'I moved into my mum's flat but now I'm terrified of opening the letterbox'

Resident Paul from Violet Road, Litherland.
Resident Paul from Violet Road, Litherland. -Credit:Andrew Teebay Liverpool Echo

A man said he is 'terrified' to open his letterbox after his loving home turned into a property nightmare.

Paul moved into his flat in Litherland in 2011 to care for his elderly mum and said he has always felt an "emotional attachment" to the home. When his mum sadly died in the same year, the connection to the flat and the community around it, meant Paul was content to stay and eventually take on a leasehold agreement with One Vision Housing (OVH) in 2012.

On our visit to the property on Violet Road, Paul leads us on a tour of the grounds and highlights various repair jobs completed by OVH and gives a running commentary on the quality of the work and what it cost.

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During the tour, Paul is greeted by half a dozen residents on the estate who all stop and share their commiserations over his housing situation. This is because, like so many leaseholders across the country, Paul feels 'trapped' by escalating, uncapped service charges which have left him facing financial ruin.

Paul said: "The service charges are getting to the point, after paying my day to day expenses and then finding my service charge payment, I feel I'm working for nothing."

Acquiring a lease gives the holder the right to occupy a property for a fixed period of time - this could be 999 years or for much shorter. However, the freeholder retains control over the property and can charge fees for the lease, ground rent and service charges. They can even sell the land without the approval of the leaseholder.

Essentially, a leaseholder is paying to have their property on someone else's land.

According to The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), there are approximately 4.98 million leasehold homes in England, of which 70% are flats and 30% are houses. Serious concerns have been raised about leasehold properties in recent years and a Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill is currently working its way through the House of Lords - it had a second reading this week.

Current legislation allows freeholders to levy uncapped service charge increases without needing the approval of leaseholders. This means people like Paul are locked into a system which gives them limited autonomy and are subject to escalating charges.

In documents seen by the ECHO, Paul's service charge appears to have risen sharply in recent years. In the financial year covering 2017/8, the service charge at Violet Road was £450.64 but the 2024/25 service charge statement estimates costs to be £1393 - a 209% increase in just seven years.

A service charge is an amount payable by a leaseholder or renting tenant for services, repairs, maintenance, improvements, insurance and the cost of management - the whole or part of which may vary, from year to year, according to the costs incurred.

As part of Paul's leasehold agreement with OVH, he is responsible for a sixth of the costs spent on communal repairs. To further illustrate the difficulty he faces, Paul rooted out an example and displayed an invoice from OVH detailing the £1909.90 required to renew the stairwell.

Leaseholders have a mixed set of rights when it comes to service charge costs particularly in social housing blocks like the one Paul lives in. Variable service charge costs are dependent on what works will be carried out to the property - sometimes completely out of the blue.

People like Paul can go to tribunals to challenge the 'reasonableness' of the charge, but the leaseholder is liable for the legal costs - and potentially, the freeholder's legal costs.

Paul has spoken out now because he believes OVH are about to renovate the roofing of the block and he's scared he won't have the money to pay for it. He said: "I feel like a cash cow.

"I'm at the mercy of One Vision because every time they want to commission a repair to the building, I have to pay and I never know when the next bill is coming through the door. I'm terrified of going to the letterbox."

One Vision Housing maintain their service charges are proportionate to the property and make every effort to ensure affordability. OVH do not charge ground rent and give residents like Paul statements detailing the costs applied to the service charge.

Paul's fear is one shared by leaseholders across the country and a concern which has garnered support across the political spectrum. Just this week, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan went on record to say leaseholders hit with large and unjust service charges should have the right to refuse to pay. Mr Khan went further than most when he added this right should be attached to the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill.

The Bill aims to address a number of issues and bring more transparency to the relationship between freeholder and leaseholder. The Bill includes proposals for an automatic 990-year lease extension, with ground rent reduced to “peppercorn” rates – equating to 0.1 per cent of the freehold value. Currently, there is no cap on the amount freeholders can charge existing leaseholders for "ground rent".

Parliamentary undersecretary to the Department of Housing, Baroness Scott of Bybrook said the reforms would bring 'greater fairness, security, transparency and competition to the leasehold market'. One of the proposals for the Bill is a move towards a standardised set of publicly available accounting information which would allow leaseholders to compare costs of maintenance works carried out at different locations.

It will also rebalance the legal costs regime and remove barriers for leaseholders to challenge their landlords’ 'unreasonable' charges at Tribunal.

However, one section of the Bill has caused some controversy as it includes the possibility of banning the sale of new leasehold houses - but not new leasehold flats.

This week it was reported Tory MPs have threatened to rebel over the government's new housing proposals with many feeling the reform bill has been watered down. A majority of these MPs have called for the absolute ban of leaseholds all together.

Labour are also committed to a complete leasehold ban, but recently backtracked on a pledge to abolish them within 100 days of taking power - should they win at the general election.

The Leasehold Advisory Service is governed by a board, appointed as individuals by the Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.

In response to Paul's situation, a spokesperson for LEASE said: “It can be very worrying to face rising service charges, but you may be able to challenge the increase. Your lease will say what the service charges should cover, and if you are being asked to pay for something that is not covered, then you could challenge the charge.

"Furthermore, the amount of a service charge must also be reasonable and justifiable and can be challenged if you can make a persuasive case that it is not. However, we strongly recommend that you pay the bill, as not doing so can lead to extra costs.

"You can pay under protest, and you might get the money back. You should consider working with other people in the building, as they may have similar concerns. You could also think about taking over the management, either through the Right to Manage, or by buying the freehold."

Presently, this advice has little appeal to Paul as his focus is just on staying afloat and getting through the day-to-day. Although he would never want to leave the community he has become a part of, even the option of selling up and moving on seems remote. He said: "I feel I am now trapped as my flat is under section 20 dispensation.

"If I chose to sell I would probably have to sell for approximately £20,000 or £30,000 less than the £80,000 it was previously worth knowing a potential buyer would struggle as now most lenders will refuse mortgage on property with S20 dispensation."

A spokesperson for One Vision said: "One Vision Housing are committed to providing fair and quality services to all its customers.

"Where applicable service charges are payable to One Vision Housing by leaseholders for the services directly used by the customer.

"Leaseholds contribute towards the cost of services which include the provision of security, cleaning, heating and lighting of communal areas, as well as grounds maintenance and statutory obligations.

"The responsibilities of the customer are contained in their lease agreement, with a detailed breakdown of the service charges communicated."

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