It is a national scandal that the feudal housing tenure of leasehold still holds a third of our housing stock in its vice like grip. Freeholders make billions of pounds every year by bleeding leaseholders using the various legal constructs gifted to them by this medieval land tenure. It is shameful that if you buy a leasehold property in the 21st century you are legally known as the ‘tenant’ and your freeholder the ‘landlord’, just as it was in the 14th century.
Through the tireless work of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and the raised voices of the leaseholders represented by the mighty National Leasehold Campaign, there has been a seismic revolt against this iniquitous system. Consumer pressure has forced the government to intervene. From their initial knee jerk promise to ban the sale of leasehold houses the scope has grown to include, potentially, the biggest reform to legislation since 1925.
Leaseholders have had to endure a whole host of lengthy consultation documents which all need to be filled in or their voices ‘won’t be heard’. The latest one issued by the Law Commission is so incomprehensively complex that any leaseholders successfully filling it in should get a knighthood or some sort of medal as a reward.
The government loftily promise that leasehold will be made ‘easier, cheaper and more transparent’ for leaseholders. However, the fear and reluctance coming from the various government bodies tasked with managing this reform is palpable. They are running scared of any colossal legal battles with the very rich and very powerful freeholders. Their documents are riddled with reminders that freeholders have human rights, don’t cha’ know? Obviously, the documents are silent on the leaseholder’s human rights.
Leaseholders don’t want leasehold reform though. They don’t want a system which means freeholders will make slightly less money from them every year or one that may make it a bit easier to extend their lease or buy their freehold. They don’t want a reformed system which will only force freeholders to devise new inventive ways to extort money from them.
They want leasehold to be abolished completely.
There are only two possible ways that leasehold can be abolished though. Firstly, one of the major political parties has to grow some balls and commit to bring it to an end before leasehold’s 1000th birthday. The other option is that leaseholders themselves refuse to put up with a system any longer and they demand that it must die. The history of the leasehold system tells us that the second option is by far the most likely.
A very short history of leasehold
The system which would morph into our leasehold system was born in 1066. When William the Conqueror beat the hapless Harold in Hastings he declared that he was the owner of all the land in England by conquest. He then dished out this land to his loyal aristocracy whilst keeping a third of it for himself. They became the landlords of the whole country enjoying a monopoly of the resource everyone needed to stay alive, land.
They became rich beyond their wildest dreams from this gift of land. Their wealth was generated by the entire population who were legally enslaved by the conquerors. The serf’s whole lives were controlled by their landlord and they were forced to slave for them day in, day out for free. The serf’s were viewed as nothing more than ‘beasts of the fields’ put on earth to make their landlord’s richer. If they dared to show dissent or rebelled against this, they would be tortured or killed. Due to the hardship of their lives a serf would be lucky if they lived long enough to see their 40th birthday.
This system stayed in place for 250 years and it took two life changing events to kill it off. In 1346 a great plague spread across Europe which killed around 50% of the population. In the aftermath of the plague the population was seriously depleted which meant there was a severe labour shortage. Also, many of the serfs had inherited lands and possessions from their dead relatives and could survive in their own rights. The population shortage meant serfs could now ask for high wages should a lord require their services.
Then came the ‘peasant’s revolt of 1381 where the workers rebelled and took over the entire country. They had the king and aristocracy shaking in their jewel encrusted boots. They refused to be slaves any longer and demanded feudalism must end once and for all. Although the revolt was ultimately unsuccessful it did instil a spirit of rebellion in the serfs. Feudalism did die out eventually as the serfs simply refused to subject themselves to a life of slavery under feudalism which only benefited their greedy landlords.
A new system was born which came to be known as copyhold. Feudalism is the grandfather of our current leasehold system and copyhold is the father.
Copyhold had to appear to be fairer to entice people to take the land and the landlords worked hard to make the new system seem fairer. Now, prior to accepting a piece of land from the lord, the copyhold terms would be agreed at the landlord’s manorial court. Here the serf would be able to negotiate the terms to a degree.
This would include the number of years the land would be granted for, how much the ground rent would be along with other material details. Once this was agreed the terms of the landownership would be entered into the manorial records. A copy of these terms would be given to the serfs on a bit of paper. Hence, why this new land tenure came to be known as copyhold.
Copyhold invented the majority of the legal constructs freeholders still exploit to make themselves rich as the expense of the leaseholders. Ground rent and methods to make it onerous were invented. Also, the concept of ‘reversion’ which states that the landlord owns the land forever. If someone wants to extend the time they can use the land, the landlord has to wait for their land to revert back to them and so be compensated for their loss of reversion. Forfeiture was invented for copyhold as well as numerous fees due for the freeholder’s licences and permissions.
