Blight at the end of the tunnel: The Government must act to stop homes being robbed of their value, says Andrew Rowe

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The Independent Online
NEXT week the Government will reveal its preferred route for the Channel tunnel rail link from London to Folkestone. The announcement will herald a renewed spate of attacks by a robber whose name is Blight.

Created and sustained by government, this mugger stalks the land, attacking thousands of British citizens each year. As with most crimes, his are easier to describe than to prevent, but the time has surely come to give them more priority in the centres of power.

This is how our mugger goes about his business. First, a proposal for a major construction project is made public by the Government. Instantly, hundreds of houses lose value. Many of them lose all their value because, throughout the time that the project is under discussion, prospective purchasers will not even come to the area to see whether the property being offered for sale is appropriate to their needs. No matter how far from the road or railway the house may be, it is enough that the postal address is in the area likely to be affected by the project.

Are a young couple in their one-bedroom starter home expecting their second baby? No matter, our mugger does not care. Let them stay where they are or make a distressed sale, even if that leaves them without the capital to buy a new home. Are they, encouraged by government rhetoric to start a business, thinking of raising capital against their house? Too bad, their house suddenly has insufficient value to comfort the bank.

Have an elderly pair reached the stage where they need to move closer to their son or daughter in order to keep themselves out of a residential home? Tough, the mugger has stripped them of the opportunity.

But perhaps the blight will only last for a short time? After all, many of us have to accept temporary fluctuations in the value of our homes. Don't you believe it. It takes, on average, 13.7 years for a road project to advance from its first tentative route proposal to the cutting of the first sod on what may be a two- or three-year construction programme.

The Channel tunnel rail link is only five years into its tortuous journey towards completion and even the most optimistic forecast suggests there are another eight to go. This means that a baby on whose first birthday a project was published will be 15 before the home in which he or she has been brought up stands any chance of recovering its value.

The average household in Britain stays six years in a home before moving on; yet we expect families blighted by public works to wait at least two and a half times that long to regain their chance of selling at a reasonable price.

Nobody who has seen the misery and despair of families arbitrarily stripped of the value of their homes can rest easy with the present situation.

In my constituency there are whole villages whose names alone are enough to prevent potential purchasers from even visiting a property. It does not matter that it can be demonstrated that the proposed link will not pass anywhere near the house in question; it is in the village and that's enough.

Because these great schemes take so long to bring to fruition, a potentially bold purchaser will reflect that, if he or she needs to sell, the same off- putting circumstances will discourage the next buyer. Who is going to risk their capital on such a prospect?

Thus it is not simply a matter of reducing the asking price a little, or a lot. Even at a give- away price, few buyers can be found. And it is not fair to expect families to give away the only asset they may own, especially when they are then left, in most cases, with the mortgage still to repay.

It is my belief, based on years of dealing with distressed constituents, that many of them would sell at a substantially lower price than they would expect for the same property unblighted, if only they could sell now. It is also well-known that, once a project has been completed and its effects can be seen, the price of most affected properties rises substantially.

What we need, therefore, is a purchaser of last resort with pockets deep enough to wait for the rise in price that completion of the project brings. What inducement would a large institution require to buy at, say, 15-20 per cent off, lease the property for a number of years, then sell it on?

The Government has a moral duty to use its best endeavours to find and encourage buyers who would be prepared to do what they could to relieve this increasingly common form of distress. The very reason why governments of all persuasions have always been unwilling to intervene - that the numbers affected are so great - is a powerful argument for action. It is intolerable that one group of the population should be impoverished for the benefit of the rest of us, without any hope of help or redress.

What is more, few of those robbed in this way can be accused of carelessness. They haven't walked late at night down a notorious alleyway, or drunk too much at a student party. What can we say, for example, to people blighted for the foreseeable future by the proposal to build a line which the Government's chosen agent, British Rail, swore to the select committee on the Channel tunnel that it would not need? Are these people imprudent to have stayed in their houses, or to have bought them? Of course not, but they have been robbed nevertheless, and it is time that serious measures were considered to help them and thousands like them.

It may be, for example, that house-buyers should have to take out blight insurance with approved insurers. Those insurers, in return for this inflow of funds, would be required to establish a blight management company which would, after clear evidence that a property has been rendered effectively unsaleable by blight, be required to buy it at the market price for similar unblighted properties, minus a certain percentage, then manage the property as they saw fit until that blighting project had been completed or abandoned and the price had risen again.

In one way or another, Burglar Blight should be removed from the land by the action of the Government that creates him. If we are serious about crime, let's start in the Government's own backyard.

The author is MP for Mid Kent.

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