What’s wrong with rising house prices?

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme could raise house prices by 20% in the next couple of years, according to a report by Fathom Consultancy.

This is not being heralded as good news by everyone (although The Express has followed its time honoured tradition of solely reporting on speculation about house prices with a very positive story)

But why would it be a bad thing for house prices to go up? We don’t worry so much when share prices go up, why are house prices any different?

Three of the most important reasons for concern about booming house prices are;

  • It could be a bubble followed by a housing crash leaving people in ‘negative equity’

  • Rising house prices can make it harder for first time buyers to afford to buy (especially if they do not have help from the bank of mum and dad)

  • Less commented on, but still important, richer people might benefit disproportionately from rising house prices since they own more property wealth than the rest of us

So, as Lenin famously once said, what is to be done?

There is a healthy debate in think-tank land about so-called ‘de-coupling’, the idea that as the economy grows middle and low income people do not benefit because their wages do not keep up. This has lead to proposals such as living wage zones and representation of low paid workers on remuneration committees.

Perhaps we need a similar debate around how we can ensure that everyone benefits from rising house prices.

This could involve ways of re-distributing housing wealth including;

A land value tax

– A ‘mansion tax

– Or even more technical reforms of how we tax land and property which can be found in the Mirrelees Review

The money that these measures raise could then in turn be used to benefit those who do not have the good fortune of owning expensive properties that have gone up in value.

This could happen, for example, through;

– Funding a programme of housing associations or council built starter homes

– Funding part of the state pension as it becomes increasingly contributory

– Paying for part of a new universal adult social care system

Of course, as with so many questions of public policy, there is a possibility that any attempt to both take the heat out of the housing market and distribute gains more fairly, could be self defeating if they dampen the market too much.

However, this does not take away from the principle, that, currently, wealthy people disproportionately benefit from rising house prices and that we need to think about how we create a system in which more and more people, especially those on low and middle incomes, can benefit.

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