Building Trustee Amendments

Amendments : 82C, 82D, 82E, 82F, 82G, 82H, 82I, 82J, 82K, 82L, 82M

The building trustee would be appointed for higher-risk buildings and large mixed-use developments. He or she would be an impartial figure whose role would be to ensure that the interests, rights, responsibilities of the landlord (if any) and leaseholders are balanced and, more importantly, that the building is properly maintained and the service charge provides value for money. In this way, the concerns raised in relation to leaseholder management of larger mixed use estates can be mitigated.

In the event of insolvency of the landlord, the building trustee would step in to ensure the ongoing management of the building. Provision is made in the relevant amendment to prevent the termination of service contracts or insurance policies if a landlord becomes insolvent.


My Lords, I move Amendment 82C and will speak to Amendments 82D to 82M standing in my name. These draw on good practice in the management of multiunit developments in Australia, Europe and North America and seek to replicate best practice here. They are also designed to address some of the concerns raised in earlier debates, particularly in the context of the proposed change to the threshold for enfranchisement in mixed-use developments from 25% to 50%. I suggest that similar amendments to a future commonhold Bill would go some way to meeting concerns that have been expressed about the risks associated with a wholesale move to that tenure.

The amendments provide for the appointment of a building trustee. It is proposed that this should apply in the largest and most complex developments. Building trustees might also be appointed at the request of a recognised tenants association or by the courts. The building trustee will be an independent and impartial figure whose primary role of auditing performance would ensure that interest rights, responsibilities and performance of the landlord were properly balanced with those of leaseholders and, more importantly, that the building is properly maintained and the service charge provides value for money. I noted in our earlier discussions the Minister’s comments to me about value for money, but it is the benchmark used by the National Audit Office for local authority finance, I believe—I eyeball noble Lords who have experience in that line of business.

Amendment 82C sets out the buildings this would apply to, and Amendment 82D outlines the trustee duties—I will rattle through the amendments at some speed. Amendment 82E is about the appointment process of the building trustee. Amendment 82F sets out the trustee entitlement to documents and information.

There is, of course, the question of who pays for the building trustee. It would be unreasonable—particularly during a cost of living crisis—to burden leaseholders, especially as many of the buildings covered by Amendment 82C are already facing increased service charges owing to the new safety requirements under the Building Safety Act. Instead, Amendment 82G provides that the costs of building trustees would be covered by a levy on providers of commercial and residential mortgages and block landlords, excluding enfranchised building and tenant right-to-manage companies.

Amendment 82H sets out what would be the baseline value-for-money benchmark. This is necessary because there is a risk of inevitable bias in the management under the auspices of a party to the leasehold arrangements. This might be perfectly reasonable in terms of the person instructing the management, but still fall well short of the optimal.

One of the Bill’s key aims is to make it cheaper and easier for leaseholders to enfranchise. I welcome that. My amendments are designed to augment these plans by providing a light-touch oversight to ensure effective, efficient and economic management of a building. This backstop would require reassurance to lenders, leaseholders and other stakeholders that a freeholder-managed or resident-managed building will be properly looked after.

The reassurance offered by the building trustee is needed, as there is strong evidence that, monetising policies by a few freeholders apart, leaseholders themselves are often reluctant, unable or lack the skills to take on the responsibility and liabilities for the management of increasingly complex buildings, or to direct the professional managers adequately. Indeed, some complaints reaching my mailbox are about residents’ own management companies, and the Government’s own research found that leaseholders were concerned about issues of working with neighbours, lack of time and reluctance to take on additional responsibilities beyond those necessary as a home owner.

That touches on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, in a previous group, because although most leaseholders will appoint a managing agent to undertake the day-to-day running of a building, they themselves remain responsible for key decisions and setting priorities, such as service charge levels, authorising maintenance schedules and dealing with arrears. It can be difficult to get collective agreement on these issues, with resultant detriment to the management of the building fabric. According to data from the Scottish House Condition Survey, half of all housing is in what it describes as “critical disrepair”, and almost half demands “urgent attention”. The situation is most acute in tenements, so I appreciate that this probably relates to older buildings, but paying for common repairs or maintenance was the most frequent cause of disputes in these buildings.

By taking a whole-life view of the building, the building trustee can seek to avoid that Scottish experience by providing an independent assessment of maintenance needs and condition, and ensuring sufficient provision is put aside to maintain the building properly. Amendments 82I and 82J would require landlords to provide a 10-year plan of anticipated expenditure on capital works and building maintenance, and to establish a sinking fund to avoid leaseholders facing large, unanticipated bills. The plan and the fund would be subject to an independent audit and assessment by the building trustee to ensure that necessary works, and only necessary works, were planned for and adequately funded.

