With house construction at its lowest level since the 1920s, the Government is trying to promote more building. Yesterday it announced two new initiatives. It is to revitalise the old right-to-buy discount for tenants in council accommodation and other social housing – with a pledge to spend the money raised on building more houses. And it is introducing a NewBuy scheme to help people borrow up to 95 per cent of the money they need to purchase a brand new home.
These are sound instincts. The first initiative will encourage people to leave social housing if they can manage without publicly subsidised rent. The second aims to prompt the building of 100,000 extra properties, creating 500,000 jobs.
Sadly, the measures are not all they seem. With the right-to-buy scheme, there will be a significant time lag between the sale of the existing properties and the building of new homes. And the shift between social housing and what the Government calls "affordable housing" could mean rents at 80 per cent of local market rates, which would be distinctly unaffordable for many.
But the more serious problems are with the NewBuy initiative. At present, just three big lenders have signed up to the scheme: Barclays, NatWest and Nationwide. Other high-street banks have agreed in principle but are holding back. Few of the new mortgage products will be available straightaway. And two of the three lenders will offer the new deals on properties built by just six of England's biggest builders. Struggling smaller builders will find their big competitors have an unfair advantage. There will be problems for buyers, too. New-build properties are often more expensive than older properties of the same size. If prices fall, that could leave NewBuy borrowers in negative equity.
Estate agents fear that this ruse to help the construction industry could distort the market by allowing developers to sell homes at inflated prices which do not reflect the stagnant state of the market. All of this does little to help the growing number of families living in insecure private rented housing. For all the ministerial fanfare, these new schemes may make only the smallest dent in Britain's housing crisis.