Think tank slams Help to Buy: "government is the housing crisis"

The Adam Smith Institute has accused the government of propping up the housing bubble.

The Government's Help to Buy scheme has come under sharp attack from the Adam Smith Institute, which writes that it:

will raise the height of all the rungs on the housing ladder by boosting house prices… [and] redistributes wealth from taxpayers to house buyers.

The key to the Institute's analysis is that the British housing market is suffering a problem of supply, not of demand. That's an analysis which bridges the normal left-right divide, and puts the ASI on the same side as many on the left (indeed, that coalition is also why the ASI's Preston Byrne has written for the New Statesman on the housing crisis several times). And the report lays out compelling reasons to support that analysis:

A 2010 House of Commons briefing paper wrote, “it has been clear for some time that housing supply is not keeping up with demand,” adding that there are “significant levels of overcrowding in the private and social housing stock.” However, the briefing continues, reductions in the price of housing accompanying the recession have done little to improve its affordability, as price falls have been accompanied by “by tighter lending criteria, particularly larger deposit requirements,” such that poor working families in rented accommodation, even assuming spartan personal budgets with little or no provision for incidentals, would need to save for several decades in order to purchase a house in most major urban centres…

Housing stock in the capital’s 10 most expensive boroughs is now worth more, taken together, than the entire property markets of the rest of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland combined.

The government's approach to fixing the housing supply problem is to boost demand, in the hope that builders will follow through. And to a certain extent, their analysis of what's holding back demand is correct:

The 2013 Budget makes it clear that the government believes lack of access to finance is the primary problem.

Once prices reach the sky-high levels they currently sit at in the south east of the country, then the big bottleneck is likely to be access to finance. In 1997, "the average house cost 3.54 times the median wage" but "by 2011 one cost 6.65 times the median wage". Lenders who may have been happy to loan four times someone's salary are likely to be considerably less happy to offer seven times that.

Help to Buy sets out to improve that situation, but does so in two ways which are woefully substandard. One, an equity loan, subsidises the homeowner in their purchase by offering an interest-free loan on up to 15 per cent of the value of the house; the second involves a guarantee to the lenders of up to 80 per cent of the value of the homes they have lent against.

The latter is most punishingly described as Britain's Fannie Mae. That organisation, as well as its sibling Freddie Mac, both played a similar role in the US mortgage market for years leading up to the crash. But when the housing bubble popped:

the extent to which the taxpayer was potentially liable was the difference between (1) the prices at which Fannie and Freddie issued their debt, and (2) the price Fannie and Freddie would have to pay the private sector to take on those risks in the event of a default.

In the US, that difference was 0.4 percentage points, but "with combined assets of over $5 trillion, 0.4 percentage points represents a very substantial figure".

That risk to taxpayers represents an all-or-nothing gamble. If the bubble pops, we'll be firmly out of pocket, but it's possible that the risk will end up coming to nothing. The same is not true of the equity loan. Although it is being written off the books (the government will bank the value of the assets they now "own" to prevent the Help to Buy scheme affecting the bottom line), it remains the case that billions of pounds are going to be "invested" in an asset class with no return on investment at all. On top of that:

this aspect of the Help to Buy scheme will take effect as a subsidy, meaning in practice that non-participating taxpayers, in addition to paying for the loans, will have to work against them as the infusion of government liquidity increases competition for limited supplies of land.

That is, insofar as help to buy merely subsidises a particular group to buy rather than boosting building, it is zero-sum: renters who can't afford even the subsidised deposits will lose out. The hope is that increased building will offset that effect, but that hope is looking slim.

What could work instead? It's in the proposed solutions that the ASI becomes most noticeably libertarian; the fact that there is broad agreement that interventions need to be on the supply side does not mean that there's broad agreement about what those interventions should be. And so the report suggests:

Releasing limited amounts of farmland for suburban development… radical liberalisation of urban planning laws… and the abolition of mandatory affordable housing provision in new housing development.

Of those, the liberalisation of urban planning laws is the most likely to get widespread support: from maximum height restrictions to requirements for car parking, there are a number of regulations which prevent us from making the best use of inner-city space. But to the ASI's suggestions might be added a nationalised programme of housebuilding, either paid for with a land value tax or deficit funded as a stimulus measure, or major investment in public transport, opening up greater areas of the outskirts of cities to inner-city population density. The institute probably won't like those ideas as much, but even they might agree they are better than what we have at present.

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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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