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Conservative Voters Support Contentious Leasehold Reforms

A block of flats in Manchester (Alamy)

4 min read

Conservative voters are keen to see ground rents abolished on leasehold properties, despite significant pushback from within the parliamentary party to water down the major reform put forward by housing secretary Michael Gove.

Polling from Opinium seen by PoliticsHome found that 64 per cent of Tory voters were either strongly in favour, or tended to be in favour of abolishing ground rents. Only 17 per cent of Conservative supporters were strongly against or tended to oppose scrapping them.

The results found 61 per cent of Conservative voters who backed the party in 2019 were in favour of removing ground rents compared to 15 per cent who opposed getting rid of them. Tory voters altogether were more supportive of scrapping ground rent compared to Labour voters.

A leaseholder is a tenant who has paid to live in a property for a select period of time, and often includes apparent homeowners. Ground rent is a payment made by the leaseholder to the freeholder for using their home and the land around it. A consultation on ground rents – which closed on 17 January – has been looking into ways to limit the charges which leaseholders pay. The response to the consultation is yet to be published. 

A key part of the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill – a major overhaul of centuries old property ownership rules which is currently making its way through parliament – looked at setting ground rents to a peppercorn, which could encourage freeholders to sell their property and leave the market. Capping ground rents to a peppercorn rate is an industry term used to refer to a payment of no financial value. In practice, if ground rents were set to a peppercorn, the leaseholder would not pay any ground rent. 

Opinium's new polling suggested support for abolishing the measure was evenly split across England. According to the data, 58 per cent of voters in the North wanted to remove ground rents compared to 60 per cent in the South.

Harry Scoffin, founder of Free Leaseholders, an anti-leasehold campaign group, told PoliticsHome that Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt were “playing with electoral fire by siding with rent-seekers, middlemen and extortionists”.

He said the Government was “laughing in the face of 13.9 million voters” who backed the 2019 Conservative manifesto which pledged to restrict ground rents to a peppercorn.

“Peppercorn ground rents is super popular, particularly amongst Conservatives and the grey vote. 58 per cent of voters support abolishing existing residential ground rents, with 64 per cent of Conservative voters backing it, too. Meanwhile, 65 per cent of 65+ voters want pre-2022 ground rents scrapped.”

Gove is reportedly trying to bring back the pledge after facing a backlash from Number 10 and the Treasury, the Sunday Times reported. An industry source told PoliticsHome there was "no firm sign" Gove was beaten on this policy aspect. 

The paper reported that Gove was warned that making retrospective changes to property rights could leave the Government exposed to a slew of legal challenges. However, sources who are close to the cabinet minister said the advice they received found the policy was not unlawful. 

Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, who is campaigning to reform the leasehold system, told PoliticsHome abolishing ground rents was the right thing to do – and confirmed parliamentarians were looking at drafting amendments for the Lords to change the Bill. 

“I agree that ground rents should be abolished. We are pressing the Government to do this for some time and it is key it happens,” he said.

“Our voters care about this. It really impacts them in terms of their pockets, especially when things are really tight.”

A former cabinet minister complained about the lack of engagement between Gove’s department and Tory backbenchers. This has been something which a number of MPs have complained about for some time.

A DLUHC spokesperson said the Government was committed to strengthening protection for leaseholders and are bringing forward reforms through the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill.

“It is not fair that many leaseholders face unregulated ground rents for no guaranteed service in return – that is why we consulted on a range of options to cap ground rents for existing leases, and we have already legislated to put an end to ground rents for most new residential properties in England and Wales," they said. 

“We are pleased to note that the Competition and Markets Authority recently found that ground rents are ‘neither legally nor commercially necessary. The government is currently considering the responses to the consultation and will set out its policy in due course.”

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