THE BLOG

Brits Still Clamouring to Get 'on the Ladder' - But at What Cost?

10/01/2014 16:42 GMT | Updated 12/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The British relationship to the housing market has come to define us as a nation, possibly even more so than our thoughts on the weather, our notions of fair play or the 'stiff upper lip' in the face of adversity. The fear and uncertainty that first the credit crunch, and later the recession, wrought on the UK was no more keenly felt than in the housing market. The falls in house prices hurt us more than any abstract talk of retail sales declines or falling corporate borrowing - what hurt the most was the fact the value of our 'castles' was in freefall.

The recovery in demand for housing (and therefore prices) in the UK was always going to generate debate. According to the latest data from the Nationwide building society, house prices rose by 8.4% over the course of 2013, further increasing fears that we are looking at 'bubble-like' conditions beginning to build up again.

Prices have moved higher as a result of there being a supply chain that has not been able to keep up with pent-up demand, a demand that has only been stoked onward by government support and a story of general economic expansion.

Recent announcements and photo-ops with members of the public have seen David Cameron claim that the 'Help to Buy' scheme should already be on track to subsidise around £1bn worth of new lending, with more than 6,000 people using the program so far. I am not the first, and surely not the last, who views this plan that increases demand for an asset in an overall bid to control prices as oxymoronic.

As we get older we are encouraged to let the fears of our youth recede. However, one of the most common fears is a 'fear of missing out'; Do you believe you're missing out and everything good is happening somewhere else? That's a tough one to shift, and it can certainly be identified in our attitudes towards the housing ladder. If you aren't a home owner it's perfectly natural to harbour this nagging fear that you're missing a trick somehow. And this anxiety is consistently exploited by those in the industry. For example, estate agents leafleted my door just last year warning of rising prices and telling me that "I SHOULD ACT NOW!!!" to prevent being left behind.

Prices will rise in 2014 and maybe into 2015 too, as the lack of a supply of housing strangles the market higher. According to the Financial Times, the UK built an average of 300,000 houses a year throughout the 1970s, but that figure has now dropped to around 188,000 a year despite increases in metropolitan areas and population.

This squeeze on prices is being felt more in London than anywhere else. Since the beginning of 2008, house prices are still on average 5% lower nationally, according to the Nationwide once again. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are the laggards here with England, as a whole, outperforming to the tune of about a 5% rise. The figure for London is a 19% rise in prices.

I'm not going to get into an argument around whether the UK is in fact a smaller version of the Eurozone with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the 'periphery' and London the 'core' that does all the growing. A separation of monetary policy and, certainly housing related benefit schemes, would certainly have its merits though.

To his credit, in recent months we have heard from Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, that if interest rates remain low for too long, and an expansion of the housing market continues at current levels, then the inevitable shock of higher rates could cause yet another housing crisis. Those who have been helped onto the ladder will have in turn sacrificed themselves to crippling repayments - in their over eagerness to avoid getting left behind.