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.

Photo: Getty
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What the debate over troops on the streets is missing

Security decisions are taken by professionals not politicians. But that doesn't mean there isn't a political context. 

First things first: the recommendation to raise Britain’s threat level was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), an organisation comprised of representatives from 16 government departments and agencies. It was not a decision driven through by Theresa May or by anyone whose job is at stake in the election on 8 June.

The resulting deployment of troops on British streets – Operation Temperer – is, likewise, an operational decision. They will do the work usually done by armed specialists in the police force protecting major cultural institutions and attractions, and government buildings including the Palace of Westminster. That will free up specialists in the police to work on counter-terror operations while the threat level remains at critical. It, again, is not a decision taken in order to bolster the Conservatives’ chances on 8 June. (Though intuitively, it seems likely to boost the electoral performance of the party that is most trusted on security issues, currently the Conservatives if the polls are to be believed.)

There’s a planet-sized “but” coming, though, and it’s this one: just because a decision was taken in an operational, not a political manner, doesn’t remove it from a wider political context. And in this case, there’s a big one: the reduction in the number of armed police specialists from 6979 when Labour left office to 5,639 today. That’s a cut of more than ten per cent in the number of armed specialists in the regular police – which is why Operation Temperer was drawn up under David Cameron in the first place.  There are 1340 fewer armed specialists in the police than there were seven years ago – a number that is more significant in the light of another: 900, the number of soldiers that will be deployed on British streets under Op Temperer. (I should add: the initial raft of police cuts were signed off by Labour in their last days in office.)

So while it’s disingenuous to claim that national security decisions are being taken to bolster May, we also shouldn’t claim that operational decisions aren’t coloured by spending decisions made by the government.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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