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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.