Section 20 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 is a potential hazard for landlords of residential developments
Section 20 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 is a potential hazard for landlords of residential developments as:
The above limits apply no matter what the total costs of the works in question. Therefore, a landlord who fails to comply with the consultation regulations is at serious risk of having to fund works out of his own pocket even though his tenants' leases would otherwise permit the landlord to recover the costs in full.
Even for a landlord who sets out to do his duty and comply fully with the consultation regulations, doing so is not always straightforward. For many years, there has been uncertainty over how the consultation regime works when, as if often the case, the landlord's tenant has a sub-tenant.
Many developments are set up on a head-lease/sub-lease structure, where the superior landlord funds the up-front cost of works and services, with those works then being passed down the chain to the immediate tenant, who in turn passes the costs down the chain to the occupying sub-tenants.
Despite this being a very common arrangement, however, until now the following issues have been unclear:
Thankfully, the Upper Tribunal has brought much-needed clarity to this issue in the case of Leaseholders of Foundling Court and O'Donnell Court v London Borough of Camden  UKUT 366 (LC).
The case involved a common set of facts relating to the Brunswick Centre, a listed multi-use site of shops, flats, offices, car parks and other premises. Major works were to be carried out by the superior landlord, Allied London. Allied London charged the works to its tenant, the London Borough of Camden, which in turn sought to pass the costs on to the occupying sub-tenants, who were liable under the terms of their leases to contribute to Camden for the works.
The Tribunal decided that in order to comply with the Section 20 requirements, it was incumbent on Allied London as the superior landlord to consult both Camden and Camden's sub-tenants. In the Tribunal's view, the primary purpose of the consultation regime is to ensure that those who are ultimately responsible for paying for work or services are consulted. The Tribunal was not prepared to let any practical difficulties which might be encountered by landlords in complying with those obligations get in the way of that purpose.
The decision gives rise to a number of practical difficulties for a head landlord:
The Tribunal acknowledged that these issues exposed a "lacuna in the statutory scheme", but suggested that the landlord could consider approaching the issue in a number of different ways:
The effect of this decision is considerable and its impact across the country will be widespread. In view of the additional administrative burden it imposes the decision will not be popular amongst landlords of sub-tenanted stock, though at least we now have clarity over what the law requires.
Bearing in mind the Tribunal's comments about not allowing practical inconveniences to justify a departure from the overriding purpose of the consultation regime, it seems unlikely that dispensation applications will be met favourably. Instead, the expectation will be for landlords to plan ahead to allow the time to undertake the wider consultation exercise advocated by the Tribunal.
It may in certain cases be necessary for a head landlord to issue 'blanket' consultation notices to sub-tenants addressed simply to 'The Leaseholder', without the certainty of knowing whether the sub-tenants are entitled to be consulted or not. This has the potential to create a messy consultation process, with consultation responses being received by sub-tenants who may not be affected.
In the drafting of lease documents for new developments, it will be prudent for head landlords to impose a contractual obligation on the tenant to provide full details of all sub-tenancies to the landlord within a certain period following a written request by the landlord.
Overall, there will be a solution in every case though in many cases the consultation process may need to be more extensive and will take a little longer to co-ordinate. Given what is at stake, if a landlord is in any doubt over the extent of his obligations he should take specialist legal advice to navigate the process and protect the ability to recover the costs.