Osborne reveals the true aim of Help to Buy: to inflate house prices

"Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up," the Chancellor reportedly told the cabinet.

Mervyn King once memorably complained of David Cameron and George Osborne's "tendency to think about issues only in terms of politics, and how they might affect Tory electorability". Rarely has there been a better example of this than the Help to Buy scheme. 

While Cameron and Osborne publicly state that the aim of the policy is to help first-time buyers, their real aim is to create a pre-election feel-good factor among Tory-leaning homeowners by inflating prices. With the cap for support set at a £600,000 (the average house price is just £172,000), Help to Buy will act as a giant state subsidy for homeowners seeking to trade up or borrow against the value of their property. 

Today we learn that Osborne has told the cabinet as much. The Independent's Andrew Grice quotes the Chancellor as saying: "Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up." 

This is undoubtedly smart politics; 45% of homeowners voted Conservative in 2010 and are more likely to remain loyal to the party if they're feeling flush by 2015. But it is terrible economics and a policy that no one genuinely committed to expanding home ownership should support.

Even while allowing some to make it onto the ladder, the scheme risks blocking the route for others by further widening the gulf between prices and earnings. There is much that the government could do to ease the housing crisis, including increasing supply by allowing councils to borrow to build (as Vince Cable has proposed), penalising developers who sit on unused land, and improving conditions for private tenants. But none of these objectives are aided by an electoral bung less aimed at delivering more homes than more votes.

George Osborne leaves 10 Downing Street on October 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How will Theresa May meet her commitment to low-earners?

The Prime Minister will soon need to translate generalities into specifics. 

The curtailed Conservative leadership contest (which would not have finished yet) meant that Theresa May had little chance to define her agenda. But of the statements she has made since becoming prime minister, the most notable remains her commitment to lead a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours." 

When parliament returns on 5 September, and the autumn political season begins, May will need to translate this generality into specifics. The defining opportunity to do so will be the Autumn Statement. Originally intended by George Osborne to be a banal update of economic forecasts, this set-piece more often resembled a second Budget. Following the momentous Brexit vote, it certainly will under Philip Hammond. 

The first priority will be to demonstrate how the government will counter the threat of recession. Osborne's target of a budget surplus by 2020 has wisely been abandoned, granting the new Chancellor the freedom to invest more in infrastructure (though insiders make it clear not to expect a Keynesian splurge).

As well as stimulating growth, Hammond will need to reflect May's commitment to those "just managing" rather than the "privileged few". In her speech upon becoming prime minister, she vowed that "when it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you". A natural means of doing so would be to reduce VAT, which was increased to a record high of 20 per cent in 2010 and hits low-earners hardest. Others will look for the freeze on benefit increases to be lifted (with inflation forecast to rise to 3 per cent next year). May's team are keenly aware of the regressive effect of loose monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing), which benefits wealthy asset-owners, and vow that those who lose out will be "compensated" elsewhere. 

A notable intervention has come from Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee. He has called for the government to revive the publication of distributional analyses following Budgets and Autumn Statements, which was ended by George Osborne last year (having been introduced by the coalition in 2010). 

In a letter to Hammond, Tyrie wrote: "I would be grateful for an assurance that you will reinstate the distributional analysis of the effects of the budget and autumn statement measures on household incomes, recently and mistakenly discontinued by your predecessor." He added: "The new prime minister is committing her government to making Britain a country that works 'not for a privileged few, but for every one of us'. A high level of transparency about the effects of tax and welfare policy on households across the income distribution would seem to be a logical, perhaps essential starting point." 

Whether the government meets this demand will be an early test of how explicit it intends to be in reducing disparities. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.