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Mr. Waterson: That is not true.

Mr. Raynsford: Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not read the Countrywide survey. Although it anticipates a 13 per cent. reduction in the number of properties put on the market as a result of the introduction of the requirement, it goes on to say that currently, 15 per cent. of properties put on the market are eventually withdrawn. The conclusion, which is perfectly sensible to anyone who can read the figures, is that, broadly, there will be no change.

The evidence from Denmark, where a similar scheme has been in force for a couple of years, is that there has been no adverse effect on the market. Equally, in New South Wales, where seller's packs were first introduced, there was no adverse effect on the market. On the contrary, the market is working more efficiently, so the evidence is very much in favour of the seller's pack.

Mr. Waterson: I am sure that the Minister will agree that we must always be slightly careful when making international comparisons. Is it not the case that in New South Wales the one thing that is not included in the seller's pack is a survey report?

Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to concede that; it is one of the weaknesses in the New South Wales arrangements. That is why more recent developments of the seller's pack, notably in Denmark, have incorporated a survey. We look at international comparisons, see what has happened and then try to build on the best and improve it. In Denmark, we have seen an improvement, whereby

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the home condition report is an integral part of the pack. The scheme is working successfully, with no adverse effect on the market.

There are concerns about areas of low demand. We carried out research in two areas of low value and low demand--Burnley and Bradford--because we genuinely wondered whether packs might prove unpopular with sellers at the cheaper end of the market. However, we discovered that the seller's pack was seen as a means of creating a better functioning market. The point was forcefully made that house condition reports are all the more vital in low-value areas, where the potential costs of unforeseen repairs could be disproportionate in relation to the value of properties. For example, someone buying a property for £15,000, who did not realise that it would have to be entirely reroofed, would be in a different position from someone who recognised that he would have to spend about £10,000 reroofing such a property. Such problems are particularly acute in low-value areas, and that is why the home condition report is important in such areas.

The Government recognise, however, the concerns that have been voiced by a number of my hon. Friends who represent areas where house prices are very low. We have considered the possibility of exemptions from the requirement to prepare a seller's pack in respect of low-value properties in certain areas, and the Bill gives us discretion to do that by regulation, if we feel that it is necessary. However, we are reluctant to adopt that course of action unless it is the only way of tackling the problem, because it would inevitably create scope for anomalies and definitional problems round the borderlines, and would deny the benefits of a seller's pack to buyers who may be particularly vulnerable in the absence of good information about the home that they propose to acquire.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): I welcome what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely those areas could be designated as those with assisted area status that are having to undergo regeneration, with good plans for roads and jobs being dealt with by the regional development agencies, but where the housing is pitiful. Those areas could be clearly defined as needing some help.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising that issue on behalf of his constituents. I am pleased to say that I have visited one of the areas in his constituency that suffers such problems, and I can testify to the fact that those problems are very real. He will recognise that his suggestion represents one option. I have told him that we are prepared to consider several options, but he and several of my right hon. and hon. Friends must recognise that there might be anomalies because areas with similar problems might not qualify under the assisted area status arrangements. It is precisely that sort of anomaly which has led to my reluctance to adopt the exception arrangement, unless it is proved that there is no alternative. We are happy to consider the matter, but it is only right to tell the House that this is not a problem-free solution.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): Will my hon. Friend consider the related issue of an area that has suffered from coal mining subsidence in the past? I have

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had experience of mortgage lenders or insurers who, at a late stage in a transaction, have refused to offer a mortgage or provide insurance for a property simply because it is an area of historic mining subsidence. Thankfully, that subsidence has now disappeared but the reluctance remains. In areas such as mine, will the seller's pack have to contain a mining subsidence report or some reassurance about such matters? That would represent not an exemption but an addition to the pack.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are specifically considering whether the seller's pack should contain precisely the information about which he is concerned in areas of mining subsidence, but there are other issues. Obviously, vulnerability to flooding would be an important issue, about which many hon. Members will rightly be concerned in the light of the recent floods. My hon. Friend will recognise that if that information had been available at the outset--as, of course, it will be with the seller's pack--people would not have had to incur expenditure and build up their hopes for a sale only to find those hopes dashed because a mortgage was refused. That is precisely why the seller's pack can be very helpful indeed in areas such as that represented by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): There are many low-value properties in my constituency, and we must find a way around the problem. I put it to my hon. Friend that many of our problems would be solved if we were to use the council tax banding system.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend speaks from experience of a constituency that has problems with low-value properties. Although I have not visited it for several years, I know at first hand about those problems. The problem with using council tax band A is that it would be a broadbrush measure, which would take in certain properties that might be sold without difficulty under existing arrangements with a seller's pack. I am therefore reluctant to adopt such a broadbrush approach. My hon. Friend has heard me say that we are open to ideas and suggestions. We shall carefully consider such issues and we want to ensure that the scheme works for everyone, including those people in low-value areas, who are in many ways most vulnerable and will benefit most from the packs if they can be made available.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose--

Mr. Raynsford: With that proviso, I shall give way to my hon. Friend again.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is my hon. Friend prepared to say from the Dispatch Box that he would welcome representations from local authorities in support of the principle of band A exemption?

Mr. Raynsford: That is a good try, but I will welcome representations from all interested parties--professionals in the field, local authorities and members of the public--on how that problem can best be cracked. We are more than happy to discuss the matter constructively in the two years before the scheme will be introduced. However, the principle must be to try to get the considerable benefits of the seller's pack to as wide a range of people as possible.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that for vulnerable buyers the

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cost of heating new homes is important. Is there any evidence from the Bristol pilot scheme that the seller's pack could include information not only on the energy audit--the standard assessment procedure rating--but on the grants that might be available in low-income areas?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I confirm that the Bristol pilot showed the advantages, particularly for the public--they welcomed the idea--of having a proper energy appraisal in the seller's pack. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) was particularly keen to pursue that point through the Bill that he promoted in the previous Parliament. He and I have been in discussion about the way this Bill can help to achieve the objectives that he tried to put into practice. Providing the SAP rating, and helpful advice on what changes would improve energy efficiency and on the pay-back period of those changes, is useful for members of the public. We believe that such information will be greatly welcomed.

The Bristol study told us that such information is important, and that the format in which it is accessible is important, too. The Bristol study might have been a little too technical and not user-friendly. We are working on the presentation to ensure that such information is as user-friendly as possible.

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