A new market in long-term fixed rate mortgages?

14 Sep

At one end of the age spectrum, Britain has older people in need of social care.  At the other, younger people who want to own their own homes.  The best one can say of Ministers’ attempts to help both to date is that these are a work in progress.

The social care plan that will be voted on these evening will do nothing much to improve the provision or quality of care, whether delivered in one’s own home or elsewhere.  It may not deal even partly, let alone wholly, with the problem it aims to address – namely, having to sell the family home to help pay for care.

This is because it’s more than likely, when the new Health and Social Care Levy kicks in during 2023, that the money raised from it will flow to health – that’s to say the NHS, the capacity of which to consume resources is inexhaustible – rather than social care.

None the less, we raise half a cheer for the Government for potentially ensuring that some people at least will no longer have to sell their houses to help fund care costs.  Even if the proposals that have been announced so far won’t deliver the Conservative Manifesto commitment of ensuring that “nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it“.

Since the levy will be a form of national insurance, it will largely be paid by younger people.  So the generation that can’t afford to own their own home will have even less disposable income than they did before.

Which takes us to Ministers’ housing plans.  The Health and Social Care Levy scheme has been drawn up at short notice, and the Government is rushing it through Parliament speedily.  Neither condition applies to the housing measures.

The Planning Bill pledged in the Queen’s Speech hasn’t come to the Commons or Lords yet – and no wonder, since its terms are essentially being negotiated between Ministers and Conservative backbenchers (plus senior councillors).  Pre-election, any prospect of loosening Green Belt restrictions was seen off.  Post-election, Tory MPs did for the housing algorithm.

It is reported that the Government will now abandon the zoning system it had planned, plus targets for housebuilding.  One take is that such a retreat would damage Ministers’ aspiration to see more homes built.  Another is that is would make little difference.

This is because housebuilding numbers have been increasing during recent years: in 2019/20, 243,770 homes were delivered – the highest annual number in over 30 years, and the seventh year in a row that the number of homes delivered rose.  Furthermore, the Government has already persuaded Parliament to back an expansion of permitted development rights.

Developers will be able add two storeys to existing buildings without planning permission, and turn premises into homes.  There is a push for street votes to expand properties – see Bob Blackman’s recent piece on this site – as an alternative to concreting land.

Whatever happens next, any Minister who sought to solve all of Britain’s housing problems by building more would be the ultimate one-club golfer, since more homes wouldn’t address the other factors in the mix: limited space, smaller families, high immigration, powerful developers, a long tradition of property rights, a complex planning system, curtailed post-crash lending and new Net Zero requirements.

And if boosting home ownership is an aim of policy – as it should be – what we wrote in the ConservativeHome Manifesto, the best part of ten years ago, still applies.

“No matter how fast we can make land and construction capacity available, the money markets can always move faster – pumping cheap credit into property investments. Any government move to undermine sensible planning protections only serves to set off the feeding frenzy.”

Ministers have tried to help younger people get in on the act through Help to Buy (launched by the Coalition) and the 95 per cent mortgage guarantee (unveiled in the last Budget by the Chancellor).

But home ownership has only drifted up marginally in recent years – to 65 per cent in 2018 compared to its 71 per cent high in 2003.  And when one turns to who owns what, it’s a tale of two generations: last year, only nine per cent of owners were aged between 25 and 34; a whopping great 36 per cent were 65 or older.

One of the clubs that the Government wants to see used is long-term fixed rate mortgages. “We will encourage a new market in long-term fixed rate mortgages which slash the cost of deposits,” that 2019 manifesto said.

It doesn’t follow that, because some of its other commitments haven’t been honoured (such as the pledge not to raise national insurance), this one won’t be delivered.  However, the keys to making it happen lie not so much in the Treasury as in the Bank of England, and the new requirements that it placed on getting a mortgage in the wake of the financial crash.

The Government’s interest in long-term fixed rate mortgages owes much to the Centre for Policy Studies, and in particular to the case put forward in a report for the think tank by Graham Edwards.

He argues that, because of the certainty that these mortgages offer, they don’t need to be stress-tested – and so can be offered with the 95 per cent loan to value rates that were the norm before the financial crisis.

What about the danger of negative equity?  The counter-case is that, while this is always present, there was a minimal increase in default rates in the wake of the crash.  What if wages grew more slowly than the mortgage costs?  Edwards’ answer is that “there is still a lot of scope for borrowers to absorb the increase in housing cost before they reach a point of financial stress”.

It will be claimed that the Conservatives are fixated by home ownership – just as, returning to social care, the Prime Minister is concentrated on people selling their homes to help pay for it.

In theory, it is open to the Government to stress one Tory viewpoint, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” to the exclusion of another, that “wealth should cascade down the generations”.  But in practice, Ministers can’t be indifferent to younger people’s desire to own their own homes, at least if they wants them to have a stake in the capitalist system that the Conservatives support.

Nor can it ignore the wish of older ones to pass on family homes – at least, if the Party’s experience in the 2017 election is anything to go by.

As we say, Ministers need to deploy different clubs if they are to negotiate the course of “building beautifully”: smaller developers, migration control, more supply, control on costs (including those emerging as a consequence of Net Zero).  But these won’t be enough to deliver higher home ownership, too.

For that, the Government will need to help rebalance the playing field between those who own property and those who don’t, which requires help from the Bank of England and the financial institutions.  Otherwise, younger people, bereft of alternatives, will have an growing interest in levelling-down, not levelling-up.  In other words, in a housing market crash.