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.

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Grandpa was ill and wasn’t keen on climbing the volcano – but we forced him up all the same

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.

The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.

But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.

Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.

To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.

Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.

“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”

He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.

The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.

The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.

“Where is it?” I said.

“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”

Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.

But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.

“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution