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20 April 2013

The Treasury select committee is deeply unimpressed by Osborne’s Help To Buy scheme

The plan to help first-time buyers is "very much a work in progress", say Andrew Tyrie and colleagues.

By Helen Lewis

For connoisseurs of polite eviscerations, parliamentary select committees are a joy. From Tom Watson grilling the Murdochs to Michael Gove being asked if his special advisers had really described his junior minister as a “lazy incompetent narcissist“, they can feature some very unpolitical plain speaking.

Under Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, the Treasury select committee has often been a little more independent-minded than the government would like. Its new report into the effects of the Budget looks at the flagship “Help to Buy” scheme, and is a masterpiece of quiet denunciation.

Here’s how the Treasury describes the initiative on its website:

Help to Buy is made up of two schemes – “equity loan” where the Government will loan you up to 20% of the value of your new build home and “mortgage guarantee” where lenders will be incentivised to make more mortgages available for people with small deposits.

The Treasury Committee has spotted a number of problems with this idea, and helpfully summarised them alongside Tyrie’s thoughts, next to its full report. It describes the scheme as “very much work in progress. It may have a number of unintended consequences.”

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The first problem is with the structure of the scheme itself. The report notes:

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It is by no means clear that a scheme, whose primary outcome may be to support house prices, will ultimately be in the interests of first time buyers. This is the group the Government says it wants to help.

. . .

The lack of clarity over whether the mortgage guarantee scheme will be open to those wishing to purchase a second home is concerning on two grounds. First, it is a reflection of the need to think schemes through carefully before announcing them. Second, whilst the Committee is aware of the complexity which may come with an exclusion, we struggle to see the rationale for the taxpayer to stand behind loans for people wishing to own a second property, especially given that the Chancellor has repeatedly stated that the scheme is primarily designed to help people onto the property ladder as well as those who wish to move property.

The issue of second homes has dogged the policy since the start, with government ministers offering differing opinions on whether it would cover them. The sentence I’ve bolded is one of several waspish reflections on the fundamental soundness of the plan.

Here’s the second stand-out section:

The mortgage guarantee scheme also makes the Government an active player in the mortgage market. The Committee is concerned that the Treasury now has a financial interest in maintaining house prices to limit losses to the taxpayer.

Of course, there are already many reasons why a government would want to maintain house prices – it is not popular politics to plunge voters into negative equity, or make home-owners feel that an asset on which they felt they could rely has fallen in value. But given that high prices (driven by lack of supply in popular areas) are one of the factors locking first-time buyers out of the market, such a scheme places the Treasury in a very peculiar position.

At the Guardian, Nils Pratley analyses the report and notes:

The real problem in the housing market is the lack of new homes. To attempt to stimulate more building by subsidising mortgages and forcing up house prices is a bizarrely roundabout approach. It is long-term, at best. “If the government’s priority was housing supply, its housing measures ought to have concentrated there,” says the committee. Quite.