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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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