Conveyancing Association urges Welsh Government to go ‘further’ and ‘faster’ in opening up housing market

The Conveyancing Association (CA), the leading trade body for the conveyancing industry, has today urged the Welsh Government to go ‘further’ and ‘faster’ in opening up its housing market, suggesting that it now needs to follow the same approach and protocols which have been in place in the English market since mid-May.

Last Friday, the Welsh Government announced a partial reopening of the housing market in Wales from the 22nd June meaning:

  • All house moves can go ahead where the residential property has been unoccupied i.e. vacant for at least 72 hours.
  • House moves can take place where a sale has been agreed but not yet completed.
  • The marketing and viewing of unoccupied residential property can take place.
  • Valuations and inspections of occupied residential property are allowed but should be done so safely and in line with the Welsh Government’s guidance on working in someone’s home.

However, the CA believes this does not go far enough, as the Welsh Government has specifically said house moves where the residential property is occupied are still not able to go ahead. Estate agents are able to market these properties but are only allowed to carry out virtual viewings.

The Welsh Government said a further review of the situation will take place in three weeks, which the CA argues would mean the Welsh property market was a full two months behind England and mean a significant and ongoing impact on Welsh property businesses, particularly conveyancing firms and estate agents only active in Wales.

The CA says, that with the English market now functioning well, and with protocols and Guidance in place to ensure the safety of all property market participants including those in occupied properties, there is no reason why the Welsh Government cannot follow suit.

Recent figures from TwentyCi, the homebuying marketing and behaviour agency, for the English property market show levels of new instructions and properties sold subject to contract (SSTC) both well in advance of 2019 norms. In the third week of June, both were up by 15% on 2019 with 36,793 new property listings and 29,383 SSTC cases.

By contrast, the Welsh housing market is running at far below its 2019 norm. Again, TwentyCi data reveals that, for the first three weeks of June, new instructions of 2,387 meant they were 40% down on the same period in 2019, while SSTC were 51% down at 1,337.

Lloyd Davies, Operations Director of the Conveyancing Association, commented:
“The English housing market has now benefited from having been open for over six weeks longer than its Welsh counterpart, and it seems clear that for every day the Welsh Government takes its current piecemeal approach, the Welsh property market, all stakeholders, consumers and the entire Welsh economy will continue to suffer.

“We understand why the Welsh Government is adopting a cautious approach to the COVID-19 pandemic but there are incredibly tight protocols in place for English properties which keep all parties as safe as possible, and there is a real danger by not adopting these, and going further and faster than its current approach, that the impact on Welsh housing market stakeholders will be even more devastating.

“In an environment where people are able to shop freely – albeit with social distancing in place – it seems odd that the housing market cannot be opened up beyond an ability to view and sell unoccupied properties.

“The recent Guidance for consumers, property professionals and conveyancing firms, fully supported by the CA, was drafted to ensure that this doesn’t need to be the case and, as the English market’s experience shows us, the positive impact has been significant.

“At present, and even with this partial reopening, we are well behind the English market, and with any new transactions likely to take 16 weeks to complete, the impact on the Welsh economy to be able to restart effectively will be damaged severely. Plus, the ability to complete Welsh transactions is going to be difficult because many Welsh conveyancing firms are still not functioning effectively because of lockdown.

“In this situation, a softly-softly approach is not sufficient and we would urge the Welsh Government to learn the lessons of what is happening over the border, the benefits it can bring, and to implement a similar approach before the damage becomes even greater.”

Castle Trust rebrands as Castle Trust Bank

Following the receipt of a full banking licence and the successful conversion of all of its existing investments into savings accounts, Castle Trust is pleased to launch its new brand identity.

The firm will now operate as ‘Castle Trust Bank’, with a new logo and revamped website to showcase the new offering.

The company will initially offer savings products to existing customers reinvesting maturing funds and expects to launch new savings products for new customers in late July. The existing specialist property lending and Omni Capital Retail Finance arms will continue to offer the same services, with enhanced offerings to come later this year. The business expects to grow its specialist lending arm significantly as the market emerges from Covid19, working with brokers to respond to borrower needs and reaching more brokers through clubs and networks. There are also plans to expand the Omni Capital Retail Finance offering later in the year.

