Insight – how the National Leasehold Campaign took the fight to leasehold

27 January 2021 | Investment

In the time since, the NLC has become the go-to voice in the media for those affected by the leasehold scandal – which doesn’t just include ordinary house and flat buyers, but also landlords, individual investors and some larger investment vehicles who potentially face spiralling ground rents, hidden service charges and difficulties in extending leases under the current system.

Here, we speak with Katie Kendrick, one of the NLC’s co-founders and a busy paediatric nurse in her day job, who paints the picture of how the NLC came to be the powerful campaigning group we know of today.

Born out of personal experience

On January 27 2017, Kendrick set up the campaign initially for leasehold homeowners in the North West who had their freeholds sold beneath them, many with doubling ground rents.

“I ‘bought’ a leasehold house, but the leasehold element was significantly underestimated, with the sales staff telling me: ‘don’t worry, it’s leasehold, it’s normal nowadays,” Kendrick says. “’You can buy the freehold in two years for a few thousand pounds’. Fast-forward just 18 months and my freehold had been sold on to an offshore, third-party investor. All legal as the ‘right of first refusal’ doesn’t apply to houses, only flats.”

The price to purchase her freehold increased to more than £13,000, while her neighbour’s increased to over £30,000. 

“Not only that, I discovered the permission fees (otherwise known as the ancillary income) to build a small conservatory had increased from £300 to £2,600. This was my ‘penny drop moment’, when I realised I was entangled in a system I never knew existed and one that would prove very difficult to get out of,” she adds.

“I’m not the kind of person to moan and do nothing about it. If something is wrong, it needs to be put right. I started a local Facebook group to share what had happened with our local community, but it quickly became evident it wasn’t just a local issue, nor a regional one. It was a national scandal that spread throughout England and Wales. We created the phrase ‘leasehold scandal’ that swept the nation.”

She continues: “I remember early on I wrote to my developer Bellway about the situation. The CEO responded by saying: ‘Mrs Kendrick, there is no leasehold scandal’. I simply responded with the definition of a scandal: ‘An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage’. So, I stand by my description that this situation is a ‘scandal’ on an epic scale.”

After the NLC was launched, Cath Williams and Jo Darbyshire – who had also been affected by the leasehold scandal – volunteered to help run it. 

“I never knew either of them before this campaign, but we have now become the best of friends. I couldn’t do it without them both,” Kendrick insists. 

Exponential growth

Kendrick quickly found that her story was echoed by many other leaseholders. “My personal situation is tame compared to the suffering of many. The leasehold scandal goes so much deeper than doubling ground rents,” she says. 

The group, now a remarkable 20,000-strong – similar in size to some political parties and large trade bodies – is free to join and run voluntarily. It asks for small donations from its members to cover events such as demonstrations, leaflets and trips to Parliament – although this is totally voluntary.

The NLC isn’t the first leasehold campaigning group, but it has used the power of social media – which at its best is a pioneering force for change – to its fullest.

“There have been leasehold campaigners for decades, but now with so many methods to communicate on social media it was much easier to connect with people. The late Nigel Wilkins was a long-term campaigner for leaseholders and his work played no small part in laying the foundations to where we are today. He founded CARL (Campaign for the Abolition of Residential Leasehold) and believed commonhold should be mandatory.” 

Its glory days were in the 1990s, but CARL never made the transition into mass media digital communications, which saw it die out as a force in the modern world.

“Although I never met Nigel, I have great admiration for his work. His legacy lives on in all of us,” Kendrick says.

She says the evolution from a small Facebook group to something so much bigger came about as more and more leaseholders were having their ‘penny drop moments’.

“I had no idea when I launched the NLC that it would grow like it has. I really did ‘open Pandora’s box’ when I started the campaign for change.” 

She started by contacting her local MP Justin Madders – the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston since 2015 – who has been ‘incredibly supportive’ throughout. Very early on she was also lucky enough to come across the leaseholders’ charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership (LKP).

“They literally took the NLC under their wing and gave us a voice. They really are the backbone to our success.”

Then there was Louie Burns, a fiercely passionate leasehold reformer and campaigner who died suddenly in July last year, and who had been managing director of Leasehold Solutions for many years before his death, who Katie was also introduced to very early on in the campaign.

“There was nothing Louie didn’t know about leasehold. His passion for justice was my inspiration and he became my leasehold mentor,” she says.

The power of social media

As mentioned, the NLC has a lively following on Facebook and is also increasingly active on Twitter. The strength of the collective has allowed people to feel emboldened to speak up and out, where before they might not have felt comfortable doing so, for fear of upsetting their neighbours or their freeholders.

Burns would regularly post motivational statuses on the NLC’s Facebook page.

“For years no-one was listening. Government was not interested. Most ministers were not interested. Most MPs were not interested. The media was not interested, on the whole. Every so often we would be on the radio or in the paper, but it was irregular. Those who make millions from the leasehold sector every year from the misery of leaseholders laughed at us, mocked us and treated us like conspiracy theory nutjobs. We were just mild irritants to them. All that changed when Katie, Jo & Cath set up the NLC and let their voices be heard. Suddenly we were being invited into parliament. For the first time our voices were being heard. All because of this Facebook group. All because these three ladies decided they would not put up with this unfair treatment. All because they built this fabulous group of like-minded people who let their voiced be heard.

The NLC, Kendrick says, has galvanised leaseholders up and down the country – whether they own flats or houses – to unite together and speak out about the injustices they face, with its success achieved through ‘sheer hard work and determination’.

