Don't leave house building to the house-builders

Give people a driving seat in housing investment, writes VMC Rozario.

The reality is mortgage finance is never going to get back to the heady days of the early 2000s, nor should it. But with rents rising, saving for a deposit when a lack of supply keeps prices overinflated seems impossible.

I'm part of Generation Rent, a generation unable to access social housing or mortgage finance and left paying more per month for housing than any other group. But I'm also part of a growing generation of people that, unlike their parents, need to find our financial security in something other than the bricks and mortar of their own home.

Whatever the larger debate, we need more homes all sorts of homes, for rent, socially and privately, and to buy.

The question becomes where will this investment come from?

The London Mayor wants a £1.3bn rebate in stamp duty from the Treasury to build 1 million homes by 2050. Yet with the banks holding back on lending and the Government set against going back to a pre-2010 situation of more public subsidy for capital investment in social housing (despite the economic evidence that it could be the short-term kick the economy crucially needs).

Political parties are desperate for a quick fix to this investment problem. Institutional investors, like pension funds, have been incredibly slow to come to the table to kickstart building.

Perhaps we would be better off crowd sourcing investment from the public directly.

There are a growing number of success stories of start-ups who have gone directly to large groups of ordinary savers/investors through websites like Kickstarter. Although the model isn't directly transferable, the principle is. Get people to invest in housing other than their own. Around 1 million plus private landlords in the UK are doing and making a profit out of it, so why not make more of us landlord investors?

That doesn't mean becoming a country of buy-to-let investors, but if more people want to invest in housing other than their own why not tap into that?

Some might scoff at the idea given the economic climate but actually there are two things that mean we should look at it seriously. Firstly we already have a model of public savings that has grown in sufficient volumes to take seriously.

When Premium Bonds were created by Harold Macmillan government in 1956 the aim was to control inflation but also to encourage saving in post-war Britain. On their first day £5 million worth of bonds were sold and by 2006 improvements in accessibility and a desire for safer investments than the stock market saw 23 million people (then around 40 per cent of the British public) hold premium bonds.

The ability to bring together savings from such a broad section of society (1.6 million of those bond holders had saved only a reasonable £5,000) should be something to replicate in housing investment, especially as housing is relatively stable and long-term investment.

Now National Savings and Investments manage over £100 billion in ordinary people's savings. Imagine if a separate housing fund was launched. There is something powerful about the idea of a family growing into habit of saving, with the added bonus that their investment has helped a housing association deliver them a home and keep house prices and rents down is a bonus. Unlike dead rent, in time those savings could fund a deposit on their own home, university fees or even retirement costs.

The second indicator that this general idea, people investing in housing other than their own, needs closer inspection is that where housing associations have dipped their toes in retail bond issues they have generally had their feet bitten off. Steve Binks, Places for People's Finance Director told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee last year about their experience of reaching out to private investors:

We went out with a relatively small issue, or ambitions for a relatively small issue of £25 million to £50 million. That was our initial asking and we were surprised-almost overwhelmed-by the demand. We ended up raising £140 million in two weeks from people who would invest money with us for five and a half years, put it into an ISA at-I think the interest rate was 5 per cent.

Moreover there's enormous scope of innovation and creativity in this space to give ordinary people a stronger say in housing investment. More work should be done to think and test how this could help communities fund more housing locally, how housing associations could come together to utilising the wealth of savers in the south east (who unsurprisingly save the most) to fund affordable housing across the country and how investments could be made as easy to buy and manage as a premium bond.

A sign marks a plot for sale on a housing construction site on in Swindon, England. Photograph: Getty Images

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.