House price "hope"—for whom?

The have-nots don't get a word in.

As if to underscore the message of Through the keyhole, our week of themed posts on Britain's housing crisis, YouGov has released its Household Economic Activity Tracker for February, which reports an improvement in economic optimism of 3.5 points to 98 (where 100 on the index is neither optimistic nor pessimistic).

The report states:

YouGov’s data suggest the driving force in this improvement is a growing belief among home owners that the property market has stopped falling and has actually strengthened – especially in London. One in three (29%) people in the capital believe house prices rose in February compared with just 7% who think they fell. In the UK as a whole, just 14% of respondents in February thought their home decreased in value during the previous month, down from 18% in January and 27% in August 2012.

For the first time since mid-2010, the average homeowner expects prices to rise over the coming year. Almost a third (31%) of respondents expect house prices to be higher a year from now, more than double the percentage (14%) who think they will be lower. Survey respondents are looking for a 0.6% rise in home prices on average over the coming year, compared with the 0.1% decrease they expected last month.

This property bounce appears to be having a positive effect on the homeowners’ household finances, with fewer households reported a deteriorating financial situation compared to last month. Those who believe the value of their house increased during February were twice as likely to think their overall financial situation had improved compared to those who thought their property’s value had stagnated or declined (9.2% to 4.6%).

It's only a measure of expectations, so shouldn't be taken as any sort of valid prediction of the future of the housing market. But what interested me, in the context of our housing week, is the apparently unthinking tone taken in the release, which is even headed House price hope sees economic optimism reach two year high. Owner-occupiers are still the most common type of households in Britain, making up 65 per cent of the total according to government statistics, but that's been on a downward trend since it peaked in 2003 at 71 per cent. For 35 per cent of the nation, the fact that house prices are rising again does not represent "hope" at all — it pushes the chance of ever owning a home further into the distance, and is likely to feed through to higher rents in the future.

That gap, between owner-occupiers and others, is largely a generational divide, and there are some who will be able to look to parents for the nest-egg they need when they feel the time is right. But that just strengthens the other divide, between the haves and have-nots. And this report highlights that mostly, when we speak of the "health" of the housing market, the have-nots don't get a word in.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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