Why we must end the UK’s addiction to property

There is nothing aspirational or equitable about courting another recession.

They say an Englishman's home is his castle but the UK has a particular problem with our addiction to house-price inflation. Before the crash, house prices trebled in the space of a decade. Great for those that bought at the right time, but not for others.

As a nation, we are used to borrowing beyond our means. The UK mortgage market had the second-highest loan-to-value ratio of any OECD country before the financial crisis.

At a household level, first-time buyers who were offered 125 per cent mortgages and found themselves in negative equity following the crash.

There are roughly a million people who owe more than their homes are now worth. UK households still have more mortgage debt, relative to their income, than households in any other major economy.

There have been four housing bubbles in the UK in the past 40 years. They can be hard to spot but they invariably lead to economic bust when they burst. Macroeconomic stability matters and volatility in the UK's housing market has played a destabilising role.

One solution is to increase the supply of housing, as proposed by Kate Barker in her landmark 2004 review. But while building extra houses is absolutely necessary to constrain excessive house-price growth in the long term, housebuilding is slow to take effect. But we also have to tackle demand. And housing market demand is mediated by the availability of mortgages.

A new IPPR report published today, Forever Blowing Bubbles? Housing's Role in the UK Economy, argues that policymakers need to learn the lessons of the credit crunch. The report argues that the UK's addiction to house-price inflation is bad for the economy and that a central plank of government economic policy should be to ensure that there is greater stability in house prices.

Regulation to end speculation

IPPR's critics suggest that such an approach threatens to thwart aspiration and hinder social mobility. But there is nothing aspirational or equitable about courting another recession. And there is absolutely no reason to believe that the next housing bubble will serve first-time buyers any better than the last.

The onset of loose lending around 1999/2000 correlated strongly with the start of a downward trend in the number of first-time buyers. Far from helping home ownership, it drove it further out of their reach.

Conflating aspiration with higher levels of mortgage debt is a mistake. People with high levels of debt – notably high loan-to-value ratios – are much more likely to fall into negative equity.

Monetary policy has a part to play – house prices should be a more explicit consideration in its formulation – but it is a blunt instrument, with the hikes in interest rates needed to dampen future housing booms likely to come at the cost of excessive pain to the wider economy.

Fiscal policy – such as stamp duty or council tax – is certainly important in egalitarian and distributive terms, but tangential in terms of its actual impact on house pricing, and politically highly fraught.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Housing Market Taskforce concluded its work earlier this month with some interesting recommendations on property taxes. But mortgage regulation is the most important tool in controlling demand in the housing market.

Deposit requirements on buy-to-let mortgages should be raised and lenders should ensure that rents cover repayments. Small-time speculators seeking a fast buck in the form of excessive capital gains from the buy-to-let market need to be deterred. Instead, we should be encouraging institutional investors into a more professional and more secure private rented sector to build to let.

Short-term thinking

In particular, when it comes to mortgage lending, the government and regulators need to hold firm in the face of industry lobbying and impose a 90 per cent cap on loan-to-value ratios and a 3.5 times cap on loan-to-income. Put simply, a mortgage of no more than £90,000 could be lent to buy a home worth £100,000 and a couple where each is earning £25,000 could borrow no more than £175,000.

We need to strike the right balance, allowing people to take out affordable mortgages while reducing the risk of excessive borrowing creating instability in the economy as a whole.

Mortgages are usually a 25-year commitment and high loan-to-income ratios allow borrowers to take out large mortgages that appear affordable at very low interest rates, but with no guarantee that interest rates will remain low, heightening the risk of defaults and repossessions. A 90 per cent loan-to-value ratio allows for a 10 per cent fall in the price of the investment before negative equity takes hold.

As Shelter has found, this is an argument that first-time buyers support, even though it may make it more difficult for them to get on to the housing ladder. They recognise that loose lending and cheap credit are a recipe for future instability both in our housing market and in our wider economy.

Andy Hull is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.