This week’s Conservative Party conference began with Theresa May pledging action on student fees and housing, pitched as a generous offer to young voters — long considered her party’s achilles heel.
First was a pledge to ‘freeze’ university tuition fees at £9,250 a year, a change from the policy announced earlier in the year to allow universities to increase fees by £250 a year. Calling this a ‘freeze’ is clearly taking positive spin to the extremes, as in reality it’s hard to see this as anything other than a u-turn. In any case, it’s generally accepted that the actual annual rate of tuition fees has little impact on deterring university applications from any background, and given that the vast majority of graduates never pay back the full amount anyway, it’s a change that will only be financially beneficial to the highest earners. This is just a cosmetic change in an attempt to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to completely scrap tuition fees — a pledge that somewhat misses the point of the problem, which isn’t the existence of student loans (many people agree that students should pay something for further education and the subsequent increase in wages) but the steep repayments, and the seeming pointlessness of a system where loans are so high that almost no one can actually pay them off anyway.
But, what followed was the promise of a much more consequential (and welcome) change in policy — to increase the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000. When the new system of student loans was originally brought in by the Coalition Government in 2012, one of the key parts of the policy was that the repayment threshold would rise (to account for inflation), but ultimately this was scrapped and the repayment threshold has remained at £21,000 for five years. Theresa May’s decision to increase it is a welcome one, and one which will actually have an appreciable impact.
On housing on the other hand, Theresa May pledged an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, which offers 20 percent equity loans to buyers of new builds worth up to £600,000.
This is a misguided policy decision. It is indeed true that many young people struggle to get on the housing ladder. And the PM is correct to pick it out as an issue she should look to address. But the problem is, in reality, one of a low supply of affordable housing (particularly in certain areas) and high demand.
As anyone with any knowledge of basic economics knows, if you pump money into increasing demand or purchasing power, without any attempt to address a fundamental problem of lack of supply, all you will succeed in doing is increasing prices. This change is therefore unlikely to have any real benefit for those struggling to afford a first property.
Additionally, the fact that Help to Buy is limited to new build properties causes further problems, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to sell their properties (and devaluing them in the process) and slowing the market down even further.
It is true that radical reform of housing is required and neither of the two main parties seem to have the answers. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for rent controls, announced at last week’s Labour Party Conference, also wouldn’t help. Whilst capping rents would reduce costs for some, there would be a concurrent reduction in housing supply as it would effectively kill the buy-to-let industry.
I confess that I do not know the answer to the problems of the housing market, but new and radical ideas are clearly needed.
It seems unlikely that they will arrive in this Parliament, where the Government has decided to be cautious on account of their lack of a parliamentary majority and the herculean task of implementing Brexit.
But really, Theresa May has a very real opportunity to attempt the radical reform to help the ‘just about managing’ that she promised when the first stood on the steps of Number 10 last summer. No one else in the Conservative Party has the stomach to carry the can for Brexit; so although Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister looks insecure, in fact it is anything but. This gives her an enviable opportunity to attempt radical reform. It’s is generally expected that she will lose the next election (although given that nothing seems certain in politics these days, I wouldn’t count on it), so she’s got nothing to lose. And by attempting radical reform of housing (and public services too), May could arguably save her premiership, rather than letting it become completely defined by Brexit.