”2011” just sounds peculiar

Some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

By the time you read this, it will probably be 2011. There's no doubt that, as we get older, the years are starting to sound more and more peculiar. The Eighties and Nineties were nice, manageable enough numbers. But once we were into 2000, it was hard to shake the feeling that we'd all stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The whole decade from 2000-2010 was full of such lurid dates that we were too unnerved even to give it a name -- the "Noughties" was tried for a bit but it never caught on because it made ten years of our lives feel like an extended Carry On film. Now we're into another as-yet-nameless decade and 2011 is probably the most bizarre milestone so far. It sounds more like a rugby score than something you would be confident writing on a cheque.

There are two options in the face of an increasingly futuristic present: have a nervous breakdown or stare confidently down the barrel of what is to come. I've tried having nervous breakdowns before and they tend to be a rather short-term solution to your problem. So, instead, here are some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

Coalition exposed as hoax. Looking at it in the cold light of day, it all just seems a bit unlikely. The Conservatives teaming up with the Liberal Democrats, a party they have virtually nothing in common with? Nick Clegg, whom you couldn't have picked out of a line-up at the start of 2010, getting to be the second most powerful man in parliament? People routinely referring to "the coalition", as if we were in some Orwellian state where the idea of "the government" had been quietly phased out in favour of a smoother euphemism? I don't quite see it. The general election was ever so confusing. I think we'll learn some time in 2011 that, while we were all bamboozled by the mathematics of a hung parliament, somebody took the opportunity to launch the ultimate reality show, in which our reactions to the fake Tory-Liberal axis were secretly taped for Channel 4.

Andy Murray not to win Wimbledon. It's become a tediously predictable annual event to stack 50 years of our national frustrations about tennis on Murray's young shoulders and then mutter about what a grumpy bugger he is if he doesn't do the conga after winning a break point. Cool customer though he is, anyone would feel the pressure of expectation: Tim Henman certainly used to. So let's avoid the mistake we always made in more or less implying that Tiger Tim only had to turn up to win the tournament. I hereby predict that Andy Murray will definitely, definitely not win Wimbledon 2011, even if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal break each other's legs in a freak locker-room collision. So, now that we've put that on record, (whisper) maybe he actually will win it. Clever stuff.

The Queen appears on Strictly Come Dancing. Unlikely? But did anyone forecast a year ago that a whole swath of the population would spend their autumn watching as Ann Widdecombe was dragged across a dance floor like a sack of laundry? The producers of Strictly have set themselves a pretty high bar. John Sergeant was an audacious choice and Widdecombe took the pantomime a stage further. Now, what elderly citizen can they drag out for next year's contest? Logic suggests they can only go right to the top. Aside from that royal wedding, which will be done and dusted by May, Her Royal Highness could certainly fit in the eight weeks' training to get the basics down and then the popular vote would surely keep her in for at least a few episodes.

Snow. Some time in early December, a completely unexpected series of snowfalls will lead to "arctic conditions". The nation's transport infrastructure will be paralysed, Christmas plans will be ruined and all the news channels will run more than three weeks of interrupted coverage of the crisis. The nation will rise up as one to ask why on earth we can't cope with the weather over here, when places like Canada are so good at it. This will continue for a couple of weeks. Then the sun will come out on 29 December and everyone will forget about it until the exact same point next year.

That is pretty much how I see the year shaping up. I went down to the bookies and they offered me fairly generous odds on an accumulator. I think it must have been the Queen-on-Strictly bit that tempted them.

Well, we'll soon see who is right. In the meantime, whatever plans you might be hatching to survive 2011, best of luck with them and have a Happy New Year.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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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.