The tame TaxPayers' Alliance

When will the TPA go after the Conservatives' use of public patronage for party political purposes?

It's good to learn from Dan Hodges that the Yes to AV campaign is even worse than the TPA Team B, aka the No to AV, effort is. But here's a quick question for the original TaxPayer's Alliance, specifically its director, Matthew Sinclair.

You'll know what the grumbling has always been about the TPA. That you were far too tame in opposition. That, for all you moaned in private about Osborne's shadow treasury team being intellectually timid yet rigidly controlling, you, in the last parliament, did far too often pull your punches in response to demands from Matt Hancock and co to keep quiet.

Meaner people than me did, at the time, wonder whether TPA alumni -- having fallen for the idea that David Cameron would actually win an election against Gordon Brown -- were rather too dazzled by the prospect of SPADships (and other plums of patronage). And that, as a result, not everyone in the TPA was fully committed to being quite as offensive as your name might have had unrepentant Thatcherites hope you'd be. That is, to my mind, completely unfair. So what that we now have a government where a Conservative Chancellor bashes bankers and boasts about how much protection money he's squeezing out of them? These pre-emptive, long-term, trouble-storing-up rhetorical surrenders on behalf of the party leadership are hardly your fault. You've been fighting the good fight, even if it's not always been as awkward and unhelpful a fight as it might have been on every occasion. But here's the thing -- that quick question -- are you following the jobs?

You're very good at tracking waste in local government, in highlighting the absurd, uncompetitive salaries chief executives and other functionaries award themselves in the shadows, but are you being as vigilant at the national level? For as we both know, the consequence of Cameron having managed to find one thing he won't flip-flop on -- the number of those precious SPADships being reduced, with even fewer on offer to Tory flacks now that the Liberals have to get their cut too -- is that ways round this are being found. Blatantly political appointments are being made to supposedly neutral civil service jobs. Ministerial private offices are littered with CCHQ lags, and other think tank hangers-on, who haven't been able to get SPADed up, and as yet you have let this slip you by.

So there it is: just let me know that your FoI requests are, even now, working their way through the system to see just who has been given public patronage for party political purposes. It's an easy enough thing to do: we both know who the limited cast of characters involved are. So do be sure to email me when you have this latest piece of TPA research ready to go. It'll make for fun reading when you name names. (Oh, and natch, I'm taking it as read that the non-party TPA opposes ministers bunging apolitical taxpayer-funded political positions to political stooges, even when those stooges are chums).

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.