Clegg aids Labour's tax attack on the Tories

The Deputy PM went further than before and accused his coalition partners of turning "a blind eye to the super wealthy" by opposing a mansion tax.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have never sought to hide their differences over a mansion tax. But Nick Clegg went further than ever last night when he accused his coalition partners of "turning a blind eye to the super wealthy". He told ITV News

The Conservatives need to speak for themselves. I for the life of me don't understand why the Conservatives think it's ok that an oligarch can buy a palace in Regent's Park for tens of millions of pounds and pay the same council tax as a three-bedroom family house in Lewisham.

That is just unfair. We can't keep turning a blind eye to the super wealthy basically being taxed the same way on their properties as hard working families across the country.

Clegg's words prompt the question of whether the Lib Dems will line up with Labour if and when Ed Miliband succeeds in forcing a Commons vote on a mansion tax. Vince Cable has suggested that his party will vote in favour of the opposition motion provided that it is not tied to the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate (which the Lib Dems oppose) and Clegg similarly indicated that it would depend on the wording. 

Neither Vince nor I know what will be put before us so we can't of course determine in advance how we would vote.

But of course the Liberal Democrats for a long time have been the leading advocate of greater fairness in tax.

I've been told by a Labour source that the motion will not include a commitment to introduce a 10p tax band in order to maximise the chances of support from the Lib Dems. The party sees the vote as a chance to show how the Tories are on the wrong side of the new tax divide in British politics. Miliband believes that the Conservatives' decision to write privately to their donors soliciting funds to combat a "homes tax" leaves them particularly vulnerable to the charge that they are the party of the rich. 

The irony is that before the last Budget, George Osborne, the man now leading the charge against the tax, considered introducting two or three new higher council tax bands on houses worth more than £1m, a measure that the Lib Dems could have presented as a mansion tax. But this option was ruled out after David Cameron's shire Tory instincts asserted themselves and the PM personally vetoed the proposal. With the Tories now having ruled out anything resembling a mansion tax, the Lib Dems see no reason to go easy on their coalition partners.  

Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.