The Treasury select committee is deeply unimpressed by Osborne's Help To Buy scheme

The plan to help first-time buyers is "very much a work in progress", say Andrew Tyrie and colleagues.

For connoisseurs of polite eviscerations, parliamentary select committees are a joy. From Tom Watson grilling the Murdochs to Michael Gove being asked if his special advisers had really described his junior minister as a "lazy incompetent narcissist", they can feature some very unpolitical plain speaking.

Under Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, the Treasury select committee has often been a little more independent-minded than the government would like. Its new report into the effects of the Budget looks at the flagship "Help to Buy" scheme, and is a masterpiece of quiet denunciation.

Here's how the Treasury describes the initiative on its website:

Help to Buy is made up of two schemes – “equity loan” where the Government will loan you up to 20% of the value of your new build home and “mortgage guarantee” where lenders will be incentivised to make more mortgages available for people with small deposits.

The Treasury Committee has spotted a number of problems with this idea, and helpfully summarised them alongside Tyrie's thoughts, next to its full report. It describes the scheme as "very much work in progress. It may have a number of unintended consequences."

The first problem is with the structure of the scheme itself. The report notes:

It is by no means clear that a scheme, whose primary outcome may be to support house prices, will ultimately be in the interests of first time buyers. This is the group the Government says it wants to help.

. . .

The lack of clarity over whether the mortgage guarantee scheme will be open to those wishing to purchase a second home is concerning on two grounds. First, it is a reflection of the need to think schemes through carefully before announcing them. Second, whilst the Committee is aware of the complexity which may come with an exclusion, we struggle to see the rationale for the taxpayer to stand behind loans for people wishing to own a second property, especially given that the Chancellor has repeatedly stated that the scheme is primarily designed to help people onto the property ladder as well as those who wish to move property.

The issue of second homes has dogged the policy since the start, with government ministers offering differing opinions on whether it would cover them. The sentence I've bolded is one of several waspish reflections on the fundamental soundness of the plan.

Here's the second stand-out section:

The mortgage guarantee scheme also makes the Government an active player in the mortgage market. The Committee is concerned that the Treasury now has a financial interest in maintaining house prices to limit losses to the taxpayer.

Of course, there are already many reasons why a government would want to maintain house prices - it is not popular politics to plunge voters into negative equity, or make home-owners feel that an asset on which they felt they could rely has fallen in value. But given that high prices (driven by lack of supply in popular areas) are one of the factors locking first-time buyers out of the market, such a scheme places the Treasury in a very peculiar position.

At the Guardian, Nils Pratley analyses the report and notes:

The real problem in the housing market is the lack of new homes. To attempt to stimulate more building by subsidising mortgages and forcing up house prices is a bizarrely roundabout approach. It is long-term, at best. "If the government's priority was housing supply, its housing measures ought to have concentrated there," says the committee. Quite.

A pigeon on a rooftop. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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