How Osborne disguised the truth about the rising housing benefit bill

Excessive rents and substandard wages are to blame for soaring housing benefit payments, not workshy 'scroungers'.

Rarely has there been a better example of a politician attacking the symptom, rather than the cause, than in the case of George Osborne and housing benefit. Addressing Morrisons workers earlier today, Osborne sought to terrify his audience with tales of families receiving "£100,000 a year" (just five did). It was such cases, he said, that prompted the government to cap housing benefit payments at £400 a week.

We can’t have a system that penalises you for going out to work and wanting to get on. So we’ve put a stop to those staggering payments and put a cap on housing benefit.

We’ve made sure that you can’t get more than £400 of Housing Benefit a week in this country. That’s still a pretty generous amount.

And yet when we did the pressure groups and welfare lobby attacked it as not enough.

They still say that people should get more than £400 a week housing benefit.

They don’t seem to realise that the money to pay these benefits comes from people who work hard, who pay their taxes, and many of whom can’t afford £400 a week in rent.

On one point the Chancellor is right: the housing benefit bill is too high. But what he chose not to tell his audience is that benefit payments have only soared because rents have. The bloated housing benefit bill (which will reach £23.8bn this year, more than a tenth of the welfare budget) is the result of a conscious choice by successive governments to subsidise private landlords, rather than invest in affordable social housing.

The cost of privately renting a home has increased by 37 per cent in the past five years and is set to rise by a further 35 per cent over the next six years. As a result, the number of working people forced to rely on welfare to pay their rent has increased by 417,830 (86 per cent) in the last three years, a figure that is rising at a rate of nearly 10,000 a month. Ninety three per cent of new claims are made by households containing at least one employed adult. By 2015, a total of 1.2 million working people people will only be able to stay in their homes through state subsidy. It is excessive rents and substandard wages that are to blame for the inflated housing benefit budget, not workshy 'scroungers'. Even with the government's cuts, the bill is forecast to rise from £23.8bn this year to £25.9bn in 2017-18. 

But had Osborne chosen to tell his audience this, rather than launching another lazy assault on the welfare system, he might have been forced to explain why the government isn't building more homes. With 390,000 new families formed in 2012 but only 111,250 new homes built, rents have continued to soar as demand has outstripped supply. And as the OBR, among others, has noted, Osborne's new "Help To Buy" scheme is only likely to further drive up prices. But the government's response to the housing crisis too often remains to change the subject. In this case, by displacing public anger onto those who least deserve it: the poor and the vulnerable. 

Members of the public in north London walk past a poster informing of changes to the benefits and tax system that have come into force. 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.