Blair lays claim to homeowners

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Indy Politics
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair attempted to present Labour as the party of home ownership yesterday, calling the Tories "the homewreckers' party". But he found himself mocked for proposing policies already on offer from building societies.

Mr Blair accused the Government of "tearing up its contract" with homeowners by cutting mortgage tax relief, raising taxes and adding to job insecurity.

But Michael Heseltine, the deputy prime minister, delivered a swashbuckling rebuke in the Commons to Labour's plan to deal with the problem of negative equity, seizing on Mr Blair's suggestion that mortgage lenders should offer loans of more than the value of houses so that borrowers with a good repayment record can move house. Waving a pile of building society brochures, he declared: "They've all got the schemes. They are already there, doing it. The market has spoken. Tory government works."

Mr Blair had earlier told a Labour housing conference in London: "I fully understand the very human aspiration to own your own home." And he said he was "the first to acknowledge the successes of the Right to Buy", the Tory policy of offering discounts to council tenants which was bitterly opposed by Labour in the early 1980s.

Presenting new Labour as the party to "restore the shattered confidence of homeowners and those who want to buy", he set out a series of measures to get the housing market moving again.

n More "lifestyle" mortgages, to suit self-employed or contract workers, which allow people to postpone repayments during temporary loss of income.

n More mortgages for more than 100 per cent of valuations to help those suffering negative equity to move.

n A "staircase" between owning and renting to allow people to move from one to another according to their circumstances.

n League tables of commission and fees charged by mortgage lenders.

n The selling of mortgages to be subject to the requirement to give best advice as now applies to pensions under the Financial Services Act.

n Leaseholders to get a "right to manage" their properties if rogue landlords failed to do so.

n Bringing in "commonhold" as a new form of tenure for collective ownership of flats.

The last two measures command cross-party support. The "right to manage" is in the Housing Bill at present going through Parliament, but commonhold has been waiting for parliamentary time for some years.

Diana Maddock, Liberal Democrat MP for Christchurch, attacked Mr Blair's speech: "Yet again all we are seeing a bland wish list, more warm words and waffle - Labour would rely on goodwill from lenders to solve all the problems." The Liberal Democrats demand the restoration of social security help with mortgage payments for the unemployed - taken away by the Government last year.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair backed up his attack on the Government's housing record with a visit to a south London couple caught in the negative equity trap. Dani Johnston-Jones, 40, bought her Camberwell studio flat on a 100 per cent mortgage for pounds 63,000 in 1990 - but the best figure an estate agent can now offer her is pounds 31,000.

Mr Blair said: "Of course we cannot wave a magic wand and say everything will be all right but at least we can make a start and help people in extreme difficulties."

Leading article, page 14

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