No, house prices are not falling

It's just a summer blip.

Time to don youy hard hats, cancel this winters ski trip and think twice about the kids school fees, house prices have dropped by 1.8 per cent compared to July. The time for panic though may be a little premature however: what the newly released figures from Rightmove, a property website, have shown is no more than the annual summer blip. In fact since January house prices have continued to rise by 5.5 per cent, the fastest rate since 2006 and that’s £20,000 on January’s average house price of £230,000.

But is a rise in house prices really something to be happy about? Even if we dismiss the much publicised concerns over first time buyers (hard to do I know) the rise in prices may have greater worries for us all. One of the areas for concern is the ability to deal with inflation, as almost any rise in house price will mean higher levels of debt among households.

Even at just 2.8 per cent inflation is outstripping wage rises by 1.1 per cent month on month according to the office of national statistics. That’s a real terms wage cut of 1.1 per cent per month for everyone compared to the price of things like food. Conventional logic dictates that the Bank of England (BoE) cuts inflation back by raising interest rates when that happens, poverty not being a popular condition in a democracy.

But the Bank of England is doing the opposite. They hope that by keeping the lending rate at 0.5 per cent banks will lend more, and in turn we will spend more, boosting the economy. But after four years the BoE has not changed its policy despite banks stubbornly refusing to lend ro all but the safest bets. So maybe there’s another reason to keep rates low?

Maybe the answer lies in the fears of a collapsing housing bubble, a housing bubble so huge it can’t be inflated away.

Mortgage default levels have remained low despite rising unemployment and lower wages. This has been because the main affect of the crisis was that the BoE cut rates to record lows of just 0.5 per cent.  This helped the overleveraged homeowner from defaulting when living costs rose but their wages didn’t. The new rates gave them a cushion on which to land softly.

Any rise in the BoE rate though will pull away that cushion and the bump will be a hard one. Politically a hard bump is unacceptable. Voters could suddenly be homeless or struggling to pay debts. Any government in power when this happens can effectively say goodbye to any chance of a return to power, no matter how independent the BoE is supposed to be.

Therefore the pressure on the BoE to keep rates low and let house prices climb must be huge, if unspoken. The problem is that it’s a short sighted policy. Even if the average homeowner is not likely to default today or tomorrow because they can afford the low repayments, those repayments will inevitably be squeezed by other rapidly rising costs of living. Sooner or later there may not be enough money in the house-holders pockets to pay for all their outgoings including their mortgage. And by holding rates low, the BoE has no room for manoeuvre. Raise rates and be seen to cause a property crash, or keep rates low, increase our daily costs and cause a crash anyway.

They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

So maybe it is time to don our hard hats and cancel that holiday. Not because house prices are falling, but because they’re not.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Cobb is a reporter at Private Banker International

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