Cameron announces another squeeze on welfare

PM says he will look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s.

David Cameron's appearance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning was proof that his political woes have not dented his supreme confidence. The PM boasted that he was on his "fourth leader of the Labour Party" (only if one includes Harriet Harman) and revealed that he had told Boris Johnson: "once you've done your job as London Mayor, don't think your job in politics is over." Boris, one suspects, rather agrees.

Cameron offered a preview of the message that will dominate the Conservative conference: we are facing up to the deficit, which Labour has "nothing to say about". He boasted that the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter since entering office and had created a million new private sector jobs. The reality isn't so positive. The deficit has fallen but, owing to the recession, borrowing so far this year is 22% higher than in the same period last year and the government is expected to miss its deficit target for 2012 by as much as £30bn. Private sector employment has risen by a million but 196,000 of these jobs were reclassified from the public sector and, after falling in recent months, unemployment is expected to rise next year.

Elsewhere, after already announcing £18bn of welfare cuts, Cameron signalled that the government was coming back for more. He suggested that he would look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s and at reducing working age welfare more generally (universal benefits for the elderly are, for now, safe). But he vowed that these measures would be combined with plans to raise more from the rich. George Osborne has ruled out the introduction of a "mansion tax" and higher council tax bands, but Cameron insisted he would find other ways of ensuring the rich pay their "fair share". "We will always be fair and be seen to be fair," he declared, a test that the decision to abolish the 50p tax rate clearly failed. If he is to secure Liberal Democrat agreement for further welfare cuts, he will need to offer something more than another "crackdown" on tax avoidance (making the rich pay taxes they're meant to be paying anyway, is not the same as raising taxes on the rich).

Economic recovery remains the precondition for Cameron's political recovery and, asked if he saw "green shoots", the PM replied that he was not "a forecaster". But even if the economy returns to growth this quarter, the problem for Cameron remains that most people will still be getting poorer. A freeze in council tax and a cap on train fare rises of 1% above inflation will do little to ease the pain.

David Cameron arrives in Birmingham with his wife Samantha Cameron for the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.