Clegg's policy to take money from pensions to pay for mortgages is madness

It's housing market madness, writes the IEA's Philip Booth

It is difficult to think of a policy that is as ill-conceived on so many levels as the coalition's announcement on Sunday to allow parents to guarantee their children's mortgages.

Housing is unaffordable today not because buyers are unable to secure yet more credit against the value of their house but because supply is constrained. Not long ago, the average house would have changed hands for three-to-four times average earnings; today, the vast majority of buyers have to pay five-to-seven times average earnings. If you pump more finance into a supply-constrained system, there can be only one result - yet higher prices.

Views differ on the causes of the financial crash and how to deal with the problems that the economy faces today, but one reaction of the government has been to bind banks up in ever-more regulation. Whether that is right or wrong, it is a deliberate policy decision in order to ensure that banks do not fail at the expense of the taxpayer in the future. This has made banks more risk averse. The response by the government has then been to directly take on the risks that the banks have refused, through schemes such as funding for lending or the proposed business bank. This is a bizarre policy. Banks are constrained in their own business models in order to prevent them failing at the expense of the taxpayer and, instead, the taxpayer is now taking on the risks directly.

Clegg's proposal to guarantee mortgages with pensions is another such instance of incoherent policy. In addition to the regulation of bank's capital discouraging banks from risky lending, the FSA is increasingly trying to rein in the provision of mortgage finance at high earnings multiples or high loan-to-value ratios. The government's new proposal seems to work precisely in the opposite direction. Clegg seems to be reasoning that, if everybody can secure their debts on everybody else's assets, then everything will be okay. Is that not the logic that gave us the financial crash in the first place?

Even in terms of the practical details, Clegg's plan seems crazy. Any pensioner who has already reached the age at which they can take their pension is entitled to secure their children's lending on any lump sum they choose to keep as an asset. As such, this proposal is only relevant to future pensioners. If a potential pensioner secures their child's mortgage on a lump sum which legislation prevents them from accessing until at least age 55 what will happen if the child defaults on the mortgage?

Presumably, either the lump sum will have to be taken early - which will cause havoc in terms of the relationship between the lump sum and the rest of the fund which is strictly controlled to prevent tax avoidance - or some complicated contingent loan arrangement will have to be set up. This will all require reams of legislation.

Clegg might also want to ask how many prospective pensioners are so well pensioned that they would be happy to put their pension pot at risk in this way. And, in turn, how many of those prospective pensioners would not, in any case, have a house against which they (or their children) could secure an additional loan for their children if they were so minded?

This is a completely crazy policy which actually works against many of the other things that the government is doing (in some cases probably wrongly) to try to create a more stable financial sector. Parents with assets should have no trouble securing loans for their children if they wish to do so. If banks and parents wish to freely enter an arrangement whereby a pension lump sum is taken into account when negotiating a loan, then so be it - but let's not have the government specially encourage it. The fact that policy proposals in the housing finance area are becoming more and more bizarre ought to focus people's attention on the real problem - the affordability of housing. We cannot make housing more affordable unless supply can respond to demand. Some readers may object to the policy consequences of liberalising development restrictions. However, we should be clear about the housing affordability consequences of not doing so.

Mortgages are advertised in a Halifax window. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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