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
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.