The question the Tories still won't answer about Help to Buy

Why does a scheme supposedly designed to help first-time buyers offer taxpayer-backed mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000?

While it's hard to find an economist with a good word to say about Help to Buy, the Tories are convinced that the policy is political gold. A month after the full launch of the scheme, David Cameron boasts in today's Sun that more than 2,000 people, or 75 families a day, have already been accepted in principle for a mortgage. In an attempt to emulate Margaret Thatcher, who was memorably photographed handing over the keys to those who bought their council homes under Right to Buy, Cameron has asked staff to ensure that he meet couples benefiting from the policy whenever he makes a regional visit.

The Tories are particularly keen to draw attention to figures showing that three-quarters of applicants are first-time buyers and that the average price of a house bought under the scheme is £163,000, with most located outside of London and the south east. Cameron writes: "When we launched Help to Buy we heard a lot of scare stories about how this would be a policy for the rich, the South East, the elderly and those who already had homes. One month in and the figures show this is nonsense. The typical house bought with Help to Buy is just over £160,000 — well below the national average. It’s proving hugely popular across the country, with three quarters of applications outside London and the South East. And what’s more, most applicants are first-time buyers, young and have an average household income."

But one question the Conservatives are still unwilling to answer is why a scheme ostensibly designed to help first-time-buyers offers taxpayer-backed mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000. Even if only a minority of applicants purchase homes worth more than the national average, this remains a dubious use of public money. The suspicion is that the Tories are seeking to create what George Osborne reportedly described as a "little housing boom", something that would put houses even further out of reach for most would-be buyers. If the impression develops that the government is focused on stimulating demand rather than expanding supply, Help to Buy may not prove to be the political elixir that Cameron hopes.

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI for Inside Housing showed that 57% disagree that "rising house prices are a good thing for Britain" (23% of whom strongly disagree), while just 20% agree. In addition, by 41% to 29%, they disagree that "rising house prices are a good thing for me personally". The recent experience of the crash and concern at the lack of affordable housing for young people has, perhaps unsurprisingly, persuaded the public that inflating another housing bubble isn't a great idea. With its call for the Help to Buy cap to be lowered from £600,000 and its pledge to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, Labour may ultimately be the victor in the housing wars.

David Cameron meets first time buyers Kayleigh Groom and Chris Day, as he visits a housing estate in Weston Favell. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit