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House prices surge by 0.6 per cent in February

First-time buyers take advantage of stamp duty holiday.

House prices in the UK increased by 0.6 per cent in February 2012, according to the latest figures from the Nationwide Building Society.

This represents a year-on-year rise of 0.9 per cent. The price of a typical home in February was £162,712; up from £162,228 the previous month.

Robert Gardner, chief economist at Nationwide, said: “Evidence that house prices picked up a little in February follows a series of data releases suggesting that economic conditions may not be quite as weak as feared after the UK economy contracted in the final quarter of 2011. Surveys of activity in the manufacturing and service sectors point to a rebound in January, while consumer confidence and retail spending were both stronger than expected during the month.

“Measures of activity in the housing market have also picked up, with the number of housing transactions rising by 23 per cent year on year in January and the number of UK mortgage approvals – a leading indicator of sales – up 36 per cent.”

Gardner, however, warned: “It remains to be seen whether this trend will be sustained. Given the still challenging economic backdrop, this increase in housing market activity may be the result of a temporary rise in first-time buyers entering the market to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday before it expires in March. If so, this may continue to support activity and prices in the near term before cooling over summer.”

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.