We need to talk about the British property cult

Something should be done about the housing crisis before it's too late.

I was discussing the implications of the British Government’s recent spending review for housing associations when news of the civil unrest in Egypt started to come through. The housing crisis is much debated and its scale and significance are well recognised.We wondered whether the issue would ever lead to widespread protests. We started thinking about the poll tax riots of the 1990s which effectively put paid to Prime Minister Thatcher. Would the bedroom tax lead to similar unrest?

No: on the whole the people affected are either too old or too poor to protest with any force. More importantly the sentiment of the vocal masses is consumed by the UK’s one permitted greed: ownership.

But what will happen when a majority of people expecting to own a house find themselves not just priced out but physically excluded by a lack of available housing? These will be the children of the people with most influence over policy and public order and not just the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. This may offer a glimmer of hope to the CEOs of those housing associations that are neither too big to fail nor niche enough to be essential.

There are already indications some policy makers have seen that the demographics are shifting. As Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times last week, it is inevitable that taxation’s focus will shift from income to assets. This has already started with increases to stamp duty on luxury houses and an end to the Council Tax discount on second homes. Income taxes are being reduced at both ends of the income scale.

Home ownership cuts to the heart of the conundrum facing the housing associations that provide the bulk of the UK’s social housing. Investors much prefer the yields achieved with privately owned housing to the lower, albeit steadier, returns offered by housing associations. Yes, this is changing but not quickly and not for all. The result is that few of the existing housing associations will be able to fund expansion and therefore few will survive the coming rigours of a mixed-economy market.

The obstacle is obvious. If the UK’s housing stock were to increase to meet demand then house prices would stop rising and the "investment" potential that drives almost every purchase and every single mortgage decision would be diminished. And no-one with a current investment, whether as a lender or an owner, will tolerate this. The success of the UK’s housing ladder is dependent on it being pulled up higher and higher with each generation. Like main-frame computers in the 1980s, residual values are always predicted to be far greater than the purchase price. This is a problem that has been known for decades, as David Miles points out in his Bank of England Report. The report also highlights that the problem gets worse as population density increases. Not only will house-price rises greatly outpace wage inflation, land availability will become even scarcer. Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Something has to give.

Will this really pave the way for a new levy on housing and an assault on the British property cult? If so perhaps the usual restraint will crumble and we will see waves of street protests, albeit more Glastonbury meets Glyndebourne rather than Tahrir Square meets Jarrow March.

Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Neal is a reformed publisher who now advises on media and stakeholder relations at Keeble Brown. He writes about the ironies and hypocrisies that crop up in other peoples' businesses. He is also an optimist.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How we got here

The story of Britain's finances in six charts. 

Today George Osborne did two things. He gave give his annual ‘Autumn Statement’, in which he’ll detailed how his estimates for growth, debt and the deficit have changed since the Budget in July, and he laid out the Spending Review, which detailed exactly how much government departments will spend over the parliament.

We’ll have coverage of today’s decisions shortly, but first, how did we get here? After five years of austerity, why is the government still cutting so much?

As we all know, in 2008 the party stopped. In the same way that the Paris attacks are a product of 9/11, today’s Spending Review can trace its origins to the fateful crash of the global financial system seven years ago.

So let’s return to 2008 and remember that government debt is any Chancellor’s greatest fear. If your debt gets too high you will become bankrupt: global markets will not lend you the money you need to keep running your government.

For 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, government debt was not a great worry. Gordon Brown was able to spend his decade as Chancellor doling out the fat of the land. Debt never rose high than 41 per cent of GDP, and was only 37 per cent in spring 2008, not much higher than it had been in 1993.

Then the financial crisis happened.


In seven years the government’s debt has doubled, from 41 to 80 per cent. The Tories spent five years very successfully blaming the last Labour government for causing this spike by overspending from 1997-2008, but, as this chart suggests, the greatest cause was the global crisis, not Labour profligacy.

Regardless of who was responsible, the debt is now at a historic high. If we rewind our chart back to 1975 we can see that today’s debt levels are even higher than those Thatcher railed against in the 1980s, when she, like today’s Tories, also cut spending heavily upon entering office.

But while she succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

But while Thatcher succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

So now the UK must endure another five years of cuts if we are to run the surplus Osborne is targeting and which he recommitted himself to today. If we don’t run a surplus our debt levels will continue to slowly creep up towards 100 per cent of our GDP.

According to Eurostat, who measure things slightly different to the Office of National Statistics, our debt is close to 90 per cent and is among the highest in Europe. 

We are still just below the level of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), those countries whose debts ballooned after the financial crisis and who have gone through a succession of governments as austerity has been imposed by international markets.

But most of those countries have now started to cut spending severely, as for instance in Greece, whereas the UK is still running a relatively high budget deficit (nearly 6 per cent of GDP according to Eurostat). If we continue to do so we will keep adding to our debt, and could approach the level at which markets will no longer lend to us.

That, at least, is the Tories’ line of argument. So we are set for another five years of cuts. And everything is also dependent on growth. The figures I’ve quoted for debt and the deficit are all expressed as a percentage of GDP. A country’s total levels of debt don’t matter; what matters is how great they are compared to the size of your economy.

The cuts Osborne announced today will only succeed in cutting the deficit if growth is as high as he hopes it will be (as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out on the Today programme this morning).

How likely is that? Well, the estimates he gave in 2010 seemed over-optimistic in 2012, when the economy was flat-lining and Osborne was at his political nadir, but eventually seemed just in 2014, when the economy recovered.

Osborne’s political future will thrive or dive depending on growth over the next five years. Many economists have argued, including Robert Skidelsky and Simon Wren-Lewis in these pages, that Osborne’s focus on austerity in 2010 caused growth to stall in 2012. If he continues to cut, growth could stall yet again in 2017 or 2018.

The cuts over the next five years are going to be more severe than those from 2010-2015, and are greater than those any other major economy is planning. If they cripple growth, Osborne’s plan will need readjusting once again if both he and the UK are to survive. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.