Serfs accepted copyhold because it seemed fairer but it wasn’t, it simply monetised feudalism.
Added to each copyhold was the term “at the will of the lord and according to the custom of the manor”. That sounds innocuous enough but what did it really mean? “At the will of the lord” meant just that, the agreed terms of occupation lasted only as long as the lord wished it. A landlord could simply evict a copyholder from their land and there was nothing they could do about it. “According to the custom of the manor” translated as “the way we do things around here”. If a copyholder believed that they had been treated unfairly by his landlord, the retort would be “well that’s the way we do things around here!”. There was no protection for anyone treated unfairly under common law.
Copyhold became ridiculously unpopular but, just as it is today, the landlords had a monopoly on land and people had little choice. However, it became so unpopular and unjust that people simply stopped entering into copyhold agreements altogether. Copyhold died, by all intents and purposes, in the 18th century. The wholly iniquitous system was again ended by people power.
In its place was born the same feudal system we have today, that of leasehold. Leasehold simply legalised and homogenized the copyhold system. It retained and improved many of the constructs of copyhold in favour of the land owners to ensure they continued to make serious money from it.
What does that mean for us today?
History tells us that the land tenure systems which preceded leasehold were eventually destroyed by the people themselves and not by government intervention. It means all of us today have to make our voices heard if we want this vile feudal system to finally die once and for all.
It is not going to be easy. Freeholders make so much money from leasehold they are not going to give up their cash cow easily. They will use every single method available to fight back against any legislation proposed. They will threaten the government with a super litigation case the likes of which has never been seen before. They will lie and distort the truth claiming only a handful of leaseholders hate the leasehold system and most are happy with it. They will preach about the sanctity of contract and whinge about their ‘human rights’. They will spend millions lobbying the government to prevent any meaningful change coming. They will do anything in their power to slow this whole reform process down in the hope we all get bored and get on with our lives.
This means that we need keep up the pressure on government as it is our collective efforts which has made leasehold such a hot topic right now. Although they are a royal pain in the arse, we need to keep filling in the consultation documents. We need to keep pressure on our local MPs and the political parties to act decisively. We need to let the Law Commission and Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government know exactly how we feel. We need to let the silent housing minister James Brokenballs Brokenshire know just how unjust leasehold is and how it impacts our lives.
We need to educate other leaseholders when we come across them. Let our stories be told and our views heard in the press whenever we can.
We don’t have to wait for a government consultation to let our voice be heard. If we do, we are just playing by their rules and they control our responses by making them fit inside their neat little boxes. We can only answer the questions they ask and not explain the reality as we want to. We are forced to talk about leasehold reform only when what we want to talk about is its abolition.
All of us, at any time, can simply write to them sharing our own story and showing them how leasehold adversely affects our lives – just so the mighty freeholders can buy themselves another yacht.
Of course, we shouldn’t have to do any of this. Our government should immediately act against this iniquitous land tenure devised in the 14th century and consign it to the history books where it belongs. History tells us that this will only happen when leaseholders continue to make it clear they will not accept it any longer. That means we HAVE to let our voices be heard and increase the political pressure which has grown around leasehold.
A last word on copyhold
Simply to illustrate how ridiculous it is that a feudal land tenure system designed six hundred years ago is still thriving in the 21st century I leave you with copyhold ‘custom’ of ‘free bench’.
If a copyholder died his copyhold was generally inherited by his widow. The landowner didn’t want this though, he wanted to lease the land to someone else so he could charge an entry fine. Therefore, the custom of the manor was devised stating the widow could only keep her land if she remained celibate following her husband’s death. If there existed evidence or even rumours against her chastity, her land would be stripped from her immediately.
In some manors there was an inexplicable custom which would bypass the need for a widow’s chastity. Free bench was the legal term given to it. No one really knows whether it came from an older custom or that it was invented out of the sheer bloody mindedness of wanting to watch a widow humiliate herself.
The custom demanded the widow must ride into court sitting on a black ram holding its tail. She then had to recite this poem:
“Here I am,
Riding upon a black ram,
Like a whore as I am;
And for my crincum crancum (wicked conduct)
Have lost my bincum bancum, (widows land)
And for my tail’s game
Have done this worldly shame;
Therefore, I pray you, Mr Steward (the landlord’s agent)
Let me have my land again.”