A Government scheme to help key workers buy homes in high-cost housing areas is to be extended from London to Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Soaring property prices over the past decade have made it impossible for many public sector workers to afford to purchase family houses close to where they work.

Housing Minister Yvette Cooper has singled out nurses, police officers, teachers, firefighters and prison officers among others as categories of employees who will be able to benefit from the affordable homes scheme.

Shared equity loans, with a mortgage top-up provided by the Government, could boost a typical family's purchasing power by 32.5 per cent and enable them to get on to the housing ladder, she said.

Currently, a family on a combined income of £40,000 could typically obtain a mortgage of £160,000.

But if eligible for the low-cost home ownership scheme, they could potentially buy a home worth about £200,000.

The part-buy part-rent scheme offers the opportunity to buy a share of a home, starting from as little as 25 per cent, and being able to increase that amount when affordable to do so. Ms Cooper said the Government's Homebuy agents, who provide a one stop shop affordable housing service, would work directly with employers in the region to raise awareness of the scheme and make it easier and simpler for employees to apply.

Applications for the low-cost home owner-ship programme have previously been limited to key workers in London and the South-east of England, where property prices are the highest in the country. Ms Cooper said the Government wanted to simplify the rules and launch a campaign to make it easier to get help.

A new national scheme giving key workers an automatic right to apply for help is being introduced. Up to now, they have qualified for support only if they meet conditions set by the Regional Assembly.

Ms Cooper said: "Over the last ten years, we have helped more than 80,000 families to buy an affordable home. But we want to do more.

"It is not just in the South-east where people face housing affordability pressures.

"That's why we want to make it easier for nurses, teachers, and other first-time buyers to get support to help them on to the housing ladder."

A recent Halifax survey showed first-time buyers are facing housing affordability pressures in most towns and cities across England.

The Government will invest £679 million to provide affordable and social homes in the West Midlands over the next few years, but has admitted more needs to be done.

Sara Woodall, director of housing at West Bromwich-based Accord Housing Association, said sales of shared ownership were increasing in the West Midlands despite a general turn-down in the market.

Ms Woodall added: "In the past 12 months we have seen more and more key workers either buying through shared ownership or exploring this as an option to get on the property ladder.

"People are much more aware of this way of buying homes now than previously and there is clearly a demand in the West Midlands.

"Rising prices in the region have made it harder and harder for people to own their own home and any policy which increase access to shared ownership is to be welcomed."