Why we need Help to Build, not Buy

The public recognises what too many politicians do not; that a mass Macmillan-style programme of housebuilding is the only solution to the housing crisis.

Outside of the Treasury, it is hard to find anyone who thinks Help to Buy is a good idea. Vince Cable, Mervyn King, the TUC, the IMF, the Institute of Directors and the Office for Budget Responsibility have all warned that the scheme –which allows borrowers to take out a 95 per cent mortgage, with the government backing part of their loan –will inflate demand without increasing supply and create the conditions for another housing crash.

If few doubt that George Osborne’s wheeze is bad economics, the consensus remains that it is smart politics. The logic runs that by widening home ownership, Help to Buy will enable the Tories to win over young, aspirational voters in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy did a generation ago. In an attempt to emulate the images of Thatcher handing the keys to those who bought their council homes, David Cameron has asked staff to arrange for him to meet those who have benefited from the scheme whenever he visits a marginal constituency. Help to Buy is, he says, “about social mobility . . . about helping people who don’t have rich parents to get on and achieve their dream of home ownership”. He was keen to stress that the average price of a house bought under the scheme is £163,000, with most located outside of London and the south-east, and that three-quarters of the 2,384 applicants are first-time buyers (a quarter, it follows, are not).

The Tories believe that they will derive another electoral benefit as rising prices create a feel-good factor among existing owners, 45 per cent of whom voted Conservative in 2010. Osborne is reported to have told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.”

This vision of a nation hooked on the narcotic of rising prices is at odds with reality. A poll last month by YouGov for Shelter found that 66 per cent of the public do not want house prices to increase. That figure is up 8 percentage points since June, the period in which Help to Buy was fully launched. This trend holds among outright homeowners (67 per cent of whom want prices to fall or stay the same), Conservative voters (65 per cent), Labour voters (66 per cent), Liberal Democrat voters (73 per cent), readers of the Daily Mail (66 per cent) and readers of the Daily Express (65 per cent). Chastened by the experience of the crash and anxious at the lack of affordable housing for the young, the public no longer views rising prices as an unqualified good.

If the impression develops that the government is focused on maximising prices at the expense of supply, Help to Buy could prove to be a net negative. The number lifted on to the property ladder will be matched or exceeded by the number for whom the idea of owning their own home moves ever further out of reach. And those unable to buy will resent subsidising mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000 –more than three times the national average.

The public recognises what too many politicians do not; that a mass Macmillan-style programme of housebuilding is the only solution to the housing crisis. Merely to keep pace with the rising number of households, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes to be built by 2020.

Yet in the same week that ministers lauded Help to Buy, government figures showed that the net supply of housing rose by just 124,270 in 2012- 2013, a fall of 8 per cent since 2011-2012 and the lowest number on record. It is Help to Build, not Help to Buy, that Britain needs. The Tories should not assume that their disavowal of this will go unpunished.

Why aren't we building enough houses? Image: Getty

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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