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

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.