The West Coast rail fiasco will probably cost us a lot more than £50m

Try doubling it.

"£50m at the very least" is the latest amount that the West Coast rail fiasco is expected to cost the tax-payer although the cost might be "very much larger".

It would seem the Public Accounts Committee has picked the lowest possible number it can think of (in the grand scheme of government money wasting £50m must seem insignificant to the PAC) thinking that people will say, “oh just £50m, that’s not so bad”, while they mutter in an undertone, hoping no one will hear, “it might be a bit more though”.

For a government that won an election on the importance of cuts, the bonfire of quangos and the sacking of unnecessary civil servants the manifest, barefaced disregard for any money other than your own is, at best, infuriating and at worst just depressing.   

The report from the PAC has said the aborted west coast franchise award was down to a "complete lack of common sense" from "blinkered, rushed" senior officials.

I honestly wish this were true. How simple it would be if this was just a case of lack of common sense, a one off mistake, something even the best of us are guilty of suffering of from time to time.

Sadly, this is a result of a far deeper problem. The truth is many people working for the DfT (as well as the rest of the government) simply do not care if the money is wasted.

As the government further alienates its staff, heavy handedly wielding its cost saving sword, blunders due to a complete lack of care are going to become more common. 

The reality is that we do not know and will probably never know just how much this whole unfortunate mess cost the tax-payer in the end.

I think a good rule to stick to when trying to find the bottom line in the chaos and confusion of any government screw up (there are almost certainly more coming at high speed from Birmingham) is to double any number proffered and hope that’s the worst of it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.

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.