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.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.