Leading article: How ministers turned a help into a hindrance

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The Independent Online

Home Information Packs started out as a good idea intended to make life easier, but they have turned into a bad idea that threatens to make life more complicated. Precisely how this happened deserves a study all of its own, but it can be summed up in two words - weak government.

The original concept was simple. Anyone wanting to sell a property would be obliged to compile something akin to a logbook that would bring together the salient information. This would include copies of title deeds, the results of the local authority search, a structural survey, relevant planning details, and an energy performance certificate - a European Union requirement.

The HIP placed the onus on the seller to establish the property's saleability. Where it had formerly been the duty of the buyer to verify the basic facts, responsibility for collecting this information, and for its veracity, would now pass to the seller. The thinking was that this would streamline the ponderous process of buying and selling in England and Wales.

Two of the most time-consuming aspects of buying and selling - the survey and the search - would already have been done. The prospective buyer could make an offer with that information already in hand; the sale could then proceed, as in many countries of the world, with a very limited set of conditions providing legal justification for either party to pull out. Much of the uncertainty would thus be removed - many opportunities for gazumping, too. The HIP would also, in theory, have cut duplication. At present, when a sale falls through for whatever reason, the new buyer has to arrange (and pay for) his own search and survey. The same property may thus be subject to a series of searches and surveys designed to elicit the same information. The HIP would belong to the house, not the buyer.

Clearly, had the system been introduced as conceived, a lot less surveying and searching would have been needed, and conveyancers' "billable hours" would have been reduced. Not surprisingly, perhaps, diverse lobbies ganged up against the HIPs, professing concern for buyers' interests. They also called into question the energy assessment, seen as doubly suspect because of its association with Brussels. The system was also said to be "unfair" on sellers, even though most sellers are also buyers and stood to benefit in turn.

Even though HIPs were a manifesto commitment and house-buying a preoccupation of many voters, the Government seemed to lack conviction in what could have been a popular improvement - and should have been presented as such. Instead, training of the new inspectors languished, as trainers and recruits doubted ministers' commitment. The survey, a key element, was dropped, so that the logbook parallel lost its validity. In May, with only days to go, the Government postponed introduction for two months, and only then for houses with four bedrooms or more. Cue the estate agents' redefinition of a four-bedroom house as a three-bedroom house, with study.

This HIP becomes a legal requirement from today. It is not at all clear when, or even whether, HIPs will become compulsory across the housing market. Yet until they are, there is no real incentive for anyone to make them work. They will be an expense resented by those who have to pay for them, an anomaly in the market, and - without the survey - deficient in the very information that could have speeded sales. The Government should either have abandoned the HIP when it gave up on the survey or stood by the original intent. The version that comes into force today is a pale reflection of what it could have been. In the language ministers understand, these HIPs are simply not fit for purpose.