Comment: We must be sure the foundations are sound

IT IS clear that concerns that the UK government’s Help to Buy scheme might spawn another pre-2007-style housing bubble are more than just the keening of serial jeremiahs. There is a groundswell of misgiving.

Martin Flanagan. Picture: Adrian Lourie

Antonio Horta-Osorio, boss of Lloyds, the bank most exposed to the fortunes of the British economy, is the latest to express the fear that the scheme might take us back to the future disastrously.

Critics say no swathes of new housing are being created to fill the demand by would-be homeowners, and so making it easier for them to “bid” for a relatively finite number of properties is trying to fit a buyer quart into a seller pint pot.

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Last week, it was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressing reservations that the scheme could do damage to the UK’s economic recovery.

Some housebuilders, along with a sizeable band of City economists, have also asked the government to think again about the scheme, which can see buyers only having to stump up 5 per cent as a deposit in order to get a mortgage.

The trouble is there is no simple solution. Horta-Osorio is right superficially that Help to Buy needs to be accompanied by a looser planning permission framework for new housing to forestall a real risk of a housing bubble.

For instance, he reckons that low-price housing projects for the least well-off need to be easier to get off the ground, literally and metaphorically, to restrict the inflationary risks of the scheme.

However, there’s the rub. A lot of people are worried about concreting over Britain for new housing. Witness the furore over the HS2 rail link between the north of England and London.

And just like those expressing doubts about the unintended consequences of Help to Buy, those worried about a disfiguring rash of new housing conurbations to safeguard against those consequences deserve to be heard.

We are a small island. Getting a foot on the housing ladder is important; one could argue only one step away from an inalienable right.

But stoking the housing market by throwing backstop government cash at it is problematic, and looking for an open-door planning policy to stop a bubble being created are both dangerous waters.

A compromise way forward would be to scrutinise the arithmetical parameters of Help to Buy again, removing its most ambitious financial guarantees while keeping the overall scheme intact, but stopping short of full compliance with Horta-Osorio’s solution. The latter could also have unintended consequences for our physical environment.

Turbulent times in prospect for Welby

Archbishop Justin Welby’s ethical broadside at payday lenders has been rebuffed from an unexpected quarter. Simon Culhane, the feisty chief executive of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment (CISI), says Welby is chasing a red herring as it is the mainstream banks that, with additional charges for unsecured borrowing, often charge the least well-off more than the Wongas of this world to borrow short-term.

Culhane says the latter fulfils a need. What gives CISI’s message more weight is that it is the City’s leading ethics body and includes many mainstream banking staff. Its stand-off with Welby shows this is a divisive moneylenders in the temple issue.