The equity release market could treble in the next five years, according to the largest player in the sector.

Norwich Union told Reuters that the value of the equity release sector could balloon to some 2 billion pounds by 2009 and 3 billion pounds by 2011 from a current 1 billion pounds.

But that, said Daren Carter, director of sales and marketing for Norwich Union Personal Finance the group's equity release business would only be achieved if High Street lenders entered the market, hitherto regarded as niche.

They seem to be reticent, because of what they see as regulatory risk, said Carter. But it's quite key that they do come into the market it won't grow in the short term unless we see that growth in distribution.

Norwich Union is the largest player in the sector, currently commanding a market share of around 30 percent, followed by Northern Rock. Smaller players include GE Life, Scottish Widows and Standard Life.

More mainstream lenders have so far eschewed the sector. However, HSBC recently launched a pilot equity release service and the Royal Bank of Scotland has made a tentative move into the sector.

HSBC said in March it would offer an equity release service through its branches, referring interested customers to adviser In Retirement Services although it does not yet offer products itself.

A month later, NatWest, part of the RBS group, moved into the market. But its lifetime mortgage product is available only to existing customers.

However, the professional body for the sector, Safe Home Income Plans (SHIP), predicted at the beginning of this year that a number of High Street operators would enter the market.

Names it mooted included Halifax, Barclays and Nationwide, as well as HSBC and RBS.

Carter said the arrival of major brands in the sector would normalise the market, so it's not so niche and help to unlock some of the 1.1 trillion pounds tied up in the homes of those aged over 60.

The amount of money tied up in property (in the UK) is huge, he said yet there's not massive penetration of equity release.

Product innovation such as the emergence of products that start as traditional mortgages, but switch to lifetime mortgages as homeowners reach retirement would also drive the growth of the market, he added.

The equity release market has grown exponentially surging almost 570 percent from just 150 million pounds eight years ago.

However Carter said the market had been flat for the past three years.

More cases are being written we're seeing growth of 10 percent year on year, driven by draw-down products but the initial value is lower (than in the past), so in terms of value it's been pretty flat for three years or so.

He stressed that equity release was not a panacea for all ills, but called for a more rational debate on the role it could play in boosting retirement income and mitigating inheritance tax.

There are two main types of equity release lifetime mortgages and reversion schemes. The former are regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), and allow retired homeowners to secure a loan against their property.

Reversion schemes involve the property owner selling all or part of their home to a provider to receive either a lump sum payment or a regular income in return. These schemes are yet to be regulated, but plans are under way to bring them under the FSA's remit.