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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.