Relentlessly engaging with the press, distributing leaflets throughout the country and organising demonstrations wherever possible, were all early tactics.

“At one point in the campaign, I think government attempted to suffocate us with ‘death by consultation’. It was difficult to keep leaseholders motivated to complete them as there was so many,” Kendrick says. 

“Leasehold is a dry, boring and immensely complex subject, but we somehow managed to break it down enough for leaseholders to understand their importance and complete them by mass.”

Kendrick’s own personal highlight was a demo held in London in 2018, well-attended by leaseholders and MPs. In it, the NLC hired an open-top London bus to drive around the capital and raise awareness, as well as handing a petition direct to Number 10 and calling for a select committee inquiry into the leasehold scandal (a week later the government listened to this request).

“Jo Darbyshire and I gave public evidence at this inquiry and the committee reported a record number (600) of submissions,” Kendrick says. The committee later produced a damning report on the leasehold system.

Speaking with one voice

With 20,000 members, all with different opinions, experiences and points of view, it must be tricky to speak collectively at times?

“People often comment that they are surprised how ‘united’ the voice of the NLC is,” Kendrick explains. “I often get asked: how does the group not splinter? The three of us [Katie, Jo and Cath] are very different people with very different skillsets, but it works really well.” 

She adds: “We started by setting very clear aims for the campaign very early on. If members do not agree with the aims of the NLC then, ultimately, they are in the wrong group.”

The NLC is also noticeably apolitical, a deliberate ploy from the founders to ensure their central message isn’t diluted by divisions or petty party politics.

“Leasehold is a cross-party issue that needs cross-party support and solutions,” Kendrick says. “We are proud to have helped create one of the biggest All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) on Leasehold & Commonhold Reform, which has over 160 cross-party MPs.” 

Having MPs such as Sir Peter Bottomley – the current Father of the House of Commons and a Conservative MP who has served in parliament since 1975 – as well as the aforementioned Justin Madders on side has helped the group enormously.

She admits the NLC sometimes get ‘trolls’ who join to antagonise the group. “These members are quickly identified and removed from the group so that we can remain focused on the massive task in hand.”

Meet the co-founders

How rewarding has it been to lead the NLC and to see the progress made on leasehold reform?

Katie: I am a senior paediatric nurse. Never in a million years did I think I would be leading a campaign which would be pushing to end a feudal land tenure that has existed for almost 1,000 years. Four years ago, I knew nothing about leasehold law. I really do feel like I’ve done a crash course in leasehold as well being a mum, wife and full-time nurse.

We have so much support behind us. LKP have been our rock and, of course, the late Louie Burns was my personal mentor and dear friend who taught me everything I know. 

Cath: Being co-founder of the NLC is extremely demanding and time-consuming, particularly as I work full-time as a university lecturer in Health Sciences training students to be radiographers in the NHS workforce, but I would not have it any other way.

There have been highs and lows over the past four years, with positive reforms dangled in front of us like a carrot with no concrete action until now. The latest government announcement feels different – there seems to be a stronger intent to introduce laws that will eventually outlaw leasehold tenure.

Jo: I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved to date – it really is a David versus Goliath fight. We are three determined, northern women fighting against some very rich and powerful people who do not want the leasehold cash cow to be butchered.

It must seem like a full-time job – how do you deal with the pressure associated with managing such a large membership?

Jo: Managing the NLC alongside my full-time job and other commitments is extremely challenging. I am the managing director of a pensions administration business with 250 staff plus my 11-year-old daughter is home schooling!  

What keeps me going when I’m feeling low on energy is the injustice of the leasehold system and if I can help people avoid getting caught in the same traps we’ve fallen into that makes what we are doing worthwhile. Katie, Cath and I have built a tremendously strong friendship – when one of us is down the other two pull us up. It really works; they are my inspirational friends.

Insight – how the National Leasehold Campaign took the fight to leasehold

(From l to r – Katie Kendrick, Cath Williams and Jo Darbyshire outside the Houses of Parliament)

Katie: I have the most amazing family support. My husband and nine-year-old son are both incredibly supportive. My son has grown up knowing all about leasehold and freehold. 

Every second I’m not nursing, I’m campaigning. Every night I stay up until midnight to see the next day news reports. It really is like having a second full-time job. But seeing the success we are having is motivation for me to carry on. I won’t lie, it is a struggle at times. It’s exhausting both physically and mentally. It’s difficult to deal with when people reach out to me for help when they are in their deepest, darkest place.

Cath: At first my two daughters thought I was mad to get involved in such a large campaign as they could see my lecturer work was intense. They quickly realised why I made time to push for leasehold reform, especially as I was also caught in the leasehold trap with an onerous lease.

The stress and pressure of negotiating myself out of that situation through buying my freehold took 15 months and a total of £15,000 that I didn’t have. Managing the NLC Facebook group is nowhere near as stressful and I feel it is very important to share my experience with members going through the same thing so that I can support and encourage them to keep going.

Can you genuinely see a future without leasehold?

Katie: Yes, I can see a future without leasehold. It’s not going to happen overnight. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change how we ‘own’ our homes. It’s vitally important the government get it right so that commonhold can work and will flourish.

Cath: Absolutely, yes! I can genuinely see a future for true home ownership ahead either as freehold for houses or commonhold for flats. If we do not tackle this, freehold investors will still have a financial hold over residents through onerous TP1/TR1 contracts which is ‘leasehold’ hidden under a cloak of deception.

<!– LinkedIn –> This post has originally been featured in Property Investor Today.