Thinking about the Budget, Housing and Scotland

by Ken Gibb

I have long felt that making sense of the Budget each year requires a few days and the lifting of at least some of the immediate confusion, argument and data fog that descends. There was considerable anticipation that the Budget would mark an important staging point in the apparent prioritisation of housing by the UK Government for England – something that goes back at least to the Fixing the Broken Housing Market white paper and now continues with the preparations for the social housing green paper. Alongside these developments, it was anticipated that more plans to achieve ambitious housebuilding targets would be set out and that this would include a major commitment to more affordable supply.

I will come back to housing and also some specifically Scottish dimensions of the budget below. The Sunday papers this morning, at least those to the right, have columnists suggesting that, politically, the budget went well. But this seems to be about not compounding ongoing political problems for the government and surviving the immediate period so as to be able to fight on.  However, the troika of the IFS, the OBR and indeed the HMT’s Red Book itself sforecast low productivity growth, difficult public finances and continuing stagnant real earnings. This is a grave context and yet of course it is all too often buried by the understandable but overwhelming Brexit steamroller.

There were many housing announcements, though some were better defined, costed and designed than others. Inside Housing summarised the intended housing changes:

  • £125 million over two years’ increase in targeted affordability fund for LHA claimants finding it difficult to pay rent
  • Changes to universal credit worth £1.5 billion including allowing HB claimants to continue claiming for another 2 weeks after a new claim
  • Committing to achieve the 300,000 net additions to housing supply by the middle of the next decade and to support this through £15.3 billion of a mix of capital funding, guarantees and loan funding which would in part support the unlocking of strategic sites and estate regenerations – although the majority of the money appears to be for private development (though the Treasury say that part of the new financial guarantees ‘could’ be used for affordable housing as well – Inside Housing, 24 November 2017, p.2).
  • £1 billion of extra borrowing capacity for councils to build affordable homes in areas of high demand.
  • Pilots will be carried out in the West Midlands for the new HA right to buy.
  • Councils given the ability to charge 100% council tax on empty properties.
  • On the planning side pledges were made to invest in five new garden towns and also an ‘urgent review’ of how to close the gap between planning permissions and house building.
  • Homelessness initiatives will include three new housing first pilots .
  • Fiscally, stamp duty will be ended for all first time buyers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland purchasing homes worth up to £300,000 (and on the first £300,000 if the property is less than £500,000).

While there has been general recognition of the scale of the supply measures (which also include continued help for SME builders) and the direction of travel on homelessness, there has been less enthusiasm for the perceived limited additional support for affordable housing supply and a sense that they signal incremental rather than fundamental change (as suggested by David Orr).  Even the FT commentary after the Budget suggested that it was time to just end the English councils’ ceiling on housing borrowing altogether. Further valuable commentary from the housing sector on the Budget announcements can be found from various sources can be found here (CiH, Jules Birch, Shelter and NHF).

I want to say a little more about the stamp duty change.  Many economists are rightly critical of transactions taxes in terms of inefficiency compared to recurrent property taxes. The changes announced this week are the latest demand-side housing market interventions which, while targeted to first time buyers, will in all likelihood put upward pressure on house prices to the benefit of existing owners of housing assets and reducing the benefits to the formal beneficiaries. Both IFS and OBR have made this point, as have many commentators elsewhere. The evidence will out on the actual effects (insofar as models can actually, credibly, separate out the effects of the fiscal change on house prices and activity) but there is a wider question.

A slightly perverse outcome of greater fiscal devolution to Scotland has been fiscal competition between rUK and Scotland. So far, this has been exemplified by housing taxation: the tax rates competition between the two parliaments over stamp duty (land building transactions tax in Scotland) and the decision of Scotland to follow the 3% tax hike on second properties and buy to let landlords purchases. Now, the Scottish government has to consider how it will respond to a sizeable reduction in stamp duty in the rest of the UK.

There is an interesting reversal of classic oligopoly theory going on here. Traditionally, it is argued that where a small number of suppliers dominate a market, one firm raises prices and no-one follows; but if one cuts prices, they all follow and reduce their prices too. With fiscal competition in this devolved duopoly of the UK there is a different asymmetry.  Tax increases are followed in this case by Scotland because economic revenue benefits trump political costs (e.g. buy to let landlords are the main losers from higher stamp duty/LBTT rates) but where taxes are cut in the present UK budget for political reasons (and they arguably trump economic arguments in this case) how should or can Scotland respond given its public finance constraints (the opportunity cost is larger because of the smaller budget Scotland manages).

Housing is more prominent now as a domestic policy priority and is much higher on the political agenda. It is complex and multi-faceted and that is represented by the breadth of housing-relevant announcements last week. Policy to move us beyond an incremental change, however, will require sustained commitment over at least a decade. To return to the microeconomics of housing, we need a permanent, structural, change in the shape of the supply curve (so that it is more elastic), not a short term shift, welcome though that may be in its own terms.