To fix the housing market, the government needs to do nothing at all

Just stop trying.

In November, planning minister Nick Boles tackled the country's housing crisis — caused, he said, by a decade-long invasion of propertyless aliens — head-on, announcing he would seek powers to build 100,000 homes a year on Green Belt land. Shortly afterwards, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, reinforced this message, warning us of the imminent danger that migrant homebuyers pose to the “national interest” – "without the demand caused by mass immigration," she said, "house prices could be ten per cent lower over a twenty year period."

The Conservative grassroots, mortified at what they apparently see as the sheer illiberality of building on the Green Belt, moved swiftly to an ostrich position to undermine the proposal.

"The notion of a housing shortage in London… is, and always has been, a myth," read Andrew Lilico's riposte. "Surpluses of dwellings over households actually increased everywhere".

It is almost impossible to be more wrong. The immigration argument has been debunked so comprehensively that, in its 2012 report on the housing shortage (pdf), the IEA casually dismisses it as an "oft-repeated non-issue". Similarly, the effort to use simple mathematics to describe a notoriously variegated and illiquid asset class ignores the fact that neither property nor its occupants are homogenous and freely exchangeable: an abundance of one- or two-bedroom flats in a given area at a range of prices, for example, is useless if the majority of demand is for family homes (pdf).

There is, in fact, a fairly robust consensus across the political spectrum that the United Kingdom is in the grip of an acute housing supply shortage with many causes, among them NIMBYism, speculation, capital flight from southern Europe, over-taxation, land use controls, and failure to implement comprehensive welfare reform. In the absence of a credible policy proposal from the Coalition, however, the left has assumed the mantle of leadership on the issue by setting itself in diametrical opposition to austerity, demanding more central government funding for affordable housing – and lots of it.

Unquestionably, the money could be put to good use. Shelter, the housing charity, predicted in 2010 that (pdf):

"cuts to housing benefit and the slashing of the affordable house building subsidy will be devastating for the housing aspirations of thousands of young people consigned to increasing costs."

Those costs are the third-highest in Europe, 40 per cent of net income for over 15 per cent of the population. Sensing the undercurrent of popular anger, Labour has promised funding for the same 100,000 homes a year as Nick Boles – except these are “affordable” ones. Unfortunately, these counterproposals only draw battle-lines for the next election. They address the question of how taxpayers should step in to reinforce the safety net, but do nothing to tell us how to rein in the cost of the safety net itself.

The key question is this: would building more “affordable housing”, either in the Green Belt or in our cities, actually end the housing crisis? In my view, probably not. Housing was a risky enough business before the recession; today, with scarce financing, high material costs, narrow profit margins, and downward pressure on public finances for the next decade at least (£), developers face additional disincentives. If anything, affordable housing prevents developers from meeting market demand while concurrently increasing their costs — and as such it has become a significant part of the supply problem.

Many English councils mandate that developers designate a certain proportion of units in any new construction as "affordable," i.e. earmarked for social tenants or a social housing provider. Taking the London borough of Newham as an example, that locality aims to provide "the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing when negotiating on (the approval of) individual private residential and mixed use schemes". By “reasonable,” however, Newham means 50 per cent of the total, with the affordable component supported mostly by government subsidies.

This has serious implications on any proposed scheme's economic viability. Without government grants, affordable housing in Newham is completely uneconomic at the 50 per cent target (pdf) and remains so even at lower targets, for example with 35 per cent or 25 per cent provision. Viability is further impaired where build cost per square metre rises (as occurs when a development is denser) or sale price per square metre falls (meaning the proposed unit would be affordable in a free market). To wit, the economic viability of housing schemes in England is low if you intend to build units that constitute ordinary working- and middle-class housing in most of the English-speaking world, because local planning policies force developers to only embark on those projects which realise relatively higher marginal returns and command a higher market price.

This is a fact of which local governments around the country are aware (pdf); Newham's viability assessment, for example, points out that "50% affordable housing is unlikely to be viable in all market conditions", and that "in some circumstances... sales values would need to increase beyond the 2007 peak for 50% affordable housing to be achievable."

But this is not 2007, and we would be mistaken to believe that the social housing crisis is separable from the supply problem in the wider private markets. British social housing policy is itself heavily reliant on private sector provision; a crisis in one begets a crisis in the other, or as put by the IEA (pdf):

If social housing in Britain is under strain – and it clearly is – it is because the housing market as a whole is under strain.

When we consider that fully 20 per cent of the nation's residential property is directly or indirectly supported by the state and virtually the entire private sector housing supply process — design, location, construction, profit margin, and post-completion tenant allocation — is regulated and made more burdensome by the state, it does not take much to see that virtually all state intervention in the UK housing market should in theory, and does in fact, constrain supply or inflate demand. Certain aspects of the problem arise from pet policies of the right; others, of the left. What they have in common is that they disincentivise new housebuilding while making existing housing more expensive at the same time, to the detriment of low- and middle-income earners, the propertyless and the young.

Neither redistributive taxation nor piecemeal tinkering are well-suited to solve this problem. An iconoclastic, no-holds-barred programme of liberalisation, however, is. Like fuel shortages in the America of the seventies or bread shortages in the USSR of the eighties, the British housing crisis is government-led. If the government is serious about solving it, the first thing it should do is get out of the way.

The Carpenters estate in Newham, London. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.