Buy with a little help

Should wider home ownership be a public policy objective? It is one of the big fault lines in housing policy debates. Advocates argue that ownership represents better value than renting, offers people a way to build up capital and creates more stable neighbourhoods. Sceptics say that our obsession with property ownership is diverting investment from more socially useful channels and fuelling a monstrous bubble of unaffordable house prices.

Both arguments are true to an extent. Home ownership has built up capital for generations and supported social mobility, but as prices have shot up more and more people have been locked out. Home ownership rose through the 20th Century, from fewer than 25 per cent of households in 1918 to nearly 70 per cent in 2001, though it has fallen back since then and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008/09. 

In London, ownership fell sharply for 25-34 year olds in the first years of this century. Fifty per cent of that age group were owner-occupiers in 2001, but only 27 per cent were in 2016. The proportion has risen slightly since then (as a result of stalled prices and extended availability of Help to Buy loans), but remains low by historic standards. 

It’s not hard to see why: mortgages may be relatively affordable, but the 2019/20 English Housing Survey, published this week, found that the median deposit for London’s first time buyers was £70,000 – more than twice the median salary. Given that less than half of those renting privately have any savings at all, it is mainly those with family wealth (“the Bank of Mum and Dad”) who can buy a property.

Some buyers have been assisted by the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme (H2B), which was launched in 2013. It allows buyers to borrow a proportion of their deposit from the state and repay it when they sell-up or remortgage. Take up was initially low in London, but has increased since the maximum loan available was raised in 2016.

The scheme has been controversial. By stoking demand while doing to nothing to boost housing supply, it has been accused of pushing up prices. Restricting the scheme to new-builds has fuelled overpriced, poor quality schemes aimed primarily at the H2B market. These is also a risk that both government and house-buyers are left with losses in a period of stagnating prices. And now, the government has started winding the scheme down, restricting it to first-time buyers, and planning to shut it down completely by 2023. They have not said what, if anything, will replace it.

What is to be done? Many would advocate a huge increase in social housing provision and an end to the obsession with the “property ladder”. We certainly need more social housing. But as someone who bought a home when they were relatively cheap, I am uneasy with “Generation X-plaining” to younger people that they should be happy renting and miss out on the security and opportunities that can come with home ownership. And London’s recovery from coronavirus will not be helped if people who want to buy have to move out of the city (or choose wealthier parents). 

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to UK house prices as we recover from the Covid crisis. As the Stamp Duty holiday ends and the recession bites, the market may slow or even go into reverse. London already has the lowest rate of house price growth in England. Market moderation is welcome, but London would need a precipitous and damaging crash in prices (which would freeze the supply of new homes for sale) to bring them in line with wages and savings. Even the government’s favoured solution – discounted “first homes” – would require deposits beyond the means of many Londoners.

There is a powerful moral case for supporting first-time buyers, particularly those without family wealth, and the core of the H2B approach – a state-sponsored loan that is repaid as and when property prices rise – seems sound. But the scheme needs fixing. Firstly, it should not be restricted to new build, thereby tying young people into an expensive and mixed-quality market. Its primary purpose should be levelling the playing field, not “stimulating the market”. And the scheme should be able to run for longer than five years, particularly given the choppy conditions of the property market right now.

Would this simply fuel the speculative fires of the UK housing market? Maybe. But punishing young people from poorer backgrounds for the exuberance of property speculation seems absurd and unfair. So we should accompany support for first time buyers, with reform of the tax breaks that make home ownership so attractive as an investment – for example, the UK’s outdated and regressive property taxes, and even the exemption of family homes from capital gains and inheritance taxes. There is no reason, beyond electoral calculation, that homes and homes alone should allow untaxed capital accumulation. 

Restricting house-buying to wealthy families is a problem. Runaway house price inflation has also been a problem. Both problems have been most acute in London in recent years, and they need to be tackled together if the city is to offer opportunity to present and future citizens alike as it recovers from the pandemic. 

First published by OnLondon.

Property taxes need reform, but changes must be fair to Londoners

Britain’s domestic property taxes are in a terrible state. Council Tax bands are still based on house valuations made in 1991, and the 30 years since then have seen huge variations in house price growth between different places and properties. Stamp Duty is a tax raised on people when they move house, which has the effect of gluing up the property market and of encouraging people to stay for longer in homes that are too big or too small for them. What can be done to change this unsatisfactory situation? And what might the implications be for London of any major reforms that might be tried?

One idea that has been gaining currency in the run-up to the budget is flat rate property taxes, with home-owners paying a set proportion of their property’s value each year. Research by WPI Economics suggests that a tax of 0.48% of values could generate enough revenue to replace both Stamp Duty and Council Tax. And the Fairer Share campaign suggests that such a tax would leave 76% of UK households better off.

Property value taxes have a lot to recommend them (as do more ambitious proposals, such as land value taxes, and more modest reforms, such as new Council Tax bands). They are a lot more progressive than other taxes: Council Tax for the most expensive properties is only three times the rate it is for the cheapest properties, whereas property prices can vary by a factor of more than 100.

There would be issues with implementation: for example, transitional measures would be needed to avoid “cash-poor” owners of larger houses being hit by such a dramatic hike in taxes that they might be forced to sell in a hurry. But there’s a bigger problem for London. Levying property value taxes nationally at a flat rate would represent a massive shift of the tax burden onto London from the rest of the UK. The Fairer Share website suggests that communities outside London would pay £6.5 billion less in property taxes. As their proposal is intended to be fiscally neutral overall, that means London would pay £6.5 billion more.

Such a shift may have populist appeal at a time of “levelling up” (though maybe not for the many Conservative MPs in London and the south east whose constituents would suffer), but it ignores the fact that Londoners are as much victims as beneficiaries of high house prices. Incomes in London are higher than in the rest of the country, but they are much closer to the average once housing costs are taken into account. And low-paid Londoners, who earn little more than counterparts elsewhere, are already particularly squeezed: London has the highest rates of child poverty in England.

Adding £100 a month to Londoners’ tax bills (in line with the “capped” Fairer Share proposals) would drag incomes in the capital below the national average, even before other costs of living were taken into account. On top of that, Londoners will be struggling in the wake of a pandemic that has hit the capital hardest: in December 2020 London had seen the steepest rise in benefit claims of all the UK’s nations and regions, and had the second highest rate of claimants (after the West Midlands).

There is still a case for tax reform, and the budget would be a good opportunity to announce a careful review. But, as the London Finance Commission (set up by Boris Johnson and reconvened by Sadiq Khan) argued, this should take place on a regional basis, not through nationalising local taxes. The overall fiscal flows between different parts of the country could be preserved (perhaps with a review every few years to take account of how different regions have prospered), while different regions could set property taxes that reflected the specifics of their housing market – with different Council Tax tiers, flat rate taxes, or exemptions and discounts applied to reflect local economic circumstances.

And this is not to argue against London paying a fair share to the rest of the UK. London’s taxpayers made a net contribution (taxes minus public spending) of nearly £40 billion in 2019. And that’s fair: London has more productive businesses, high-spending tourists and rich residents – or at least it did in pre-pandemic times. But squeezing the capital further, as the UK struggles to recover, would look extractive, blinkered and self-defeating rather than fair. 

[First published in OnLondon, 28 February 2021]