Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. David Cameron should take tips from John Major about Europe (Observer)

Andrew Rawnsley finds important diplomatic lessons in the last Tory Prime Minister's record of Brussels negotiations.

2. A civil servant too effective for his own good (Independent on Sunday)

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is a formidable operator, says John Rentoul. No wonder he has so many enemies ...

3. Jeremy's still king of Whitehall, but is his crown slipping? (Mail on Sunday)

... while James Forsyth detects chinks in the Cabinet Secretary's famously formidable armour.

4. No more Mr Tough Guy - enter Obama the peacemaker (Sunday Times)

Andrew Sullivan sees signs of a new radicalism in White House foreign policy.

5. Uncertainty of independence can't be wished away (Scotland on Sunday)

Scotland Secretary Michael Moore MP rules out negotiations on a contingency plan for independence before a referendum. 

6. Cameron gives the game away (Independent on Sunday)

Leading article slams the Prime Minister for abandoning the national interest with a reckless European policy.

7. Face it, we only matter to Obama as part of the EU (Sunday Telegraph)

Peter Oborne finds the founding myth of the Atlanticist Tory party in tatters.

8. The beautiful game embodies everything that's bad about Britain (Observer

Will Hutton sees the ugly side of UK capitalism neatly expressed in the Premier League.

9. Now it's loss of faith in justice that needs fixing (Sunday Telegraph)

The Savile affair exposes grim inadequacy at the heart of the system, writes Matthew D'Ancona.

10. Chilcot's continuing silence on Iraq is an affront to us all (Observer)

Catherine Bennett wonders how the truth about the decision to go to war is still so hard to come by 10 years on.

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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.