The housing crisis is worse than any of the parties are prepared to admit

Even a million new homes over five years won't be enough. The UK needs 1.5 million just to meet need.

In recent months, all three of the main parties have sought to demonstrate that they are responding to the housing crisis. Labour has pledged to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020 through the creation of new towns and garden cities. The Lib Dems have called for councils to be allowed to pool their borrowing limits in order to fund a major expansion of social housing. The Tories have launched Help to Buy, which, they claim, will stimulate supply as well as demand. 

But for some idea of the extent to which all parties are still underplaying the extent of the crisis, it's worth reading today's Policy Exchange report on the subject. As it notes, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes from 2015 to 2020 simply to meet need, 300,000 a year. Around 221,000 new households are expected to be formed each year over this period and there is a significant backlog. Thus, even the target spoken of in Labour circles - a million in five years - falls short. As the report says, "1 million homes over five years, around 200,000 homes in England, is actually a failure to keep up with predicted housing need, which is itself likely to be an underestimate of housing demand. Indeed, such language is unhelpful in many respects, as both need and demand are to some extent arbitrary. A young person living at home with their parents but who wants to leave might be seen as having a 'demand' or 'need' for housing, depending on how this is defined. They are not homeless, but they want to move out."

If this government and the next are to even come close to meeting need, they will need to enable a dramatic expansion of both private and social housing. This will require further planning reform, action against landbanking and the removal of the cap on council borrowing (something that George Osborne, for entirely ideological reasons, has refused to do).  

But before solving the crisis, politicians will need to acknowledge its scale. In today's Evening Standard, one finds Grant Shapps boasting that Help to Buy will give Londoners "the homes they need" on the same day that DCLG figures showed that the net supply of housing rose by just 124,270 in 2012-13, a fall of 8% since 2011-12 and the lowest number since the series began in 2000-01. Help to Buy, which seeks to inflate demand, rather than supply ("Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up", George Osborne reportedly told the cabinet), will do almost nothing to change this. While in a better position than the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are still showing little of the ambition required. If an even greater number of families are not to be denied the basic right to housing, that must change - and soon. 

David Cameron is shown around the Egerton Green housing development in Altrincham, near Manchester on September 29, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.