Help to Buy looks like a disaster waiting to happen, but some joined-up thinking in Whitehall could at least deliver some green benefits
As a rule I am not a fan of columnists who use their privileged position to air personal grievances, not least because it always comes across as whiney and self-serving. But that said, all politics is ultimately personal and sometimes you need a personal perspective to explore a policy's impact. And nowhere is this more apparent than with our strangely personal obsession with housing. All of which hopefully goes some way towards excusing the following declaration: I really hate the government's Help to Buy scheme.
I suppose it is meant to be aimed at me and many of my peers, prospective first time buyers with stable jobs who struggle to secure the 15 to 20 per cent deposits needed for a mortgage with manageable repayments. But then again, I'm 33, I've been saving for over 10 years, inherited a relatively modest amount of money from grandparents, and now, just as I'm approaching the point where I might just have enough money for a deposit on a small two bedroom property within an hour commute of work the Chancellor decides to throw mortgages at anyone and everyone with a tiny deposit and the prospect of making mortgage repayments. Even if this policy miraculously works and results in more houses being built, almost everyone is in agreement that the short term result is yet another increase in housing prices, leaving me and my carefully saved deposit, how shall we put this, screwed.
I've listened to the arguments behind this policy and must admit that I am completely stumped as to how the deliberate creation of a housing bubble represents a good idea. I get that the wider availability of mortgages and an increase in prices should encourage more housebuilding, but surely the same result could be achieved by fining developers sitting on viable sites, taking some modest steps to make it harder for investors to simply hoover up homes and turn them into poorly managed rental properties, or, heaven forbid, enabling councils to build some much-needed affordable properties directly. Equally, I am bemused as to how a government that has slammed Labour for wanting to intervene in the energy market can simultaneously argue for such a blatant manipulation of the housing market. But mostly I am just angry. Moral hazard just got real, and I'm the one losing out.
I was musing on all of this earlier today, when it struck me that if the government is in an interventionist mood why can't we have a green lining to this dog's dinner of a policy? After all, as the Treasury Select Committee has already warned there is a very real risk this policy will become a "permanent feature of the UK mortgage market", we may as well get some long-term benefit from the latest housing bubble.
If the government is going to enable the handing out of mortgages to those with only modest deposits, why not demand something in return in the form of minimum energy efficiency standards. The so-called consequential improvement regulations may have been scrapped after the Daily Mail characterised them as a "conservatory tax" that would force any homeowner undertaking upgrade work on their property to take out a Green Deal energy efficiency loan. But the argument that an Englishman's home is his castle and the government has no right to demand that it be made more energy efficient looks even more shaky if the government is the only reason said Englishman has been able to buy said castle.
The Green Deal energy efficiency financing scheme may be making steady if unspectacular progress, but there are growing demands for reforms to the scheme to ensure more households either sign up or independently undertake energy efficiency improvements. It is obvious the government's other flagship housing policy, Help to Buy, could provide the boost the Green Deal so desperately needs. If the government is going to help you get a mortgage, surely it is perfectly reasonable for the government to demand that you ensure your new home is as energy efficient as possible, not least because the Green Deal allows you to deliver energy efficiency improvements in a way that actually saves you money on your energy bills in the long term.
With one simple change to the new Help to Buy scheme the government could deliver 10s of thousands of new Green Deal improvements, improve the energy efficiency of the UK's housing stock, help ensure those new first time buyers do not find themselves trapped in fuel poverty (which should help when interest rates eventually rise, leading to higher repayments), and deliver a boost to the construction market.
Then, when the almost inevitable housing crash came, we'd at least have some nice cosy and energy efficient refurbished homes to show for it. It would do nothing to solve the predicament I am likely to face as house prices continue to spiral upwards, but it could make a major difference to the UK's carbon emissions.
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