Mervyn King once memorably complained of David Cameron and George Osborne’s “tendency to think about issues only in terms of politics, and how they might affect Tory electorability”. Rarely has there been a better example of this than the Help to Buy scheme.
While Cameron and Osborne publicly state that the aim of the policy is to help first-time buyers, their real aim is to create a pre-election feel-good factor among Tory-leaning homeowners by inflating prices. With the cap for support set at a £600,000 (the average house price is just £172,000), Help to Buy will act as a giant state subsidy for homeowners seeking to trade up or borrow against the value of their property.
Today we learn that Osborne has told the cabinet as much. The Independent’s Andrew Grice quotes the Chancellor as saying: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.”
This is undoubtedly smart politics; 45% of homeowners voted Conservative in 2010 and are more likely to remain loyal to the party if they’re feeling flush by 2015. But it is terrible economics and a policy that no one genuinely committed to expanding home ownership should support.
Even while allowing some to make it onto the ladder, the scheme risks blocking the route for others by further widening the gulf between prices and earnings. There is much that the government could do to ease the housing crisis, including increasing supply by allowing councils to borrow to build (as Vince Cable has proposed), penalising developers who sit on unused land, and improving conditions for private tenants. But none of these objectives are aided by an electoral bung less aimed at delivering more homes than more votes.