In an open letter to lenders on taking commonhold as a security, dated 21 July 2020, the Law Commission recognised that:

“the value of a lender’s security is inherently linked to the management and maintenance of the building in which a flat is located. A failure to keep the building in repair, to insure it properly, or to keep sound finances all have significant potential to jeopardise the value of a lender’s security”.

The same is, of course, true for leasehold buildings. That is why I believe that professional landlords and lenders should cover the cost. It is the banks and the building societies whose capital is at risk. The building trustee should provide a cost-effective way of reassuring them that the flats they have lent on are being properly managed, and of maintaining the value of the security. The same is true of commercial lenders on mixed-use developments. I envisage that the Secretary of State would outsource the appointing of building trustees to an external body, as provided for in Amendment 82E.

Two significant further powers would be conferred on the building trustee through Amendments 82H and 82K. Amendment 82H would allow the building trustee to apply to the tribunal on behalf of leaseholders to seek refunds of expenditure that does not provide value for money. Amendment 82K would allow the building trustee to adjudicate in disputes between landlord and leaseholder, and between leaseholders. One of the main areas where I see this provision being used is service charge arrears. It is particularly important in leaseholder-managed blocks that do not have the wider financial resources of the major landlord groups that service charges are paid promptly. Failure to do so prevents a building being managed properly, and in extreme cases places all residents at unnecessary risk. If essential safety works could not be undertaken or building insurance obtained, that would create real problems.

Evidence from other parts of the world suggests that condominium statutes do not have sharp enough teeth to recoup outstanding contributions efficiently and effectively. In England and Wales, we currently fall between two extremes. I have sympathy with those noble Lords who argued in a previous debate that forfeiture, with the exorbitant windfall that it can offer landlords, is inherently unreasonable. Equally, I recognise the point the Minister made in previous discussions that civil debt recovery proceedings can be lengthy. The building trustee’s power to adjudicate offers a faster and less formal route of dispute resolution than the court, and supports the building’s cash flow.

Amendment 82L would provide for the building trustee to take over the management of a building if its landlord becomes insolvent. Historically, this has happened to very few landlords. However, the Committee will recall that I have previously raised concerns that not all landlord groups have the funds needed to meet the building safety remediation liabilities and could therefore become insolvent. The financial position of these groups may get significantly worse, depending on the Government’s decision on ground rents. Some of the country’s largest landlord groups—I refer to E&J Estates, which is landlord to around 40,000 homes, Long Harbour, which is landlord to around 193,000 homes, and Regis Group, which is landlord to around 30,000 homes—have significant borrowings that are due to be repaid from ground rent income over the next 40 to 60 years.

To the best of my knowledge, the Government’s final position is still unknown but, based on press comments on the Secretary of State’s own preference, it is reasonable to assume that the finances of landlord groups dependent on ground rent income to repay their borrowings will come under further, if not fatal, stress. This is not just my view; it is also that of the Government, whose own impact assessment states that

“there may be potential insolvencies/forfeiture and associated costs where the freeholder defaults on contractual obligations as a result of the cap”.

However, it does not seem that there has been further assessment of just exactly what this would mean in practice.

The collapse of a major landlord group would be without precedent and could cause tens of thousands of leaseholders in hundreds of buildings to be in serious trouble. In blocks subject to intermediate leases, it is likely that contracts covering everyday management and maintenance would be at risk because there would be no landlord to provide instructions. Conveyancing and lending transactions, which are already under stress, would be paused as there would be no one to process essential documents such as notices, deeds of covenant, landlord certificates and leaseholder deeds of certificate. The ability of the building trustee to assume the management of a building in such circumstances, and prevention of possible management contract termination, is an essential backstop that prevents leaseholders being left in limbo for months while they try to set up an alternative arrangement for managing their buildings and/or await the outcome of the administration or liquidation.

Finally, Amendment 82M would simply ensure that the building trustee has relevant qualifications for the task.

I hope your Lordships will see the merit in these arrangements, and that the Minister will be able to agree that measures such as this are a necessary complement to the Bill’s intentions. While I commend these amendments to the Committee, I simply say that I am not set on this particular structure, but the principle needs further examination to provide the point that I have constantly been on about—namely, consumer protection. On that basis, I beg to move.