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Banks: Bridging Finance

Volume 756: debated on Monday 20 October 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to encourage banks to provide bridging finance to asset-rich, cash-poor homeowners who wish to downsize, regardless of age.

My Lords, the Government are keen to encourage all those wishing to downsize, of whatever age, to do so. In the vast majority of cases, bridging finance should not be necessary. For older people, the major constraint to downsizing is often the lack of appropriate alternative accommodation. We are committed to increasing the flow of such housing on to the market, for example through the care and support specialised housing fund.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I do not agree with it. Older people are having major problems because where, years ago, bridging finance would have been available to anyone—particularly if they had big equity in a house and were moving to a less expensive house—there is now a strict age limit. It was 75 when I quoted it last time to someone in the Treasury; I checked it again, and it has gone to 70 now. In some cases, some of the banks I rang said it is 65. Does the Minister not think that there is a bit of age discrimination in this?

There is a problem with how banks deal with older people who are looking to move, but it has nothing to do with bridging finance in most cases. It is simply about transferring the mortgage from one property to another. The mortgage market review suggested that banks should have some discretion in those circumstances so that people would be able to remortgage on the same terms that they had before, but unfortunately, as in a number of other cases, the banks are interpreting this in a very rigid way, which is undoubtedly disadvantaging some people.

My Lords, will the Minister look out for a report on affordable downsizing, due to be released on 19 November by the APPG on this subject, which I chair? Will he note in particular the central recommendation that, like the right to buy for young people, we get a right to move for those of us in our extended middle age?

I certainly look forward to reading the report. I will be fascinated to see how that right might be translated into reality for a lot of people, but some local authorities are beginning to look imaginatively about how you help people to move. Very often, one of the big problems is just the physical challenges of sorting out the move, switching the bills and so on. Redbridge, for example, and a number of other authorities have started to provide a service to people who wish to downsize, to help them with all those mechanical arrangements which, for some people, prove to be the last straw in stopping them from downsizing.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that during the crisis when we changed from rates and the support grant to the community charge, there was a myth that there were many asset-rich but cash-poor people? It proved not to be true. We are again hearing this myth of asset-rich but cash-poor people, but if they are asset-rich, they should not need a mortgage, as they have enough equity in their present house to relocate.

My Lords, that is obviously the case for many people who have been in the same house for a long time. Some people entering retirement who still have a mortgage may require a mortgage if they are moving to a smaller property, but it is almost by definition going to be a smaller mortgage than the one they previously took out, given that there will have been some capital appreciation. One of the key challenges for us is that research shows that almost half of all over-55 households have spare space in the house. If we can facilitate downsizing where people genuinely want to do it, society as the whole will benefit.

Will my noble friend agree that older empty-nesters often wish to have their grandchildren or other visitors come to stay with them? There is a myth that when people downsize—which does free up housing for families—they somehow want to go into specialist, tiny homes for people with great needs at the end of their lives. That is not actually the key to unlocking family homes: the key is to provide something for people to move into that is appropriate to their needs and expectations. The problem is the fundamental shortage of housing of that sort.

My Lords, yes, I completely agree. It is important that those housing associations that provide specialist housing designed for older people—one of which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Stoneham—are encouraged to grow so that we can have more appropriately designed and sized accommodation.

My Lords, the House will have noticed the Government’s concern about this relatively marginal problem of the asset-rich. What about the asset-poor who are forced to downsize under government policy on the bedroom tax?

The noble Lord knows that 1.7 million households are waiting for social housing in the UK, and the spare room subsidy is intended to help move people into accommodation in those circumstances. I think that he would agree with me that the fundamental challenge that we in all parties face is how to increase the flow of housing, not just in aggregate but so that it is designed to meet the different requirements of different groups, including the elderly.

My Lords, other than a few of the more enlightened ones, banks are now refusing to provide mortgage loans to anyone over 70. It is very well to say that banks can exercise discretion here, but when they are told by the regulator that that is what the regulator wants, not surprisingly they want to protect themselves, so they say, “Well, we’ll do what we’re told”. If they do otherwise, they put themselves out on a limb if something goes wrong. Basically, the regulator needs to be advised to make it clearer that it wants to see banks use their initiative.

My Lords, as I said earlier, many lenders appear to be approaching the rules in a way that is against the spirit set out by the FCA. The FCA is reviewing the way the mortgage market review rules operate, and I hope that there will be some movement there. A number of banks and smaller building societies, in particular the Family Building Society and the Bath Building Society, of course do not have any age limits in their lending policies.