Jeff Salway: Policies accommodate landlords rather than target housing issues

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The landlords are revolting. The government’s proposal to make them responsible for checking their tenants aren’t illegal immigrants prompted one property firm to accuse the government of “putting obstacles in the way of landlords expanding their portfolios”.

On the contrary, this government couldn’t have done much more to help residential property investors, albeit not always intentionally.

In spending its energies on such pointless policies as the new immigration bill, unveiled in the Queen’s speech this week, the government wasted another opportunity to introduce a bill that single-handedly would not only stimulate growth, but also boost the housing market while keeping prices down, create thousands of jobs and ease a few social pressures to boot.

It didn’t of course, to the relief of landlords cashing in on the chronic shortage of affordable homes. Scottish new-build completions are at their lowest since the Second World War at a time when demand for housing stock is soaring.

There are already 160,000 people on social housing waiting lists, according to Homes For Scotland, a number that will rise rapidly at the current rate of housebuilding. That the same demand is building up across the UK didn’t deter the government from this week lowering the point at which social housing tenants can exercise their right to buy from five to just three years.

Demand is rising in the private rented sector too and will continue to climb while so many first-time buyers remain priced out of the market.

By sheer coincidence the Queen’s speech came on the day when the UK’s largest lender, the Halifax, revealed that its house price index has reached its highest point since August 2010.

The following day, we had further confirmation that one part of the housing market is positively booming: buy-to-let. The sector accounted for a record 13.4 per cent of lending in the first three months of the year, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders.

It’s a good time to invest in residential property, particularly for those with a bit of cash lying around and unwilling to watch it being eroded by inflation in a cash account. The funding for lending scheme has lowered mortgage costs and rents are rising as first-time buyers struggle to get on the housing ladder. George Osborne’s Budget wheeze – the help-to-buy scheme – is set to deliver another blow to would-be homeowners by driving house prices up.

Then there’s the social housing crisis, helping line landlords pockets even further. More than £23 billion is paid in housing benefit, often subsidising landlords more than tenants.

But still no real home building programme, for all the benefits it would bring. Anyone would think the front bench all had investment property portfolios to think about. Perish the thought.

If YOU’VE strayed on to the City regulator’s website lately you may have noticed that it’s waging war on the clones.

You might suspect the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is seeking to better distinguish itself from its beleaguered predecessor, the Financial Services Authority, by cultivating a new and unexpected science fiction fan base. Fear not, however. The FCA is simply cracking down on the growing number of fraudsters posing as established and regulated firms to sell or promote high-risk or nonexistent investments to UK consumers.

They’re sophisticated too. The regulator has long urged people who aren’t sure of a firm’s legitimacy to use its website to check it’s regulated. However, clone firms use not only the name but also the registration number and address of firms already authorised by the FCA, making them appear genuine.

Fraudsters thrive in hard times and now is no different, especially those targeting investors with claims of easy money to be made. The rise of clone firms is particularly alarming, suggesting they’re enjoying a fair bit of success in getting people to part with their cash so they can take advantage of investment opportunities that often don’t exist.

In just two days last week, the FCA published warnings about 11 companies it said were unregulated by carrying out investment business in the UK. Several more have been added this week (at www.fca.org.uk/news).

It may be that some of the firms listed are doing nothing wrong, but the FCA is making it known that they aren’t authorised to carry out regulated activities. The use of such warnings is a promising sign that the new regulator intends to act on its promise to be a more interventionist regulator.

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