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Lord Selsdon: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, pointed out that buying a house is one of the most expensive purchases that one makes in one's life. I shall approach it from the other direction: death, divorce and moving house are the most stressful events in a person's life. Presumably, the Bill seeks to make life easier and more comfortable for all those concerned. It is on the principle, on Second Reading, and not on the devil in the detail, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, that I would like to speak.
I was very impressed by the Minister when he spoke in the housing debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Lucas. At the end of that debate, as I was sitting on the steps of the Throne and watching both sides, he said with supreme confidence that he would cut through bureaucracy and build some 920,000 houses and please everybody. The next day, it was reported that the cost of houses had gone up.
I have declared an interest as a director of a construction company which builds houses. We do Section 106 and Section 52 agreements; we do urban regeneration schemes and we build on brownfield sites. I have been a rather unsuccessful landlord and I have been reluctantly involved in enfranchisement and leasehold reform. I have sat in your Lordships' House over the years and asked why we could not have one simple Bill that made it easier for us all.
I have been amused during the past week. Since your Lordships' House scrutinises and improves legislation, the briefs began to arrive during the Recess. They came by e-mail when my machine was down. It told me that the service was not available and there was a red cross on the screen. In the end, I found that paper is not sent any more. When you receive the briefs on your e-mail system, you try to print them out, but the printer will not connect and there is no one to help in the computer office. You cannot find any paper and Dixons is shut, so one cannot get the brief. Therefore, I rang the department up, but most of them were not there. One answered on his mobile from the Test match and told me the score. I then realised that input into Ministers is quite difficult. We have a government who are
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willing to do what they possibly can in the housing sector to make things easier, more secure and better for people, and to build more houses.
When we turn to social housing, I think back to the Leasehold Reform Act. We had Smiths charities, which we thought were charities trying to help people have cheap houses. I think that they originally built houses for widows of pirates. We found that they were concentrating only on the maximum value that they could extract from their portfolio, complaining that leasehold reform was unfair to them. A few weeks later, they sold their portfolio to the Wellcome Foundation for the largest amount that they could get. I ask myself where are the great philanthropists such as Thomas Salt, Peabody and others, who, instead of giving money to political parties, set out to do things within a community, to finance, build low-cost and own houses, as good, respectful landlords, knowing that people would respect them as well.
I do not like the term, "social housing". It is accommodation. Our previous debate brought me round to the belief that in rural areas, where only 10 per cent of the population now live, we should build more houses, yet my own attitude had been that we should not build any more in the rural areas because we will destroy the countryside. If one flies around in a helicopter, one sees the most enormously bad patches of land in rural areas. One sees farmers longing for some house builder to apply for permission to build on their land without telling them so as not to upset the local environmental lobby. The house builder would come back and say, "I say, sir. We've got some good news for you. We can get you planning permission for your house. We'll do a joint venture on your land". The farmer will say, "I didn't mean to do this. I'm a farmer. I'm part of the community".
The building of a good house and homethey are not necessarily one and the sameis one of the duties of government. I look at the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wondering whether he can be a Harold Macmillan. Harold Macmillan said that he would build houses every year and that was the most important thing. At the moment, building houses at the right priceat the right cost for peopleis the right thing. How do you do it?
We are not necessarily going about it the right way. Forty or 50 per cent of the costs of a house is often the land. There must be a way whereby under Section 52, Section 106or whatever we may call itthat land may be put into the pot and the end price reduced, not instantly but for a long period of time because there are no land costs.
If we look at house builders, and I consider my own lot, we have to go out and spend maybe £40 million per year to buy a strategic land bank in order to be able to keep building houses. How much nicer if in some areas the Government would sit down, as they do, with house builders and say, "With our plan there are areas where we think it would be right, where there is a good local community and a council that wishes to have things".
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Although it may be the voluntary sector, I believe that there is a will in the country for people in the commercial world to work that one out. I repeat to the Minister that buy-to-let is a moral and acceptable notion. Throughout Europe people are better off putting their money and savings into houses that they can let that may be passed on to children, family or those at universities.
I wonder whether we might think of a radical policy whereby those in retirement who buy homes may not be taxed on the income from them; a TESSA for houses or something of that sort. Ultimately, whichever way we look at it, we are talking about money. I could repeat the words of my noble friend Lord MacGregor and point out that there are not enough surveyors or people in the land who could undertake the work proposed in the Bill; and more than that, there is not enough insurance capacity in PI insurance to permit that to happen.
