serious cases are simply put on hold pending court action, which may compromise the safety of residents. For the reasons I have outlined, I ask the right reverend Prelate not to press his amendment.
Above all, I thank noble Lords for a high standard of debate which has been touched by moments of expertise which, frankly, I could not entirely follow. It is important that we all rely on noble and learned Lords at all times to tell us what we can and cannot do. I have done my best to respond to the issues raised, and I hope that noble Lords will not press the non-government amendments—but I do not expect so.