Boris must enact sweeping leasehold reform now

Harry Scoffin

June 13, 2022

We all know that Prime Minister Boris Johnson fancies himself as a Winston Churchill, having written a biography of the war-time leader as a thinly disguised leadership bid in 2014 and routinely deployed Churchillian rhetoric during the pandemic and ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

But last week, Johnson adroitly channelled another Churchill: Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father who, in the 19th century, dared the Conservative Party to embrace mass demands so they could benefit from democratisation.

Having narrowly survived a confidence vote, Boris Johnson rebooted his premiership on Thursday with a speech making the case for extending the property-owning democracy to hard-pressed urban millennials and renters in a cost of living emergency.

The Prime Minister said that owning one’s home is “a fantastic, mobilising, motivating thing that drives people’s thoughts and passions and engages them deeply”.

Like Lord Randolph Churchill, then, Johnson is aware that the Conservative Party’s long-term fortunes rest on turning more hardworking citizens into freeholders – masters of their own destiny with a stake in society and a home they can truly call their own.

On Thursday, Johnson committed his government to “dealing with the scourge of unfair leasehold terms … [affecting] homeowners [who] should have far greater control over their homes and their lives”.

In a screeching u-turn – last month he dropped the long-awaited second leasehold reform bill from the Queen’s Speech, reportedly due to farcical advice that it was “unconservative” – Johnson told assorted journalists in Blackpool that help for existing leaseholders is imminent:

“In this Parliament we will supercharge leaseholders’ ability to buy their freehold, helping 4.6 million households to genuinely own their own home.”

Those words could just as easily have floated from the lips of Lord Randolph Churchill who, in 1884 (yes, 1884!), protested against a feudal leasehold system that allows freeholder landlords to “exercise the most despotic power over every individual who reside[s] on his property”.

Churchill had recognised the predatory leasehold regime – where law-abiding workers and families purchase homes only to become mortgaged tenants whose buildings are controlled by powerful, often secretive, money-grabbing land barons – as a recruiting tool for socialism.

The Tory radical’s parliamentary remarks of 1884 are as applicable to the urban conurbations of modern England, where cranes scar the skies to throw up yet more leasehold blocks, as to imperial London:

“Nothing acted as such a powerful stimulus to socialism and popular discontent, or favoured conditions that were likely to bring about revolution, more than enormous accumulations of land in single hands either in the country or in towns, but more especially in towns … Who was the more likely to be a contented and patriotic citizen – the man who was a freeholder and who was safe in his property, or the man who was at the mercy of a colossal landowner?”

Churchill proposed enfranchisement, a legal process in which leaseholders pay a fair market rate to buy out their freeholds and thereby become freeholders, ultimate property owners.

Although his prime minister, Lord Salisbury, was a big freeholder landlord and refused his Enfranchisement Bill to become law, Lord Randolph Churchill’s arguments lived on. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher commenced the crusade against medieval leaseholds in government by allowing flat leaseholders to compulsorily purchase their freeholds by dragging their freeholders to court and convincing judges that they were corrupt or incompetent.

Universal suffrage was granted in 1918, so why do we persist with this rent-seeking, antiquated and grossly inefficient system of flat living that renders 4.6 million households (up to 10 million voters) across England and Wales second-class citizens? Leasehold is a form of taxation without representation: leaseholders pay for everything, but have no say or control over their money and their homes.

This Conservative government was elected to take back control for hardworking people and level-up communities who have been long ignored. But money politics appears to be jeopardising delivery.

Are today’s Conservatives, once proud exponents of popular capitalism and related initiatives to boost social mobility, too enamoured by money flowing into party coffers from developer donor cartels and freehold speculators to advance the national interest and actually deliver a homeownership revolution?

He must resist siren calls to scrape the “barnacles off the boat” and remember that far more leaseholders are voters than property developers and freehold speculators.

It would be a grave injustice not to enact the sweeping leasehold reform programme which commenced in 2017 and now features oven-ready, popular policies based on extensive research and consultation. The homeownership agenda has been taxpayer funded to the tune of millions of pounds.

Should it fail to phase out feudal leaseholds for the fairer commonhold tenure in the 2022-23 parliament, the Conservative Party could be obliterated at the next general election.

Already working incestuously together in a low-profile manner to smash the Tories, pro-leaseholder Labour and Liberal Democrats could get the keys to Number 10 to lock the Conservative Party out of power forever by bringing in proportional representation.

Snubbing donors with skin in the leasehold game to give leaseholders capital mobility, land ownership and dignity, via a mass shift to commonhold, might just be the ingenious counter-move the Conservative Party need to outplay the opposition parties. This first-mover advantage by Johnson could well make him the hero that saves the day.

Finishing Churchill’s unfinished crusade against medieval leasehold is Conservative – and common sense.


Written by Harry Scoffin

Harry Scoffin is a reporter at Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. Here he writes in a personal capacity.

One comment

  1. Really well written and true. But we need a newspaper every month to collect our action as not that large number in NLC.

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