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Richard Fox: Professional standards board would restore trust

Richard Fox

The latest predictions for the coming year suggest we are at last entering a period of lending growth.

Continuing low interest rates mean that borrowers are typically having to commit proportionally less of their disposable incomes to servicing their mortgages, and whilst lenders still require significant deposits it is forecast that all lending will continue to grow with significant funding being available to first-time buyers.

The supply of money is, however, only one part of the problem. The supply of properties remains an issue and in spite of Government promises to relax planning laws there is still little evidence that supply is being increased to any level that will meet the demand created by changing lifestyles and population growth.

Demand in the South East will continue to exceed to supply for the foreseeable future and will only be corrected if economic growth can be encouraged in other parts of the UK where the pressure on housing is less intense.

It must also be recognised that the growth in the rental market is not solely caused by the availability of mortgage funding, especially given that many rental portfolios are supported by borrowing.

Maybe too much emphasis has been placed on the economic fundamentals of supply and demand and not enough thought given to the factors that have discouraged individuals from committing to house ownership.

Economic uncertainties have certainly been a major factor in creating a culture of uncertainty, but equally the various scandals besetting many parts of financial services have left consumers nervous.

Re-building trust in this area is going to need a concerted effort to change many aspects of behaviour. Numerous enquiries have clearly shown what needs to be done and some steps have been taken to correct the worst excesses in terms of both behaviour and product design.

It will, however, need more than pious announcements which have too frequently been shown to be broken promises in the past. Firms and individuals need to demonstrate over time that they are truly committed to serving the needs of their clients.

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is taking evidence in advance of making recommendations and will surely lead to a regime in which everyone must take full responsibility for their actions.

The solution is very obviously a Professional Standards Board that can look at practitioner behaviour and publicly sanction those who are found wanting. Other professions operate these sorts of regimes which are fundamental to creating and maintaining client trust.

Ultimately the industry cannot continue to shield those who do not come up to the highest professional standards. Only by taking decisive and effective action will it be possible to convince consumers that the industry is there to serve their interests.

It is important that the ultimate solution receives the full support of everyone engaged in the sector and if there are any who seek to avoid their responsibilities they should be excluded from client engagement.

Richard Fox is chief executive of the Society of Mortgage Professionals

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