A member of a local militia guards remnants of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron calls for more sanctions on Russia after the MH17 crash

The PM has spoken to Putin about Russia's role in the Malaysian Airlines crash, and is urging his EU allies to impose harsher sanctions on Russia.

Over the weekend, both Britain and the US decided it was highly likely the Malaysian Airlines flight that crashed in east Ukraine was brought down by pro-Russian separatists.

In light of this, David Cameron spoke to the Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday evening, urging him to allow international access to the site of the crash. At present, the rebels controlling the area are not allowing proper access to the crash site, and they also removed the plane’s black boxes, which they have since agreed to hand over.

Cameron made clear to Putin that the bringing down of the flight was “totally unacceptable” and a source told the Mail that he also said to the Russian President: “Ten of my citizens have just been killed in a plane brought down by a missile fired by Russian separatists. I have been asking to speak to you since this happened. You clearly can play a role in exerting influence on the separatists to grant us access to the site.”

The PM has also been discussing stronger sanctions on Russia with his allies in the EU. The French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both agreed with the PM that the main priority is to gain unfettered access to the site to recover victims, but have also discussed a new, harsher approach to Russia by way of sanctions.

However, the BBC is reporting a “lack of appetite” among EU countries for expanding existing sanctions on Russia, which is apparently frustrating Downing Street.

Cameron will make a statement to the Commons later today. He's good at these kind of statesmanlike addresses, and his enthusiasm for harsher sanctions made clear by No 10 is a decisive move in the right direction. However, there's only so much he can do in this situation without his EU allies wholeheartedly on-side. Germany is more reticent about sanctions because of its reliance on Russian gas, and also its position as Russia's biggest European trading partner.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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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.