Martin Bischoff, Chief Executive Officer said: “This was a natural next step for us. Castle Trust has come a long way since the company was founded, growing to serve 200,000 borrowers and savers so we already benefit from a loyal customer base, who have indicated that they would like to do more business with us as we enhance our product range. As we step into the banking world, it seemed fitting that our brand would evolve to reflect that change too. Becoming ‘Castle Trust Bank’ sets out our stall as a fixture within the banking industry and gives us a platform from which to launch our new propositions.“

SDL Surveying reveals positive results for May

National residential surveying and valuations firm, SDL Surveying, has today revealed a positive set of results for May for both physical and desktop valuations carried out during the month.

SDL Surveying returned to physical inspections on properties in England on the 13th May, following the Government’s easing of lockdown restrictions.

From that point, and where appropriate, SDL replaced desktop valuations with physical inspections although the business still continues to carry out thousands of desktop valuations.

During May, despite physical inspections only resuming partway through the month completed jobs reached 71% of pre-COVID levels. Of those valuations, 28% were through SDL Surveying’s desktop valuation product, while the remainder were for physical valuations.

All SDL surveyors must complete a specific post-lockdown inspection procedure – approved by SDL’s lender clients – and each has received their own Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) which is to be changed after each appointment, to ensure a safe environment for both its surveyors and customers.

SDL has also found that consumer demand remains strong with its operational team experiencing high call volumes while still maintaining an extremely high service level with no dropped calls.

To keep on top of any changes, SDL Surveying said it continues to engage with the Government, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and to take into account all feedback from its own surveyors in order to amend and refine its procedures accordingly.

Simon Jackson, Managing Director of SDL Surveying, commented: “While the decision last month to ease lockdown took a number of our peer group by surprise, we had always planned and prepared for a ‘quick return’ and, as our numbers for May suggest, we were able to hit the ground running from the 13th of the month.

“Since then we’ve built up our capacity and, while we still continue to carry out thousands of desktop valuations, once again the vast majority of our work is now taken up by physical valuations.

“Carrying these out is a challenge in itself, and we have been very focused on ensuring both our surveyors and customers are as safe as possible when they visit properties. This has resulted in a gargantuan logistical effort resulting in our staff using an astonishing 50,000 pairs of gloves, 3,500 masks and 300 gallons of hand sanitiser.

“The hard work of all the teams at SDL cannot be understated in this context, and having worked through our lockdown pipeline, we are now carrying out new inspections on instructions that have been received since the Government announced its easing.

“Working closely with our lender clients, our aim is now to build on the results we achieved in May and to continue to do our bit to support the mortgage and housing market as we seek a move back towards pre-COVID activity levels.”

The FCA, the Treasury and the Bank of England must ensure their approach to forbearance and support for lenders are developed together

The FCA, the Treasury and the Bank of England must ensure their approach to forbearance and support for lenders are developed together.

Commenting on the publication of new proposals from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to extend payment deferrals for another three months in the personal loan, credit card and other revolving credit markets, Stephen Haddrill, Director General of the Finance & Leasing Association said: “Helping customers through this difficult period remains a priority for lenders, but with more parts of the economy reopening, lenders also have a responsibility to transition customers back to regular payments where possible. The FCA’s advice to customers to consider carefully if a further payment deferral is really the best option is important.

“The cost of forbearance is already at unprecedented levels. The FLA has sought urgent assistance from Government to enable lenders to continue to provide affordable lending to consumers and businesses through the crisis and during the recovery. The FCA, the Treasury and the Bank of England must ensure their approach to forbearance and support for lenders are developed together.”

FCA ‘right to give more time’ to consumer credit customers impacted by Covid-19

The Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, has welcomed proposals from the Financial Conduct Authority that will see continued support for people with credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans whose finances have been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.

The proposed measures include:

  • Requiring firms to contact credit card and loan customers on payment freezes to establish if they can resume payments
  • Ensuring that those still facing financial difficulty due to Covid-19 are offered freezes or reduced payments for a further three months
  • Allowing overdraft customers to request up to £500 interest-free overdraft for a further three months
  • Extending the time that customers can apply for payment freezes or an interest-free overdraft until 31st October, to cover customers impacted by Covid-19 at a later date

The announcement follows the FCA’s extension of support for mortgage holders announced at the end of May, with the regulator confirming that separate guidance covering further relief on other forms of consumer credit will follow.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, said: “The FCA is right to give more time for people who are struggling to make credit card and loan payments as a result of Covid-19, and the extension of interest-free overdrafts for a further three months is also welcome.

