amendment of the Law

Part of Ways and Means — Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation – in the House of Commons at 12:01 pm on 22nd March 2013.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Education) 12:01 pm, 22nd March 2013

We have heard a great deal in the Budget debate—not unreasonably—about public debt, but less about the private sector crisis that generated the public sector debt crisis. We have also heard about the impact of private debt and deleveraging, including from Jacob Rees-Mogg. In that context, it might be worth mentioning that private debt and deleveraging are connected with the substantial decline in the number of people who can afford their own homes because of house price inflation in the past decade. That feeds into the core of my argument on the extent to which housing and housing costs have led us to a crisis in the welfare state.

We have heard less in the debate about flatling growth, the crisis in unemployment and under-employment, and the crisis in real wages and living standards. It is worth noting that real wages fell by 0.7% last year, and that average earnings will have fallen by 2.4% over the course of this Parliament. That fall in purchasing power is contributing to the continued stalling of growth.

Unfortunately, housing costs are at the heart of the living standards crisis, particularly in respect of first-time buyers, younger people, and those in what we call generation rent. Home owners have benefited for a decade or so from low interest rates. The tragedy is that many people are not aware of the fact that low interest rates are sustaining lower mortgages. A third of home owners have interest-only mortgages, and are extremely vulnerable to a future rise in interest rates.

Shelter has demonstrated consistently the crisis in home affordability. Some 7.8 million people struggle to pay their rents and mortgages, and 2.8 million people rely on unauthorised overdrafts and payday loans on a regular basis to cover the cost of their mortgage or rent. With underemployment and the continuing flatlining of real wages, that situation will only get worse.

In turn, that has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of people who are caught in generation rent—they cannot save for a deposit and cannot get a mortgage because of the high house prices we have seen for generations. Two million more people now rent in the private sector than 10 years ago—26% of all Londoners now rent privately. That driver into the private rented sector has led to an escalation in rents, particularly in London. London rents now average £2,200 a month. Naturally enough, people are unable to afford such bills. That explains why the housing benefit bill has risen. It is due not to Government policy, but to the increased case load in the private rented sector, together with unemployment and flatlining wages. The Government, despite their rhetoric, will spend £12 billion more in real terms on housing benefit in this comprehensive spending review period than the last Government spent under the previous comprehensive spending review. That was the figure before the Office for Budget Responsibility upgraded that expenditure this week.

If I were the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I would be furious that the Department for Communities and Local Government had driven up the bills of my Department through its housing policy, with the failure to build and the halving of the affordable housing investment programme, and its rents policy. However, if I were the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I would be equally furious at the extent to which the Department for Work and Pensions policy of capping housing benefit had increased the pressure on my budget, particularly through homelessness. Today, we have heard about a further rise of 10% in homelessness, with an increase of 22% in London. That is not only a human tragedy; it costs money.

Will the Budget proposals address the crisis in housing and housing affordability? No, they will not. David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has said that if the investment had gone into affordable housing supply instead of the mortgage guarantee schemes, it would have delivered 175,000 new homes and a £30 billion boost to the economy. We know that the money is available because the Chancellor has secured £13 billion to underpin the mortgage schemes. Those schemes are effectively the rebranding of existing schemes that have not worked over the last two or three years. As other Members have said, the schemes risk inflating a housing bubble.

A consistent theme is emerging not only from the Opposition but from commentators on the right. Even the Daily Mail has said today, “Could the great state mortgage scheme be hijacked by the rich?” The answer is probably yes. It will be a boost to older buyers and second home owners, rather than the young. Mervyn King, of the Bank of England, has warned that the mortgage guarantee is not the answer to the housing crisis. It will stoke up house prices and continue to freeze younger homebuyers out of the housing market, which will keep them locked in generation rent. That will in turn lead to an increased housing benefit bill, which Ministers will scurry to try to cap.

The housing crisis is being exacerbated, not relieved, by Government measures. That has a fundamental impact on private debt, the banking crisis, in-work and out-of-work poverty, work incentives and welfare. The Government inherited an imperfect position on housing supply, but they are making it considerably worse. Beveridge and Keynes, those giants of post-war economics, knew that affordable housing was the key to—