Why won't Osborne let councils borrow to build housing? Even Tories want him to

Conservative councillors and Boris Johnson are among those calling for the Chancellor to lift the "artificial cap" on borrowing but, for entirely ideological reasons, he still won't act.

Demand for housing might be surging owing to George Osborne's Help to Buy but supply remains pitifully constrained. The Local Government Association reveals today that 381,390 homes have been given planning permission but have yet to be built. Rather than the planning system (as many on the right claim), it is a lack of finance that is blame. 

Tory councillor Mike Jones, the chairman of the LGA's environment and housing board, has responded by calling for the government to lift the "artificial cap" placed on councils' borrowing and allow them to build more affordable homes. He said:

While there has been progress made, this risks being undermined if we do not find a way to ensure developers keep up with demand. These figures conclusively show that it is not the planning system holding back the building of much-needed new homes.

The challenge now lies in actually getting houses built. Government schemes to help buyers access finance risk creating a bubble if there isn't an increase in house building to match it.

Government has an unrivalled opportunity to create jobs, provide tens of thousands of homes and help the economy without having to find a single extra penny.

New homes are badly needed and councils want to get on with building them. The common sense answer is for the Treasury to remove its house-building block and let us get on with it.

In his recent manifesto for London 2020 Vision, Boris Johnson similarly argued: 

We should allow London’s councils to borrow more for house building - as they do on continental Europe - since the public sector clearly gains a bankable asset and there is no need for this to appear on the books as public borrowing.

In policy terms, it is a no-brainer. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the cap by £7bn could enable the construction of 60,000 homes over the next five years, creating 23,500 jobs and adding £5.6bn to the economy.

So what's holding Osborne back? In a word, ideology. Unlike in other European countries, borrowing by councils appears on the national balance sheet making the deficit appear larger than it is. For a Chancellor determined to ensure that borrowing falls every year (to the extent that he delayed payments to institutions such as the World Bank and the UN and forced departments to underspend by £10.9bn), regardless of other policy objectives, lifting the cap is out of the question. 

In an attempt to win Osborne round, Vince Cable proposed allowing councils to pool their borrowing limits so those not using their full entitlement can donate it to authorities with housing waiting lists, but this too was blocked. As Cable recently told the Social Liberal Forum: "What is stopping them? Frankly, Tory dogma. And the Tories are hiding behind Treasury methodology, saying that more borrowing by councils beyond permitted limits will break the fixed rules.

"So even though freeing up this borrowing space would result in tens of thousands more homes being built, and many times more jobs, they would rather start talking about the cuts they want to make, rather than the houses that we should build. That is the difference between Lib Dems and Tories on this matter."

Cable's housing plan will be put forward for endorsement at the Lib Dem conference next month. So long as Osborne continues to resist any reform, he risks being outflanked on an issue of increasing political significance. 

 

 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.