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

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.