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.

 

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.