Brian Cox and Robin Ince to guest-edit the Christmas issue of the New Statesman

A special edition on evidence, out Wednesday 19 December.

Next week will see a special issue of the New Statesman, featuring contributions from Ricky Gervais, Alan Moore, Mark Gatiss, Phill Jupitus, Alexander McCall Smith, Ben Miller, Maggie Philbin, Laura Bates, Tom Humberstone, Natalie Haynes, Josie Long, Ralph Steadman, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Mehdi Hasan, Jim Al-Khalili and an exclusive interview with David Attenborough.

Inside the 100-page double issue, Brian Cox and Robin Ince address the question of evidence – Why do we need it? How can we evaluate it?

They speak to some of the brightest thinkers in the world of science, investigate the year’s discoveries and bid farewell to Voyager-1 as it leaves the solar system. Inside, Mark Gatiss discusses ghost stories, Alexander McCall Smith writes a short story, Ralph Steadman draws the Large Hadron Collider and Alan Moore demolishes the very concept of evidence.

There are also cartoons from Phill Jupitus and Tom Humberstone, a galaxy of space images and faith leaders addressing the conflict between religious belief and science . . . and Ricky Gervais talking about atheism.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, said:

“Brian and Robin will be familiar to millions as champions of science, through their join Radio 4 programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, and their separate endeavours. Robin’s Nine Lessons have become a Christmas institution, and Brian’s programmes have brought physics into the nation’s living rooms.

“As David Attenborough says in his interview with them, to be a full citizen in the modern world, it is vital to understand science and technology. We are delighted to devote a whole issue to the cause. This special issue is full of wonder and surprise.”

Robin Ince and Brian Cox said:

“One of the delights of working on Infinite Monkey Cage is the variety of ideas trawled through in the green room beforehand and the pub afterwards. 

“So when asked to hijack a magazine and fill it with our worldview and the views of others we like, obviously our monstrous egos demanded that we say yes.”

The issue will be on sale in London on Wednesday 19 December and in the rest of the country from Thursday 20 December. International buyers can obtain copies on our website at www.newstatesman.com. It will be on sale for two weeks, with the next issue out on Thursday, 3 January.

Other New Statesman guest editors have included Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins, Jemima Khan, David Miliband and Ai Weiwei.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince. Photo: Muir Vidler for 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.