Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Will the Minister tell me what particular expertise Kate Barker has in the home buying and selling markets?

Mr. Edward Davey: She is a macro-economist.

Sir John Butterfill: She is, but I do not know whether she has any great expertise in this area.

Keith Hill: If the hon. Gentleman had read Kate Barker's report on housing—he might well have done so—which was commissioned jointly by my Department and the Treasury, he could not have helped being impressed by her deep understanding, the great extent of her expertise and the enormous trouble that she took to analyse the housing market and to get these things right. I do not know which authority the hon. Gentleman wants to promote in opposition to Kate Barker but, frankly, I am content to rest on her judgment that this system would not impact on house prices in any negative sense, and that it would make the housing market more efficient.

The provision of more and better information cannot help but improve the functioning of the housing market, although I do not pretend that it will solve every problem. We accept that our proposals are not a panacea. However, every examination of these problems by Governments over the past 30 years—and there have been a number, in case anyone is labouring under the delusion that these are new problems—has concluded that this would be the most helpful change. My noble Friend Lord Rooker listed some of those conclusions recently in another place. There was the Law Commission report on subject-to-contract agreements, which was laid before Parliament as long ago as January 1975. Then there was the first report of the Conveyancing committee in 1984, better known as the Farrand report. The previous Conservative Government's report, "Survey of options for simplifying the house purchase process", published in 1993—I presume under the auspices of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is in his place—responded to concerns about inefficiencies in the market and concluded that sellers should provide property details at the outset and that conveyancers could reduce the uncertainties of chains by encouraging a greater disclosure of information.

None of this is new. The problems are not new and the solutions are not new. What is new is that we now have a Government who have the courage to do something about it, even if that means upsetting a few interests along the way. While I am on the subject of interests, let me draw to the attention of the House a couple of interests that have recently come out in support of the Government's proposals. As a Labour man, I have been reading The Guardian devotedly for more than 40 years, although nowadays, opening my copy often feels like a somewhat masochistic exercise. To my delight, however, I saw that the editorial in the edition of Saturday 6 November contained a most enthusiastic expression of opinion in support of the Government's proposals on home information packs. And, lo and behold, in The Times of Friday 5 November, the excellent Susan Emmett, its deputy property editor also wrote enthusiastically about the ending of what she
8 Nov 2004 : Column 634
described as "this tortuous process" of home sale and purchase. If I had more time, I should certainly draw these serious observations to the attention of the House. I shall spare hon. Members that experience now, although I might get the opportunity to do it later. I will simply say that when the muesli and sandals brigade lines up with "The Thunderer" in joint support of the Government's proposals, those proposals must be taken very seriously.

Unlike the Opposition, we have a coherent view of what is needed to create a sustainable housing market. Apart from making an effort to balance the supply and demand for housing responsibly, we want to ensure that the existing stock is maintained and kept in good repair for future generations. We want to see people taking responsibility for their stewardship of the housing stock, including its upkeep and energy efficiency. They can do that only if they have the necessary information at the right time and in the right place.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): The Minister mentions energy efficiency. I wonder why. My concern is that the Secretary of State is taking powers whereby he "may" do this, that or the other. Why did he not state categorically from the outset that he would institute a mechanism whereby the proper energy efficiency rating of every house could be presented, enabling people to make a comparison?

Keith Hill: The right hon. Gentleman entices me on to the next phase of my exposition of the virtues of our proposals, but I am surprised that he, as a good European, is unaware of European Union directive 2002/91/EC, which makes such an energy efficiency report mandatory.

Mr. Gummer: I was inviting the Minister to explain why the Secretary of State did not take credit for this, as is his wont, by getting it in the original documentation.

Keith Hill: The right hon. Gentleman will have to put that down to my innate modesty. After all, he will acknowledge that I have not attempted to replace the concept of the Gummer exception with the Hill exception. This is a rather arcane exchange, albeit one that we have both enjoyed.

The Opposition have failed to make any link between their laudable demands for more and better use of the existing stock in creating sustainable communities, including higher energy and other standards, and the crucial role that HIPs will play in achieving those ends.

As I was saying to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, we shall have compulsory energy surveys when properties are sold; the EU directive to which I alluded requires that. It is entirely consistent with the primary need to use energy supplies more efficiently and is something that the Opposition fully support, but they clearly have difficulties with the means.

Let me take the House on a tour of some questions that need to be addressed to meet the energy certification requirement and the information that the inspector carrying out the survey will need to gather as he or she goes around a property to complete the energy report. The questions include: is it a flat or a semi-detached, a mid-terrace or detached house? When was
8 Nov 2004 : Column 635
the property built? Are there any extensions or modifications, and when were they made? What are the walls in the main property or any extension constructed from? Is there any evidence that the walls have been modified, possibly with cavity fill insulation or external insulating render? What is the floor construction? What types of window and glazing are installed? What is the roof construction? Is there a porch or a conservatory or a basement; if so, how big is it, and can it be closed off from the main part of the house and does it have a separate heating system?

For each storey of the property, the inspector needs to measure the floor area, the room height and the length of wall through which heat can escape either to the outside world or into unheated spaces such as a garage, and the area of windows, doors and rooflights.

I put it to the House that this is already starting to sound like a fairly sophisticated assessment, but the requirement goes much further because the following questions must also be addressed: what type and thickness of insulation is there in any loft space? Is there gas or electricity available in the property or in the street? What ventilation rate can be expected in normal circumstances? What space and water heating systems are installed? What controls are there on those systems?

This is not just a question of, "Is it a gas central heating boiler or not?" Instead, the requirement is to determine whether it is a standard boiler or a combination boiler, and whether it is a condensing boiler; how efficient it is; and whether there is a timer, a room thermostat or thermostatic radiator valves. That assumes that the system in question is a straightforward gas system, but it can get a lot more complicated if it is not and the means of heating is from other fuels or local heaters rather than central heating.

Undertaking an energy efficiency assessment is a skilled task, requiring a qualified individual to look at all the key elements of the property such as walls, floor, roof, glazing, space and water heating, and services—in fact, pretty much every element that we are proposing should be considered in the home condition report.

The time required on site to perform an energy efficiency assessment using the reduced data standard assessment procedure methodology would be an hour to an hour and a half, with a relatively short period for subsequent preparation of the report. That compares with an anticipated two hours on site to undertake a full home condition report, plus up to an additional hour to write up the report.

Sir John Butterfill: The Minister is being very generous in giving way, but I am not sure that he fully understands what is likely to be involved in such a report. I speak as a chartered surveyor. To cite an example that occurs frequently, if a building has tile hanging on the exterior, there should be some insulation between it and the plaster walls on the inside—an older property may have lath and plaster—but it is not possible to tell without removing either some tiles from the exterior or some plaster work from the interior whether there is any suitable insulation material between them. That would require considerable work
8 Nov 2004 : Column 636
and a labourer on site, and the damage would have to be made good. Even that one element of the report could not be completed in an hour and a half.

Next Section IndexHome Page