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Labour should forget about HIPs

The government must drop the duff idea of Home Information Packs or Michael Coogan will find he is the scapegoat when things go pear-shaped, says Justine Tomlinson

If you need evidence of the way politicians can twist a message to suit their changing needs, Home Information Packs provide it.

HIPs were conceived back in the mid-1990s when gazumping was the big problem of the day. The 1997 Labour manifesto stated that ‘those who break their bargains should be liable to pay the costs inflicted on others, in particular legal and survey costs’.

You can’t argue with that, which is why it was so surprising that the Labour manifesto of 2001 had watered down this laudable objective and transformed it into making it ‘easier for people buying and selling homes through a new sellers pack’. Not quite as specific as the original commitment, you must agree.

By the time housing minister Yvette Cooper announced the government U-turn on Home Condition Reports in July this year the reason for introducing HIPs had changed altogether. Now they are positioned as a weapon in the war against global warming, with the main beneficiary being the environment.

In her press statement, Cooper says: “People should be backing HIPs to help everyone respond to the global challenge of climate change.”

Wait a few more months and I’m sure Tony Blair and his cronies will have found a way to make HIPs the solution to the problems in Iraq and war in the Middle East, not to mention third world poverty and the Aids epidemic in Africa.

Talking of Iraq, I seem to remember a similar shift of political message taking place over that issue. Remember the weapons of mass destruction fiasco? A different scenario, but a similar way of bending the message to suit the political cause.

The truth is that the government must ask itself some fundamental questions about what HIPs will achieve. I’m sure everyone in the mortgage industry is in favour of speeding up the house buying process, making it more transparent for everyone involved and eliminating wasted cost.

But if you look at the way the Land Registry is aiming to overhaul the conveyancing system in England and Wales, you’ll see that all of those issues will be effectively addressed by a major five-year programme of reform which is already in motion.

Similarly, the development of the National Land Information Service which enables local authorities to receive and deliver property search information more efficiently will also help revolutionise the house buying process, not to mention the technological developments being implemented by lenders. Instant online offers are now a reality and the speed of technological advance is going to accelerate rather than slow down.

Blair or Gordon Brown – whoever has greatest influence these days – should accept that the reasons HIPs were considered to be a good idea back in the mid-1990s no longer pertain.

But rather than accepting that the world has moved on the government seems doggedly determined to hang on to a concept that is falling apart around its ears.

Why? The answer is the government’s need to introduce energy efficiency reports for homes before the EU deadline of January 2009. OK, so the government might have to comply with edicts from Brussels but why not introduce energy efficiency reports by themselves – why does it feel the need to embed them in HIPs?

Having taken a look at a HIP recently, I can guarantee the average home buyer will not get past the first page. If they find mortgage documents daunting they’ll be scared witless by the plethora of information contained in HIPs.

What consumers want is to hear from their solicitor that there are no problems with their dream home. The Land Registry reforms referred to above will fulfil that wish in due course.

Let’s hope Blair, Brown, Cooper et al see sense over the coming months and let go of what is clearly a duff idea. But if they don’t, I suggest Michael Coogan, director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, prepares to be the government’s scapegoat if it all goes pear-shaped on June 1 2007 when HIPs are introduced.

Blair certainly seems to be quite happy to blame his government’s failings in the housing market on mortgage lenders.

Everyone could win as lenders battle it out for market shareOn the subject of mortgage lenders, you can’t have failed to notice the publicity being generated by the growing number of new lenders – edeus, DB Mortgages and the rest of the crowd.

Space in the mortgage lenders’ club is becoming decidedly limited and we can expect to see even more jostling for position as traditional lenders such as West Bromwich crank up their intermediary marketing activities.

All this begs the obvious question – who will be the winners and losers? I know the likes of Michael Bolton, Colin Snowdon and Bill Dudgeon know more about mortgages than most of us know about our own children but that alone does not guarantee success.

It’s a tough market and I can’t imagine that HBOS, Nationwide, GMAC-RFC and the rest of the established gang are going to sit back and let the new kids on the block steal market share from under their noses.

This development is good news for brokers and borrowers, because competition usually ensures products are kept razor sharp and service standards remain high – let battle commence.

And finally, I’d like to pay tribute to those unsung heroes of the intermediary mortgage market – business development managers. Thousands of them toil away on behalf of lenders, networks and packagers every day.

A good BDM can make a real difference and every broker I speak to can name those BDMs who are good at their jobs and willing to troubleshoot problems and provide help when it’s needed.

But I was amazed recently to hear a rumour – and I stress it was only a rumour – that one network has gone a step too far with its BDMs by giving them responsibility for the compliance managers in their geographical area. If this is true, it’s a recipe for disaster and places unfair pressure on BDMs and compliance officers.

And I’m sure the Financial Services Authority would have something to say about it – BDMs cannot be business generators and quality controllers at the same time. This will end in tears.

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