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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496