Labour hopes lease reform will woo voters

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The Independent Online
SWEEPING REFORMS for leaseholders will be unveiled by the Government tomorrow in a deliberate attempt by Labour to influence the Kensington and Chelsea by-election.

A comprehensive leasehold reform Bill will be included in the Queen's Speech to end the misery suffered by more than two million people at the hands of unscrupulous landlords, The Independent has learned. The Bill will introduce a new form of tenure, commonhold, to give flat owners much stronger rights over the purchase of the freehold of their block.

Kensington and Chelsea has one of the highest proportions of leaseholders in the country and Labour hopes that the announcement will help its fight against Michael Portillo for the seat. However, the Conservatives claimed that the move was an abuse of Parliament.

Under the Bill, the Government will pledge to end exorbitant service charges imposed by landlords and agents and give tenants new rights to control the management of their building even if they do not want to own the freehold. It will also simplify and reduce the cost of the enfranchisement process that was introduced by the last Government but which has proved ineffective. The Leasehold Reform Act of 1993 gave leaseholders the right to take over freeholds under a system known as leasehold enfranchisement.

In many cases, however, tenants have been dissuaded from buying freeholds after landlords valued them at two or three times their true value. The legal costs involved in challenging a landlord's valuation have deterred tens of thousands of leaseholders wanting a freehold.

The new bill aims particularly to prevent landlords from threatening long legal proceedings to bully tenants into paying more than a fair price laid down by a leasehold valuation tribunal. Leaseholders' groups say the system is unfairly biased towards landlords.

Despite piecemeal attempts at legislation, landlords still control the management of blocks of flats, even if the residents are owner- occupiers. Unscrupulous freeholders levy large sums for "management fees" and present tenants with huge repair and redecoration bills.

Some 37,000 or 30 per cent of residents in Kensington and Chelsea are leaseholders. Robert Atkinson, Labour's candidate for the by-election, which will take place on November 25, said last night: "When Michael Portillo was an environment minister, he had the power to act and did nothing for leaseholders. The Tories made so many concessions to the big landowners and they failed to deliver for the ordinary citizen."

Mr Portillo has also written to residents committing himself to commonhold and pledging to improve the lot of leaseholders. "I am determined to clamp down on landlords who try to stop tenants buying their freehold or who impose high service charges," he wrote.

The other candidates in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election are: Robert Woodthorpe Browne, Liberal Democrats; Hugo Charlton, Green Party; John Davies, Independent Environmentalist Stop Climate Change; Charles, Earl of Burford, Democratic Party; Damian Hockney, UK Independence Party; Louise Hodges, Daily and Sunday Sport Party; Alan "Howling Laud" Hope, Official Monster Raving Loony Party; Michael Irwin, Campaign for Living Will Legislation; Lisa Lovebucket, People's Net Dream Ticket Party; Peter May, Equal Parenting Party; George Oliver, UK Pensioners Party; Colin Paisley, Legalise Cannabis Alliance; Stephen Scott-Fawcett, Referendum Party; John Stevens, Pro Euro Conservative Party; Tonysamuelsondotcom, Stop Tobacco Companies Farming Our Children; Gerard Valente, Natural Law.