Bill gives flat owners right to buy freeholds

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Leaseholders of flats were yesterday promised the right to buy the freehold of their properties, giving them full ownership and control of their homes, writes Nicholas Timmins.

The measure comes in the Housing and Urban Development Bill published yesterday. It presages a battle with Labour over paving powers it provides to force councils to put their housing management out to competitive tender, and over the Urban Regeneration Agency it creates.

Perhaps 750,000 people with long-lease flats will gain the right to buy the freehold where two- thirds of a block vote in favour. Others who do not qualify will be able to acquire 90-year leases.

The move has been opposed by the big, mainly London-based, mansion estate owners but was welcomed by the Consumers' Association. It is broadly supported by Labour. Some Tory MPs see it as 'property confiscation' from good landlords, a view rejected yesterday by Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, who pointed to a disputes procedure over valuations.

He warned any potential opposition in the House of Lords that the move was a manifesto commitment. It would prevent people being trapped in properties which became unmortgageable once leases fell below 50 years.

Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, attacked measures that will scrap tenants' existing right to veto council decisions putting the management of their estates out to tender, when the Bill failed to provide a single new home.