Some of your Lordships may have had to help people who have had a survey that went wrong, with dry rot, deathwatch beetle, cockroaches and everything in the book. They turn to the surveyor on whom they spent £1,000, and he says, "It's not my fault", he disappears into the sunset, his professional indemnity insurance takes over and we hear no more about it.
I wish the Minister well because I believe that his heart is in the right place. The Bill may be over-bureaucratic, but during its progress let your Lordships make it work for once rather than all the previous legislation that has ended up half finished.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I want to speak on Part 5 on the home information pack, in common with many of your Lordships. As the last on the list of the Bank Benchers after the 10 o'clock watershed, which I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, for taking me safely past, I am glad that I am going to talk about something on which no noble Lord has touched on so far.
I should declare some interests, first, as chief executive of the Environment Agency, but alsostrangely enoughas an honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Those organisations are not of one mind on the issue, so I am probably free from the prejudices of either.
I commend the home information pack provisions in the Bill in principle. I believe that they can make a contribution to simplifying and speeding up the selling and buying process. More particularly, I want to consider two other important reasons for the home information pack being worthwhile pursuing and for a systematic examination of the details with a view to making it a practical possibility rather than thinking up every reason in the book for it not happening, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, did.
The home information pack and especially the home condition report are an opportunity for homebuyers to benefit from knowing about a range of material issues associated with the environment and the property in
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which they are interested. The pack will have to contain information on energy efficiency. That has benefits for prospective purchasers in terms of the size of future utility bills but also for the impact that they will be making on climate change, the greatest environmental threat facing us all.
About one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions are associated with energy use and domestic energy use is one of the sectors that continues to rise. Homebuyers should also be enabled through the home improvement pack to know about other environmental issues associated with the property that they plan to buy; for example, it is vital that they understand their flood risk status. They need to understand what the flood risk to that property is, what can be done to alleviate it and what impact it will have on the insurance costs for the property.
Alongside the Bill, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is consulting on the content of the home information pack, which will be subject to secondary legislation. I encourage the Minister to include all the environmental data in it as material for a house purchaser; otherwise we are really asking house buyers to buy an environmental pig in a poke.
The pack is one of the few opportunities to influence the resource efficiency of existing housing stock. Very simple steps may be taken to improve the environmental performance of homes, often at a very low cost. That is particularly true of water efficiency. Some parts of the south and east of England already have less water available per head of population than countries which noble Lords would regard as arid, such as the Sudan. There are big increases in house building proposed for those parts of the country, which will put even more pressure on water resources. We must make the housing stock more water efficient.
The Sustainable Buildings Task Force reported recently to ODPM and showed how water savings of up to 26 per cent can be achieved by installing more water-efficient fittings and appliances. Where water meters are installed, saving water also reduces bills by as much as 10 to 20 per cent. The information in the home information pack on the water efficiency status of a property should encourage householders to see water efficiency as an important issue and to take steps to increase the saleability of property by water efficiency measures, thereby reducing the impact on the environment and on their bills.
The home condition report could be an opportunity for water companies to promote water metering at change of occupancy, without the knee-jerk reaction that they fear at the momentunwisely, I sometimes think. That would mean that there could be savings for householders and for the water environment as greater water meter penetration happened automatically at change of hands.
There are opportunities for the future. It would be impossible in the near future for there to be a reliable eco-labelling system for existing housing stock, showing its environmental efficiency overall. However, work is going on with the Building Research Establishment's eco-homes standard, which could
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make that a possibility in future. Will the Minister reassure me that the terms of the home information pack are drawn in such a way that there is an opportunity to include eco-labelling, or some sort of environmental kite-marking scheme in future?
Buying a home is often one of the most financially important decisions that people make; it is also one of the most environmentally important decisions, determining some of the biggest environmental impacts that we make as individuals throughout our lives. The home improvement pack can help home buyers to reduce bills, can reduce their environmental risk and can protect the environment.
As the Minister saidand certainly with respect to Part 5this is a good Bill with a lot of good things in it. I hope that I can encourage the Government to include even more good things, in the Bill itself and in the secondary legislation.
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