Help to Buy will inflate another housing bubble

One major part of the scheme, hurriedly brought forward by three months in an attempt to counter Labour’s populist announcements, is potentially toxic.

The Conservative Party has spent the past fortnight accusing Labour of reviving 1970s-style socialism in the form of policies such as a temporary freeze in energy prices. The irony is that it has done so while undertaking the largest-ever state intervention in the housing market. With the introduction of its Help to Buy scheme, the government that arrived in office committed to rebalancing the economy away from its reliance on property and private debt has adopted a policy that will encourage the reverse.

The first part of the scheme, which came into effect in April, is a justified intervention. By allowing buyers to borrow 20 per cent of the value of a new-build home worth up to £600,000, the government is seeking to incentivise housebuilding, which last year stood at its lowest level since the 1920s. After six months, it has had some success. In September, construction activity grew at its fastest rate since November 2003, helping to stimulate growth and employment.

It is the second part of the scheme, hurriedly brought forward by three months in an attempt to counter Labour’s populist announcements, that is potentially toxic. George Osborne, ostensibly a fiscal conservative, has issued £12bn of state guarantees for up to £130bn of mortgage lending. The offer applies to all properties, whether new-build or not, and will allow buyers to purchase homes worth up to £600,000 provided they make a deposit of at least 5 per cent.

In an attempt to emulate the success of Margaret Thatcher, whose Right to Buy council house scheme increased the Tories’ electoral fortunes among low- and middle-income groups, David Cameron has presented the intervention as one aimed at supporting first-time buyers. He declared during the Conservative conference: “As Prime Minister I am not going to stand by while people’s aspirations to get on the housing ladder are being trashed.”

Yet the early signs are that Help to Buy will do less to aid would-be buyers than Mr Cameron suggests. Those banks participating in the scheme are offering interest rates around 5 per cent, above the level that many can afford when average earnings are still 1.7 points below inflation. As such, the policy risks acting primarily as a subsidy for existing homeowners seeking to trade up or to borrow against the value of their property. Mr Osborne’s decision to set the cap for aid at £600,000, when the average house price is £172,000, is evidence that he is more concerned with creating a pre-election feel-good factor among Tory-leaning owners than he is with aiding firsttime buyers.

Even as it allows some to make it on to the ladder, the scheme risks blocking the route for others by further widening the gulf between prices and earnings.

David Cameron meets two first time buyers as the Government launches the Help to Buy scheme. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.