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 Future of the Left: A new start requires a new economy

Creating a "sharing economy" can get the left out of its post-crunch malaise, says Stewart Lansley.

Despite the opportunity created by the 2008 crisis, British social democracy is today largely directionless. Post-2010 governments have filled this political void by imposing policies – from austerity to a shrinking state - that have been as economically damaging as they have been socially divisive.

Excessive freedom for markets has brought a society ever more divided between super-affluence and impoverishment, but also an increasingly fragile economy, and too often, as in housing, complete dysfunction.   Productivity is stagnating, undermined by a model of capitalism that can make big money for its owners and managers without the wealth creation essential for future economic health. The lessons of the meltdown have too often been ignored, with the balance of power – economic and political – even more entrenched in favour of a small, unaccountable and self-serving financial elite.

In response, the left should be building an alliance for a new political economy, with new goals and instruments that provide an alternative to austerity, that tackle the root causes of ever-growing inequality and poverty and strengthen a weakening productive base. Central to this strategy should be the idea of a “sharing economy”, one that disperses capital ownership, power and wealth, and ensures that the fruits of growth are more equally divided. This is not just a matter of fairness, it is an economic imperative. The evidence is clear: allowing the fruits of growth to be colonised by the few has weakened growth and made the economy much more prone to crisis.

To deliver a new sharing political economy, major shifts in direction are needed. First, with measures that tackle, directly, the over-dominance of private capital. This could best be achieved by the creation of one or more social wealth funds, collectively held financial funds, created from the pooling of existing resources and fully owned by the public. Such funds are a potentially powerful new tool in the progressive policy armoury and would ensure that a higher proportion of the national wealth is held in common and used for public benefit and not for the interests of the few.

Britain’s first social wealth fund should be created by pooling all publicly owned assets,  including land and property , estimated to be worth some £1.2 trillion, into a single ring-fenced fund to form a giant pool of commonly held wealth. This move - offering a compromise between nationalisation and privatization - would bring an end to today’s politically expedient sell-off of public assets, preserve what remains of the family silver and ensure that the revenue from the better management of such assets is used to boost essential economic and social investment.

A new book, A Sharing Economy, shows how such funds could reduce inequality, tackle austerity and, by strengthening the public asset base, rebalance the public finances.

Secondly, we need a new fail safe system of social security with a guaranteed income floor in an age of deepening economic and job insecurity. A universal basic income, a guaranteed weekly, unconditional income for all as a right of citizenship, would replace much of the existing and increasingly means-tested, punitive and authoritarian model of income support. . By restoring universality as a core principle, such a scheme would offer much greater security in what is set to become an increasingly fragile labour market. A basic income, buttressed by a social wealth fund, would be key instruments for ensuring that the potential productivity gains from the gathering automation revolution, with machines displacing jobs, are shared by all.  

Thirdly, a new political economy needs a radical shift in wider economic management. The mix of monetary expansion and fiscal contraction has proved a blunderbuss strategy that has missed its target while benefitting the rich and affluent at the expense of the poor. By failing to tackle the central problem  – a gaping deficit of demand (one inflamed by the long wage squeeze and sliding investment)  - the strategy has slowed recovery.  The mass printing of money (quantitative easing) may have helped prevent a second great depression, but has also  created new and unsustainable asset bubbles, while austerity has added to the drag on the economy. Meanwhile, record low interest rates have failed to boost private investment and productivity, but by hiking house prices, have handed a great bonanza to home owners at the expense of renters.

Building economic resilience will require a more central role for the state in boosting and steering investment programmes, in part through the creation of a state investment bank (which could be partially financed from the proposed new social wealth fund) aimed at steering more resources into the wealth creating activities private capital has failed to fund.

With too much private credit used for financial speculation and property, and too little to small companies and infrastructure, government needs to play a much more direct role in creating credit, while restricting the almost total freedom currently handed to private banks.  Tackling the next downturn, widely predicted to land within the next 2-3 years, will need a very different approach, including a more active fiscal policy. To ensure a speedier recovery from recessions, future rounds of quantitative easing should, within clear constraints, boost the economy directly by financing public investment programmes and cash handouts (‘helicopter money’).  Such a police mix – on investment, credit and stimulus - would be more effective in boosting the real economic base, and would be much less pro-rich and anti-poor in its consequences.

These core changes would greatly reform the existing Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and provide the foundations for building support for a new direction for progressive politics. They would pioneer new tools for building a fairer, more dynamic and more stable economy. They could draw on experience elsewhere such as the Alaskan annual citizen’s dividend (financed by a sovereign wealth fund) and the pilot basic income schemes launching in the Netherlands, Finland and France.  Even mainstream economists, including Adair Turner, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, are now talking up the principle of ‘helicopter money’. For these reasons, parts of the package are likely to prove publicly popular and command support across the political divide. Together they would contribute to a more stable economy, less inequality, and a more even balance of power and opportunity.

 

Stewart Lansley is the author of A Sharing Economy, published in March by Policy Press and of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Impoverishment (with Joanna Mack).