Let’s start by giving George Osborne some credit: seven weeks out from a general election this is no time for sensible, long-term policymaking. He knows what he’s doing with his Help to Buy Isa, which is trying to win an election, not address the country’s long-term housing challenge. Which is just as well, because it will not help with that at all.
The UK has a housing shortage, or at least parts of it do, notably the South-East where many (too many) of the jobs are. Demand has been growing faster than supply for many years, and so prices have been increasing rapidly with the average home now costing many multiples of the average salary. It is quite plain that the scales need rebalancing away from demand and towards supply.
And yet. The Chancellor, in one of the major announcements of his pre-election Budget, has decided to go instead for boosting demand. A new Help to Buy Isa will be available from this autumn for first-time buyers, who will effectively have their savings topped up by 25%, up to a maximum of £3,000 (although this seems to be per person so could amount to £6,000 for a couple purchasing their first home together). This is an extension of earlier Help to Buy initiatives but it marks quite a fundamental shift in that previous measures have amounted to loans and guarantees: now, the state will be directly topping up buyers’ savings at the point of purchase. It will be giving people money to buy homes with. There is no direct precedent for this that I can think of.
On the face of it, this is a great idea. Owner-occupation has been declining since the early 2000s. The latest English Housing Survey puts it at 63%, its lowest level since the mid-1980s. In London it is only 48% – a minority, which owner-occupiers in the rest of the country are expected to be in by the 2030s. And a major obstacle for those being shut out of the market is indeed the difficulty of saving up a big enough deposit, especially since mortgage lending tightened after the 2008 crash. These people certainly need greater government support, but not via a subsidy like this which will simply increase aggregate purchasing power in the housing market and so hold up house prices for everybody, including first-time buyers and future generations who will have even less chance of purchasing their own home. The Treasury’s spending forecast for this scheme is something like £1 billion a year by the end of the next parliament, depending on take-up.
If the Chancellor really wanted to help first-time buyers – and not just those that might be voting in May, but the young people of the next couple of decades – then he would be doing something to bring prices down rather than helping to keep them up. There are two principal ways in which he could be doing this.
Firstly, he could build more homes. Not just encouraging the private sector to build enough (which it never has and never will) but actually committing significant public investment to building the homes we need. This was how the post-war governments managed to build the homes the country needed until such spending was wound down from the 1970s. The period since has amounted to a prolonged experiment in getting the market to pick up the slack – and failing. He could start by diverting this Help to Buy cash into housebuilding. Those sceptical about the cost should remember that we already spend £25 billion a year in housing benefit (which goes to landlords in rent subsidies), largely as a result of our failure to build enough homes.
Secondly, he could severely restrict further house purchases by private landlords. Young people are being priced out of the market not by each other, in the main, but by a private rented sector which has been booming since the 1990s. The decline in owner-occupation has been in inverse proportion to the growth in the landlord class, which has more than doubled the number of homes it owns in just over a decade and now accounts for 19% of the housing stock in England. It is continuing to grow, fuelled by a housing benefit system which effectively under-writes the demands of landlords already charging more than a quarter of their tenants can afford/
Of course if this government had intended anything meaningful on housing it would have initiated it five years ago, not at the tail end of its time in office. There are too many vested interests standing in the way of what is really needed, which is real action to tackle the causes of house price growth. But these interests are not confined to developers, housebuilders, estate agents or private landlords – it also includes the millions of people who already own their homes, who enjoy seeing their assets rise in value. This amounts to a formidable lobby, and one that Osborne has not taken on. But this close to an election, who would?