This bill is a complex, bitty one. Parts of it will be relatively plain sailing (the further tightening up of the conditions of right-to-buy, for example). But already two areas are promising to be difficult for the government. One is that old favourite of legislation, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, where it is accused of a piecemeal, inconsistent and timid approach. The government is contriving to introduce three separate schemes (mandatory licensing of larger HMOs; discretionary powers to councils to license smaller HMOs; and selective licensing of landlords in low-demand areas), which critics say is unnecessary, confusing and likely to leave the worst abuses untouched.
The second difficult area is subject to much more aggressive criticism. The Sellers Packs bit the dust when the last housing bill ploughed into the 2001 general election. Now they're back, relabelled Home Information Packs despite the continuing criticism that the whole notion has been inadequately tested, is costly, possibly obstructive to the very market it is trying to help and quite possibly unnecessary in the light of the information technologies that will speed up retrieval of essential documents.
The government maintains that although it is cheap, the process of selling and buying residential property in England and Wales is inefficient and unsatisfactory to the consumer because it is slow and the failure rates are high. The bill will require the vendor to compile a Home Information Pack on a property before advertising it for sale. The pack will contain items yet to be specified in regulation but is likely to include a local authority search, title deeds, Land Registry Office copy entries where relevant, a draft contract, and a home condition report completed by a certified inspector.
The first big question is the impact of the pack on the supply of housing and on prices, given the fears of some players in the market that they would act as a deterrent to bringing forward speculative sales. The government will be under pressure to do extensive pilot testing of the idea before it hazards a national roll-out. The second question is how long the packs last before they have to be rewritten, and should this be required only when a serious buyer has been found?
More serious are the doubts about the impact of the pack in areas of low demand – at the heart of the bill's rationale. A price of £550 (government estimate) or £850 (nearer everyone else's) for the pack is peanuts in leafy suburbs or desirable town-house squares, but in areas where houses can be sold for not much more than the cost of a corporate season ticket for Manchester United or Chelsea, the price is relatively big money. The government has not decided what to do – options include exempting defined areas, or properties below a certain price or derogating from some of the requirements of the pack or even subsidising the cost. The daftest of these options is the area exemption – it is difficult to imagine any action that would so indelibly categorise an area as beyond hope (and perhaps beyond a mortgage) than to remove the requirement to deliver a Home Information Pack.
Keith Hill faces the nightmare scenario: genuine individual interest in the issue by MPs; issues that have to be sorted out but about which the government is still undecided; the pressing argument that the idea is way behind its time in the light of developing IT, and the presence of real expertise in the Lords, where peers will be predisposed to give the bill their rigorous scrutiny, especially if the government timetables it tightly in the Commons.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and Ripon and a former Conservative housing minister.