Osborne's housing policy risks being sub-prime for Surrey

Our housing market is overheating as it is. The last thing we need is a massive lending spree.

Many of the measures announced by the Chancellor are relatively simple. Either the effects are basically known – think fuel duty, which is always a fight between climate change and revenue versus angry motorists – or the debate around them is pretty black and white – will cutting corporation tax lead to growth, or just a hand-out to businesses?

The big one which we're watching play out now is the chancellor's new housing policies. Two major measures were announced, under the branding "help to buy:

  1. £3.5bn was committed to shared equity loans. 20% of the value of a new home will be loaned by the government, interest free, repaid when the home is sold. A 5% deposit required. Available to everyone buying a new-build home worth moreless than £600k. Because it is an investment in the equity of the house, it won't be counted toward the deficit figures.
  2. Offering a mortgage guarantee to lenders to encourage them to loan to people who can't afford a deposit. The Government will back up the deposits of £130bn worth of mortgages, from 2014 to 2017. It will guarantee the equity of 15 per cent of the house's value, and apply to all homes, not just new builds.

The measures fit Dan Davies' classic summation of the eternal failure of UK policy in this area:

The whole of British housing policy can be seen as an effort to reduce the cost of housing without affecting house prices.

By extending greater credit to people who otherwise couldn't afford a house, the plan is that they will be able to buy it at the existing price. Where the increased demand might then increase prices further, the requirement that the house be a new build – which is clearly intended to stimulate housebuilding – ought to ensure that house prices hover around the same level.

The outcome of the policy depends greatly on the demand for it – and at first glance I don't expect demand to be very high.

A 5 per cent deposit is, obviously, a quarter of a 20 per cent deposit. But the problem for too many families is that the thought of saving for any deposit is beyond the realms of imagination at the moment.

The average UK house costs £238,293, meaning a 5 per cent deposit would cost a little under £12,000, which is more savings than 71 per cent of the UK have. It's certainly the case that some of that 29 per cent who do have enough savings to pay a £12,000 deposit might not have enough to pay a £48,000 deposit; but it remains the case that if you want to buy a house, you are likely to do it with money inherited from someone else in your family, because few people are in a situation where they can save nearly enough to afford a deposit up front.

Of course, despite what Ed Miliband repeats there isn't only one Britain. The housing market in London and the South-East is vastly different from the rest of the country. In the former, where the market is definitely overheating already, the policy will do little but raise prices even further. In the latter, the question is whether the difference between an 80% and 95% mortgage is big enough to turn the market around. In both, it will also be grossly distortionary around the £600,000 cut-off point, and may actually depress prices in the short term as people hold off til 2014 to buy.

But the real aim of it isn't to help people who can't afford deposits buy homes. Instead, it's to help people who can afford deposits buy more expensive homes for their money. That won't do a huge amount for those who aren't already in some way in the housing market, but it will help a great deal to keep that housing market buoyant for a while longer.

The deficit-free aspect of the scheme is also questionable. The loans will indeed be backed up by the equity the government is taking in the new houses, and in the long run – assuming that house prices continue rising, which remains unspoken government policy – it will be deficit neutral.

But so would a lot of things the government could do. If it decided to build social housing, that would likely be deficit neutral in the long run; as would investment in green energy, or loans to small businesses.

Any measure to fix Britain's housing situation must be applauded for its aims, but this, I fear, continues the worst policies we already have, and at best will only treat the symptom, not the cause.

Houses. 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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.