“The financial shock to households that the outbreak has caused is like nothing we have seen before, and we expect debt problems to increase significantly in the months ahead. We are pleased that these measures apply not only to customers who have already taken up support, but those who will unfortunately become affected in the coming months.

“While these measures clearly cannot last forever, many people are going to need support beyond even this extended period – and we need to make sure that these customers get the support and advice they need as their finances recover from the outbreak.”

Paradigm Mortgage Services announces annual results

Paradigm Mortgage Services, the mortgage services proposition, has today (17th June 2020) announced its annual results for the 2019-20 year with strong growth in membership numbers, revenue and gross lending completions.

Paradigm Mortgage Services is an operating division of Tatton Asset Management plc, the investment management and IFA support services group, which has announced its audited final results for the year ended 31 March 2020.

During the 12 months Paradigm:

  • Increased the number of member firms by 10.9%, up to 1,544 from 1,392 at the end of March 2019.
  • Grew its associated gross lending completion figures by 17.5% to £9.86 billion, from £8.39 billion.
  • Increased its mortgage application gross lending figures by 19.7% to £10.89 bn.
  • Grew procuration fee income by 19%.

Paradigm Protect, the directly authorised protection proposition, wrote £14.7m in annual premiums, which was up 22% on the previous year. The total income generated on Life and GI business was £658k, an 11% year-on-year increase. The number of policies written increased 36% on the previous year.

During the year, Paradigm Mortgage Services amalgamated with Paradigm Consulting – the Group’s financial support consultancy which offers compliance and regulatory support to firms – with combined revenue increasing 9.6% to £5.426m (2019: £4.949m).

The number of firms using Paradigm Protect was up by 23.7% during the year to 662 (2019: 535), while those using Paradigm Consulting increased to 394, from 385 at the end of September 2019, an increase of 2.3%.

Paradigm recently launched a offer to directly authorised (DA) firms with up to six months’ free compliance support available for new users. New firms signing up to the Paradigm proposition will now be eligible for either three, or six, months’ free compliance support, depending on the length of the contract they sign up to – either two or three years.

Bob Hunt, Chief Executive of Paradigm Mortgage Services, commented: “In a very true sense, the 2019-20 year was book-ended by two very different, but incredibly challenging, events. The first half was framed by Brexit and General Election uncertainties and we finished the year dealing with the overwhelming impact of COVID-19, with the recent lockdown restrictions making the completion of mortgages very difficult indeed.

“Even with those challenges – which are still ongoing – we are very pleased to announce a strong set of yearly results for our Mortgage Services, Protection and Consulting businesses.

“Membership growth across all three has been particularly pleasing and this has helped deliver these excellent results, specifically in terms of gross lending completion figures, procuration fee income growth, protection policies written, revenue and profit.

“We’re all acutely aware that the return to any sort of housing/mortgage market ‘normality’ will take time but we continue to provide significant levels of support and advice to our member firms about how they can work through this period and continue to write business and generate income.

“It is still difficult to forecast what the likely total impact will be, however my team and I are determined to continue to work towards delivering a high level of service and support to our growing and first-rate intermediary businesses, and in turn their clients.

“We are fortunate to have an experienced and efficient staff within our Compliance, Mortgage, Protection and Technical functions and we remain in very good shape not just to navigate our way through this situation, but to deliver continued growth across all key metrics.”

MCI Club enhances onboarding with Knowledge Bank integration

MCI Club has integrated its digital broker platform Burrow into Knowledge Bank’s API to provide brokers with up-to-date criteria information when qualifying new and existing mortgage customers.

Through the Burrow platform, potential borrowers coming from search engines, a broker’s website or other channels, by answering just a small set of questions, will receive a qualified, personalised mortgage report. This is then available to the broker, enabling them to engage effectively with the customer.

The mortgage report uses a combination of product, affordability and criteria sourcing data. The Knowledge Bank integration provides more qualified and up-to-date eligibility information so that customers receive the widest possible range of representative options.

With a number of back-office integrations and notification options available to the broker, Knowledge Bank’s inclusion into the platform continues to enhance the qualification and onboarding journey for customers seeking mortgage advice. The integration also enables Burrow to scale its coverage of lenders and criteria more rapidly.

Pradeep Raman, Director of Digital Solutions at DPR Group, owners of the MCI Club and Burrow commented, “Burrow is about bringing together best-in-breed technology solutions to provide truly unique ‘customer onboarding as a service’ to the mortgage market and reflecting how UK consumers are demanding to engage with financial services.

