One step forward for student fees, two steps back for housing.

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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.

Andrea Leadsom’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference should make everyone thankful that she didn’t become Prime Minister.

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Andrea Leadsom.

Yesterday the surprise runner up in the Conservative Party leadership race, Andrea Leadsom, made her first major speech as the Secretary of State of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Speaking to the Conservative Party conference, she set out her vision for post-Brexit Britain — whilst everyone breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t become Prime Minister.

Leadsom began by bringing up the example of the person selling bottles of English countryside air, seemingly as her pick as our best rural export. Although there is indeed a company selling bottled countryside air for £80 a jar, they have estimated they only sell around three hundred jars per annum. So slightly baffling that Leadsom thought it sensible to mention in her speech. One would hope that her post-Brexit strategy for our rural exports is based on something better than this.

She then went on to talk to complain about how the lack of mobile phone signal in the countryside meant that she couldn’t play Pokemon Go. This was meant as evidence for her commitment to the rolling out of superfast broadband throughout rural areas of Britain, but surely she could have thought of a better example?!

Finally, she used the old Conservative Party Conference favourite of talking about how we export food to countries who have invented the food in question.

Leadsom said: “We’re selling coffee to Brazil, sparkling wine to France, and naan bread to India.’ Of course she tactfully failed to mention the amount which is coming the other way. But, nonetheless continuing the commitment to British produce held by her predecessor at DEFRA, Liz Truss. It was of course Truss who came up with the memorable line at the 2014 Conservative Party Conference: “We import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.” Needless to say, Truss’s speech was replayed many times other, and the same will undoubtedly occur with Leadsom’s this time around.

All this from Leadsom, without properly addressing the integral role that migrant labour plays in the functioning of the rural economy. According to her, the shortfall can be completely made up by employing British youths. Not likely. This simply went further towards proving her evangelical attitude towards Brexit. Clearly Leadsom, just like fellow Brexiteer Liam Fox, won’t accept any free movement of people, even if it is integral to the survival of UK businesses.

This speech just proved that Leadsom wasn’t in any way qualified to become Prime Minister. How she nearly managed to, is beyond me.