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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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