“Digitising the fact-find process, and providing borrowers with an engaging and detailed instant mortgage report, means that brokers can focus on what they do best: providing quality advice in a faster and slicker way. Burrow is there to help brokers stay ahead of the curve and ensure they are at the forefront of digital transformation in financial services.”

Nicola Firth, CEO of Knowledge Bank, said, “Innovative technology providers such as Burrow and MCI Club recognise the value that criteria data adds to the advice process. Knowledge Bank is the UK’s most comprehensive mortgage criteria search system.

“By integrating with Knowledge Bank, the Burrow digital broker experience translates responses from consumers and matches these against over 100,000 criteria from more than 200 lenders. The effect will be to take client qualification to a new level, providing a wholly unique consumer experience and enhancing the reputation of the brokers who use both Burrow and MCI Club.”

Head of MCI Club, Melanie Spencer, added, “Following the launch of the Burrow platform in March 2020, we’ve continued to onboard several broker firms onto Burrow and they are already receiving greater volumes of qualified enquiries as the mortgage market re-establishes itself after the COVID-19 lockdown. Knowledge Bank increases the credibility of the platform by providing more up-to-date and qualified data to the end-consumer, ensuring better and more relevant conversations with our member brokers.”

MAPS publishes corporate plan detailing key priorities and COVID-19 support

The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) has today published its Corporate Plan for 2020/21, outlining the organisation’s strategic priorities and its immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The plan was due to be published at the beginning of April but has been delayed to allow a review of how priorities will be flexed in response to the pandemic. These will continue to evolve as the Covid-19 situation unfolds. A cover note sets out this updated approach, which includes areas of short-term focus while also laying the groundwork for the delivery of the UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing in the next ten years.

Since the beginning of April, MaPS’ services have already supported nearly 99,000 customers online and on the phone. The three consumer websites – for the Money Advice Service, The Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise – have had nearly 7.5 million users.

This financial year MaPS will:

  • Create a movement of many different organisations working together towards the same ambitious goals, building on the extensive collaboration already contributing to the UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing.
  • Deliver for customers, by leading sector-wide initiatives to enhance the quality and capacity of guidance services, building on the foundations of MaPS’ legacy organisations (the Money Advice Service, The Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise), and by developing and implementing pensions dashboards.
  • Build strong foundations to create a great organisation for the future driven by values of caring, connecting and transforming.

Further MaPS activity already under way in response to the impact of Covid-19 on financial wellbeing includes:

  • Overseeing the delivery of additional debt advice and enhanced money guidance capacity across the sector, with £38m of additional funding announced by HM Treasury last week.
  • Adapting the guidance and support available to help consumers understand and work through the impacts of Covid-19 on their money and pensions
  • Convening partners and stakeholders to create a coordinated response to support people impacted by Covid-19, both immediately and in the longer term

Caroline Siarkiewicz, Chief Executive at the Money and Pensions Service, said: “The importance of transforming financial wellbeing across the UK has been forcefully brought home by events of the past few months. Covid-19 is a health emergency which will have a long-lasting impact on the finances of many, and it will impact some even more harshly than others. We already know women, ethnic minorities, young people and low-income workers are at particular risk.

“Our vision of everyone making the most of their money and pensions doesn’t just apply in the better times but is also about increasing resilience for when the bad times hit. To realise our vision, and make a real difference, we need to reach more people throughout their whole lives, an ambition which can only be achieved by working closely with our many, committed stakeholders and partners.”

Sir Hector Sants, Chair of the Money and Pensions Service, said: “Financial wellbeing is fundamental to personal wellbeing, from our physical and mental health to our relationships and ability to plan for the future. In these uncertain times, the Money and Pensions Service has a critical role to play in the UK response to Covid-19 and enabling everyone to make the most of their money and pensions. We welcome the additional funding provided by Government which will allow us to fund a significant increase in debt advice capacity – an important element of our response to the economic uncertainty arising from the outbreak.

“We are at a pivotal moment in our journey. We have a long-term vision, and a ten-year strategy to transform financial wellbeing across the UK which sets deliberately ambitious goals. In this plan for 2020/21 we set out not only how we will maintain progress towards these goals but also how we will respond to the current crisis, including boosting the provision of debt advice and mobilising dozens of partners as we prepare to take on the future challenges caused by the pandemic. Now we need to deliver so that we make a real difference to the lives of people across the UK.”

