Thank Major for stable house prices

Boom and slump have made us more sensible about home buying, says Martin Vander Weyer
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THAT there is a connection between the house price spiral of the late 1980s and the absence of the so-called "feel-good factor" today is hardly an original observation. But the fact that it has been said aloud by the Prime Minister, at a working breakfast with Lincolnshire businessman last week, has brought a shower of righteous indignation on his head.

Since he was a junior Treasury minister at the time of the boom, it has been widely remarked, a larger slice of the blame for that spiral lies with him than it does with the imprudent people who beggared themselves with massive mortgages or with the impudent institutions who were so eager to lend to them. The premier's "gaffe" has provided an opportunity for an outburst of the kind of the 1970s revivalism which says that the encouragement of home ownership, along with the rest of Thatcherism, was in fact little more than an appeal to base human greed, which can now vividly be seen to have sown the seeds of its own destruction. We are told that the creed of popular capitalism (which includes privatisation of utilities) has been turned by the passage of time into a series of policy disasters which linger only to haunt the present government - and will help to hound it out of office.

Most of this is wrong, and all of it needs restating in calmer terms. It is true, in several ways, that government action fuelled the 1980s property boom. Deregulation in the financial sector, intended to create competition among banks and building societies, certainly had the effect of making too much money available to house buyers, on dangerously easy terms. Margaret Thatcher (a passionate advocate of the social benefits of home ownership since the early 1970s) refused until late in the day to contemplate any change in mortgage interest tax relief - an indiscriminate, anti-free-market subsidy to all home owners, rich or poor, which in the long run merely served to inflate house prices. As even the former Chancellor Nigel Lawson has acknowledged in his memoirs, a crucial four-month delay between the belated announcement of a tightening of mortgage relief rules and its implementation provoked the last frenzied upward surge of the market. It was during that short period - in what John Major referred to at his Lincolnshire truth-session as "the rather crazy situation" of mid-1988 - that many of the million buyers now stuck in the negative equity trap were fatally tempted.

But does all that mean that home ownership was never a desirable goal after all? Or that the present state of the property market - in which a long period of flat or falling values is now widely predicted, despite the resurgence of the rest of the economy - is such a thoroughly bad thing that the home owner should cease to regard the Conservative Party as a natural protector? No, on both counts; emphatically, it does not.

Margaret Thatcher never said that she wanted people to own their own homes as a form of get-rich-quick speculation. What she wanted was to give people the means to escape from the dependency culture of council tenancy, and to inculcate the social responsibility which comes from pride of ownership, from being a stakeholder rather than a passive client of the state. The "right to buy" was the flagship policy of her first (1979- 83) administration, and the million householders who exercised it - at large discounts to market values - mostly did so in the first half of the 1980s, long before the peak of the boom.

They therefore went on to enjoy some or all of the dramatic rise in values between 1985 and 1988, and despite all that has happened since, they will now be sitting quietly on a considerable nest-egg to pass to their descendants. To equate the million who bought their council houses with the million stuck in the post-1988 equity trap is simply to misinterpret history.

The social arguments in favour of home ownership in general (and for preferring independent housing associations to local authorities as a means of managing public housing) remain just as persuasive as they were when Mrs Thatcher first enunciated them. But it is true that the effect of her policies and rhetoric encouraged aggressive attitudes to property throughout society, not just on council estates. And that aggression proved in many cases to be disastrous.

The lesson learnt from the hangover, after the boom, is that it is wrong to encourage people to buy too young or borrow too heavily or to count their chickens too far ahead in terms of the stability of their own future income. It is right to think of a house as a place to own for the purpose of living in, to be proudly maintained and improved over a long period of time. But it is wrong (and in present circumstances entirely hypothetical) to think of it as a smart, highly geared financial investment.

In today's market, all these lessons seem to have been taken to heart. Although houses have been been more affordable relative to incomes, first- time buyers are thin on the ground - likely to buy later, when they have more savings to put towards the purchase and when they have a clearer view of their future. In the foreseeable future, there need be no more booms or busts. As house ownership becomes less important as a repository of personal wealth, so other forms of saving will become more important, and will flow through the financial system into productive investment - in manufacturing industry, for instance. All of this will be seen eventually as a positive outcome of the trauma of the past few years.

But in the meantime, the depressed state of the property market offers New Labour an open goal. Millions of disgruntled property owners, unpersuaded by this kind of long-term analysis, may opt at the next election to punish the Tories. To restore mortgage reliefs and subsidies to former levels would be an easy electoral promise for Gordon Brown, and the burst of inflation which will inevitably follow upon less restrained public expenditure will surely bring with it upward movement in house prices. Briefly, the home owner may declare that he or she feels good at last. But not for long: the old boom-bust cycle will have begun again.

The 1980s policies of home ownership, popular capitalism, competition and choice were all philosophically well-conceived and all produced remarkably positive results. They also produced, as we now know, some unwelcome side- effects, of which the property spiral was the most devastating. But the deflationary policies which followed and which contributed towards so much bitterness and failure of confidence in the recession and afterwards, have also had an accidental result in the form of an apparently stable, affordable property market, and a new set of sensible public attitudes to go with it. The Government, and the Prime Minister, must shoulder their part of the blame for what went wrong. But let us also give them credit for those things which, by however tortuous a route, turn out for the better in the end: that is the case with house prices.

The writer is associate editor of 'The Spectator'.