Michael Vestey

About turn

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It must be a nightmare when you spend weeks making a current-affairs programme only to find that days before it’s broadcast the subject you’ve been exploring is turned upside-down. That’s what happened to Radio Four’s Inside Money, the sister programme to the excellent Money Box, almost a fortnight ago (Saturday, repeated Monday last week). The producers had put together a programme about the government’s ludicrous Home Information Packs, the HIPs, that are due to come into force next June, only for the crucial home inspections paid for by the vendors to be scrapped overnight as unworkable. We all knew that but at least this hopeless Labour government woke up to it in the nick of time.

So what did Inside Money do? The interviews had been done, the programme already put together. Well, they ran the original programme but topped and tailed it with the latest government decision. Quite what listeners made of it — hearing details of much of a plan that no longer existed — I don’t know, but Inside Money had little choice. At least we could hear for ourselves the impracticalities of this Alice-in-Wonderland scheme, something promoted enthusiastically by the then junior minister Nick Raynsford, though whether it was his idea or that of his former boss John Prescott I have no way of knowing. It has the marks of the buffoon Prescott all over it. Still, it gave the ridiculous Raynsford something to do, I suppose. Anyway, the more I listened to this programme the more insane the original scheme sounded.

The programme took a listener, Niall Connolly, to do the interviews. As it happened, he was in principle in favour of the HIPs, having made an original Inside Money programme about reforming the house-buying process. He’d been cross about having been gazumped and gazundered. Well, I thought, we all have, so what? It doesn’t need a new law, particularly a bad one like this. So in his researches for this programme, he talked to the various vested interests involved, including something called the AHIPP, the Association of Home Information Pack Providers, which was, until the government scrapped part of the scheme, piloting the project. Later that week, on The World at One, I think it was, I heard someone from this body whining about having lost a potentially lucrative income and demanding the taxpayer compensate all those future home inspectors who paid to be trained. More fool them, particularly as the Conservatives said that if they win the next election the project will be scrapped. According to the chap in charge of training, there were 4,400 inspectors being trained.

With less than a year to go before this madcap scheme was to come into existence, it emerged that there would be seven accreditation bodies in charge of certifying (in more ways than one) the home inspectors, but none had actually been created yet; nor had a statutory regulatory body been set up to judge whether or not people let down by a home inspector — not even a qualified surveyor — should be compensated. There was a hilarious moment when Connolly asked the man from the Council of Mortgage Lenders how the lenders would use the HIPs. Er, we don’t know, he said. All they did know was that the cost of selling a house would go up, as if it wasn’t expensive enough as it is. In order to save face, the government still intends to introduce HIPs next June but without the Home Condition Report. All the other nonsense will still be there — the vendors’ searches, and so on.

Poor Connolly. Three weeks earlier he interviewed the housing minister Yvette Cooper, a New Labour Stepford Wife if ever there was one, who defended robustly the HIPs only to find that they had, in his words, ‘eviscerated the project’. He felt ‘terribly let down’, but he is Scottish and where he comes from they think the government can solve any problem when we know perfectly well it can’t and that when it tries it makes everything much worse. He wondered why, nine years after he first broached the subject with Labour, there was precious little to show for it. I’m amazed he’s so naïve. It was obviously a delicious Labour cock-up that the rest of us could see coming from miles off. Whatever is in force next June, I suggest we all ignore it and continue to sell houses like we used to.