Traditional terraced properties in Greenwich on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour’s Help to Build scheme will succeed where the coalition has failed

By providing government guarantees to small construction firms we will kickstart housing supply. 

Today on a visit to a small builder in Kent, we outlined Labour’s proposal to boost small house-builders and help the next generation on to the property ladder. Our Help to Build scheme would underwrite bank loans to smaller housebuilders and unlock much-needed finance to get them building.

We’re in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in a generation. Families and young people are struggling to get on the property ladder. More and more people are living in the private rented sector which often doesn’t provide them the stability and peace of mind that they need. And if you’re on the waiting list for social housing then there are another 1.6 million households in the queue with you. The key driver of the crisis is that we’re simply not building enough homes. We're currently building less than half the number of homes we need to keep up with demand.

It’s true these housing pressures didn’t begin under this government - after all no government has built enough homes for 30 years. But things have certainly got much worse on this government’s watch. Under David Cameron, house building has fallen to its lowest levels in peacetime since the 1920s. Only today, we have learned that the government’s flagship housing policy, the New Homes Bonus, is redistributing money from some of the poorest Labour councils to the richest Tory and Lib Dem authorities, and is not delivering the homes communities need.

Labour can do better. We want more people to realise their dream of home ownership. But, unless we build more homes, property prices will rise further out of reach because supply cannot keep pace with demand. So today we are setting out our proposal to tackle the housing shortage by boosting small-builders by improving their access to finance.

Emerging findings from the Lyons Housing Commission, set up by Ed Miliband to deliver a roadmap to getting 200,000 homes a year built by 2020, show there is a need to increase diversity and competitiveness in the housing sector. Figures show that 25 years ago small builders were building two thirds of new homes. Now they're not even building a third of new homes. Over the same period, the number of firms building between one and 100 units has fallen from over 12,000 to fewer than 3,000.

What has caused this decline? The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) surveys of small house building firms have consistently shown that for these firms access to finance and land are the most significant barriers to growing their businesses and increasing the supply of new homes. In the FMB’s 2013 House Builder Survey, 60 per cent of house builder members cited access to finance as a major barrier to their ability to increase their output of new homes, more than any other factor.

That’s why earlier this year, Labour set out plans to increase access to land for SME builders. The next Labour government will require local authorities to include a higher proportion of small sites in their five year land supply. We will give guaranteed access to public land to smaller firms and custom builders. And we will guarantee that a proportion of the homes built in the next generation of new towns and garden cities will be built by smaller firms.

But we must do more. As Ed Balls said earlier this year, we need a Help to Build scheme that tackles the root cause of the credit crisis for SMEs. Our proposals would kickstart the supply of homes by providing government guarantees for bank lending to SME construction firms in a similar way to how the current Help to Buy scheme underwrites mortgages.

The Help to Buy scheme may increase access to mortgages but, when even Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has warned about the risks to our economy of a lopsided housing market where housing demand hugely outstrips supply, it is clear the time is now right for a Help to Build scheme, using the strength of government guarantees to help increase the supply of affordable properties.

Labour’s Help to Build scheme will encourage small house-builders to deliver more homes, as well as stimulating the local economy and helping to prevent prices from spiralling ever further out of reach for young homebuyers. And we would lock in a series of stringent safeguards, such as a cap on the value of loans available for each development, to ensure the scheme is focussed on smaller builders, and the normal bank checks on construction firms' ability to repay.

This proposal alone will not solve the housing crisis. There is no one single proposal that can. That’s why our Housing Commission will report later this year, producing a roadmap of how we can reach our ambition of getting 200,000 homes a year built by 2020. But in the meantime, acting on this crucial issue will help get our small builders building again and it will begin to tackle the housing crisis which is leaving so many people without a decent home at a price they can afford.

Chris Leslie is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury; Emma Reynolds is shadow housing minister.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?