Castle Trust granted full banking licence

Following a period of authorisation with restrictions, Castle Trust Capital plc (Castle Trust) has been granted full authorisation as a bank by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

After being authorised with restrictions in March 2020, Castle Trust undertook extensive testing of its new savings system and asked its customers to vote on proposals to convert their existing investments into bank deposits. Castle Trust’s customers voted in favour with an overwhelming majority and the conversion will take place later this month.

Martin Bischoff, Chief Executive Officer said: “Being granted a full banking licence signals the start of the next phase of Castle Trust’s growth. Our first priority is to convert our 30,000 existing investment accounts into savings accounts, after which we look forward to launching our exciting new range of savings products in late July.

“The full banking licence opens up many new opportunities for the business, which we expect to benefit our specialist property finance and retail finance offerings. We already have 200,000 customers and look forward to helping even more in the future.

“We’ll be revealing details of our enhanced specialist property lending proposition shortly, which will build upon our existing offering to meet the needs of Buy to Let landlords and High Net Worth Individuals. Our new status enables us to work with a wider range of property brokers.

“The banking licence also offers great potential for growth within Omni Capital Retail Finance, which will help more retailers and small & medium sized businesses to provide their products and services to more consumers.”

Tim Hanford, Managing Director of J.C. Flowers & Co., Castle Trust’s majority shareholder said “Castle Trust’s achievement of a full banking licence is the culmination of a great deal of work over an extended period of time. The licence is the endorsement of the quality of this business at many levels. We have a terrific board and an exceptional team of people who deliver innovative products to our customers supported by a technologically advanced infrastructure with robust processes and controls. We look forward to continuing to be part of Castle Trust’s development and success, and remain excited by the opportunities for a nimble competitor in the UK banking market.”

Stonebridge continues to increase adviser numbers

Stonebridge, the mortgage and insurance network, has today (15th June 2020) announced an increase in appointed representative (AR) adviser recruitment numbers during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the lockdown, 26 new registered individuals joined the network, five of whom did so in May. This brought the number of total advisers within the network up to 693 across 340 firms, while Stonebridge said it anticipates 22 more advisers will be onboarded shortly.

Stonebridge said its continued investment in people and systems was paying dividends as its recruitment and onboarding teams had continued to deliver these results throughout the past few months, particularly in providing support for existing network members who were looking to grow their own adviser numbers.

Stonebridge also revealed positive levels of new business activity during May, especially after the easing of lockdown measures across the country.

It said the number of mortgage applications processed during the month was 12% ahead of budget, while the number of purchase mortgage applications had increased by 55% between April and May.

Despite its temporary office closures in Basildon, Milton Keynes and Nottingham, Stonebridge also emphasised that supporting its network members and advice quality remained the key priority, borne out by its Business Standards team receiving over 1,200 inbound calls, conducting 222 file checks and carrying out 133 observations during May alone and despite remote working.

In the same period, its Business Development team had carried out over 500 adviser calls, over 50 remote business and planning meetings, and conducted over 60 remote training sessions.

The network said that, given its ongoing ability to maintain quality and service levels via a remote working arrangement, coupled with the ongoing risk of COVID-19 infections, it had no plans to reopen any of its offices during June or July.

Rob Clifford, Chief Executive of Stonebridge, commented: “Getting to grips with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all businesses including ours, but we are incredibly pleased with the efforts of all our AR firms, the advisers, and the work of the Stonebridge team which has gone on despite the turmoil.

“To have materially increased our adviser numbers during this period is a fantastic result, down not only to the work of our recruitment team, but also those existing AR firms who are increasingly looking to add advisers to their businesses in order to meet demand.

“The easing of lockdown has undoubtedly had a positive impact on purchase activity levels and, while it is still early days, it has been very promising to see strong mortgage application numbers, particularly purchase cases, given the uncertainty about how consumers might respond.

“That said, these do of course remain very challenging times, particularly as we navigate our way through this situation, and we seek to overcome the obstacles presented by product availability and lender caution. What we can do as a network is to continue to support all our advisers through this process and to provide service excellence and tangible support to grasp the many opportunities.

“No one underestimates how different 2020 is turning out to be from any expectations the market had back in January, but by utilising everything Stonebridge has to offer we believe our advisory firms are very well-placed to come through this period in good shape.”