Help To Buy is in a mess - here's how Osborne can rescue it

To avoid a "second home subsidy", the government must limit the scheme to first-time buyers.

The government’s Help to Buy scheme - a handout to the big beasts of the construction industry wrapped up as a fluffy social policy giving the hard pressed a leg up - has had an inauspicious start to life.

The scheme will share out £3.5bn in interest-free loans to buyers who can rustle up a mortgage deposit of just 5 per cent, each loan offering up to 20 per cent of the value of a new-build property worth £600,000 or less, and taxpayer backing for up to £130bn of mortgage lending.

From the off, the policy faced criticism for artificially stimulating the housing market, threatening another disastrous cycle of boom, bubble and bust.

Even the Treasury select committee felt moved to share its concerns about the risks of channelling public money into an investment whose value - like all good property speculators know - could go up as well as down.

But the biggest problem with Help to Buy is the loophole in the mortgage guarantee scheme that will allow existing home owners access to a loan. Parodying the government’s own 'spare room subsidy' (or 'bedroom tax'), shadow chancellor Ed Balls found a new moniker for the policy: "the second home subsidy".

On BBC1’s Sunday Politics show this week, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi was challenged on this issue yet again. He gave a halting and stumbling response, which cleared absolutely nothing up and raised new fears about the perverse impact these loans might have.

Asked what the government could do to stop the policy being used to buy second properties, Zahawi said:

One of the things we have to look at is the detail. How do you decide? If parents want to help get [children] to get a 5 per cent deposit in place or if someone is selling a smaller property to help their family into a bigger place?

Clear as mud. But look again at what he asking us to consider: how do you decide if a parent purchasing a second home to help their child onto the property ladder - buying it for them, or with them, or using their existing owner occupied property as leverage - is using or abusing equity loan scheme?

It’s worth remembering that, when he unveiled Help to Buy in the Budget, chancellor George Osborne said that home ownership was now "beyond the great majority who can’t turn to their parents for a contribution. That’s not just a blow to the most human of aspirations, it’s a setback to social mobility."

What is this fudged idea over public funding for second homes if not a double-bolted cap on social mobility?

Allowing parents to purchase a second home through to the scheme to support their younger family members removes the opportunity of government support from the children of those who could never offer them an independent leg up, and uses public funds to consolidate wealth in the hands of those who already have it. And if that’s the case, it must be stopped. Immediately.

Writ large, a policy like this only exacerbates social inequality, with its disastrous consequences for us all (no need to rehash the excellent work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett here). It’s not clear that this is exactly what Zahawi meant in his fumbled answer to Andrew Neil’s forensic questioning; perhaps he was just having a bad morning, or feared falling foul of the party machine. Either way, a vacuum will be filled with speculation, so government must clarify exactly how, and by whom, Help to Buy will be accessed.

Another dangling question for the coalition is whether Help to Buy has actually pushed the construction industry to develop more homes? We know there is demand for decent housing; the problem is with the lack of supply. Builders aren’t building, and where they are they’re not building the right sort of homes.

As David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, explained in his response to Help to Buy: "Our housing market has long been weakened by the lack of new houses being built... the government should be focusing on unlocking investment to build more new homes as a way of managing down the housing benefit bill and boosting the economy."

If the policy has only managed to put down the foundations for £600,000 Barrett ‘dream homes’, what is its value to first time buyers?

But listen up, Osborne, because you can rescue Help to Buy with three simple measures:

1. Reduce the limit to 20 per cent of any property valued at the national average of £238,293, rising to £350,000 for London and the South East.

2. Only allow first-time buyers to access the mortgage guarantee scheme.

3. Only open the scheme up to properties with three bedrooms or less, forcing developers to build the type of affordable housing that is so desperately in demand for first-time buyers.

The Chancellor may feel reports that house prices are on the rise for the first time since 2010 confirm that his policy is working. I believe it demonstrates quite the opposite.

George Osborne meets with a couple at the Berkeley Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hannah Fearn is contributing editor of the Guardian local government, housing and public leaders networks

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation