Battered leaseholders unite!

Tenants may get more rights from bullying landlords and help from each other, writes Karen Woolfson
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Leaseholders are making headway in their struggle against nightmare landlords. Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North, plans to hold the first meeting of an all-party parliamentary group on the subject of leasehold reform on 30 March. The group will scrutinise the leasehold system and consider how it can be overhauled to stamp out abuse.

Meanwhile, a new body called Freedom from Leasehold Abuse (Freela) has been set up by victims of rogue landlords who aim to provide a forum for sufferers and to help change the current legislation.

Flatowners currently enduring the tactics of an unscrupulous landlord can take some comfort from the emergence of Freela and the fact that Mr Gardiner has shown a firm commitment to exploring the issues in detail and campaigning for change. The all-party parliamentary group is expected to influence the approach taken by the Government's consultative document on leasehold reform due to be published by the end of June.

Mr Gardiner has also successfully presented a 10-minute Rule Bill to Parliament which will receive a second reading on 20 March. He aims to amend a loophole in the 1996 Housing Act to allow leaseholders to transfer county court cases to a leasehold valuation tribunal (LVT) where costs cannot be awarded against tenants, regardless of the date when their service charge proceedings started. At present, only cases that began after 1 September 1997 can be transferred to an LVT.

In his Parliamentary speech, he quoted leaseholder Charlotte Martin who alleges that her landlord has used the courts to run up a bill of over pounds 20,000. Ms Martin says, "The law is being used and abused as a blunt instrument [by landlords] who exhibit a flagrant disregard for the wishes and intentions of those in Parliament who drafted the 1993 and 1996 legislation."

Ms Martin calls for the law to be changed in order to properly protect leaseholders from what she alleges "is in effect licensed blackmail and bullying of the worst kind".

At the same time, members of housing organisations and leaseholders all over the country have contacted The Independent with suggestions as to how the present legal framework can be changed to achieve a more equitable balance of power between landlords and tenants, plus their plans for setting up support groups.

Freela is among them. The group will be sending out its first newsletter at the end of this week and hope to empower those in need of help.

The individuals spearheading this initiative are either battling to buy their freehold from an allegedly rogue landlord or have gone through the collective enfranchisement procedure and bought their freehold only to find that the new arrangement is far from satisfactory.

In some cases, a few people in a household cease power of the joint freehold, fail to follow legal procedures and make all sorts of unlawful demands for money from their fellow freeholders. Leaseholders or minority joint freeholders can find that if they start to ask legitimate questions for information they are legally entitled to receive about service charges, they will be subjected to harassment of the worst kind.

The organiser of Freela, who prefers to remain anonymous, says the group will give "abused leaseholders a way of getting in contact with other people who have similar difficulties, providing comfort, aid and support. They'll be able to meet up and set up groups in their own area." She claims there is a massive gap "at the grass roots level" in terms of information and support.

She adds that the group is about "making strategic alliances on different issues and each group within it focusing on different problems which have arisen out of their own misery. It's about empowerment to people who have been forced to become victims. Freela will help give them a sense of purpose."

Freela claims that only people who have been through leasehold abuse can really understand what it means on a financial and on a personal level. "One's home is probably the most personal part of one's life and to have it under threat leads to indescribable distress. Not being able to make decisions about moving house or a job, in some cases preventing couples from living together or separating, which can be devastating. Your life's on hold.

"If you've been had, you want to do something constructive at the end of the process by offering help to people who are struggling through. We want to help existing organisations facilitate this process."

Freela is campaigning for fundamental changes to leasehold law and the introduction of a commonhold system, giving individual flat-owners the freehold of the property on which their flat stands. The organisers are also calling for the Government to set up a regulatory body with teeth to oversee landlords and managing agents all over Britain and to ensure the latter adhere to the letter of leasehold law. Another aim is to recommend surveyors and solicitors to people who are experiencing problems with nightmare landlords.

At the same time, some leaseholders are investigating the possibility of setting up a fighting fund to help pay the costs of defending cases where important points of law are being tested and others have plans to create further groups of abused leaseholders across different areas who allege maltreatment by the same landlord.

Karen Woolfson welcomes your comments for her column. Write to: Homebattles, c/o Nic Cicutti, Money Section, `The Independent', One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London El4 5DL. Karen regrets that she is unable to reply personally to all letters.