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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.