Bank of England signals caution over Help to Buy

Warning that scheme could push up prices comes as official figures show average price of UK home hit record high in August

Concern at the Bank of England about the impact of the government’s Help to Buy mortgage scheme came to light on Tuesday as official figures showed the British property market has exceeded its 2008 peak.

Martin Weale, one of nine members of the Bank’s rate-setting monetary policy committtee (MPC), warned that the scheme to underwrite home loans could push up prices.

Admitting that house prices were already rising “appreciably more rapidly” than had been expected, Weale said there was a risk that “if the mortgage-guarantee element of Help to Buy is not priced satisfactorily, it will add to demand while supply is weak, leading to increased pressure on prices”.

The British property market hit a record high in August, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which showed the average cost of a home is now almost £250,000.

The ONS data showed that even before the launch of the second phase of the mortgage-guarantee scheme, house price growth was gathering pace.

Its main index, which measures the price paid in purchases financed with mortgages over the month, surpassed its previous peak by 0.3% to hit 186 in August. That was its highest level since its launch in 1968. It put the average price of a home in Britain at £247,000.

In written evidence to the Treasury select committee, Weale said a booming property market could distort the economy. “Rising house prices may make people feel cheerful and more prosperous, thereby supporting household spending,” he warned.

“But rising house prices impose a burden on those who do not yet own houses but aspire to in the future. Like government borrowing, rising house prices can crowd out productive investment.”

Weale’s submission was published 24 hours after the incoming deputy governor of the Bank, Sir Jon Cunliffe, said Threadneedle Street would keep a “very firm eye” on lenders as Help to Buy was rolled out.

However, Cunliffe said it was “too early to say we are entering into a bubble”.

The second part of the Help to Buy scheme, which offers lenders a taxpayer-backed guarantee to encourage them to offer loans to borrowers with small deposits, launched last week and has already prompted a flurry of mortgage applications from homebuyers.

Royal Bank of Scotland, which was the first lender to offer 95% mortgages through the latest phase of the scheme, reported that it had booked 5,000 appointments with prospective borrowers in the first three hours after the launch and taken 10,000 calls in the first four days – double its usual volume. It has extended branch opening hours to cope with demand.

According to the ONS figures, the rate of house price inflation increased through the summer, with the year-on-year increase reaching 3.8% in August, up from 3.3% in July.

However, the growth figures harboured wide regional disparities: the year-on-year increase reflected growth of 4.1% in England, 1.1% in Northern Ireland and 1.0% in Wales, in contrast to a fall of 0.7% in Scotland.

The ONS noted that the capital remains a strong outlier in the property market.

It said that while “house price growth remains stable across most of the UK … prices in London are increasing faster than the UK average”.

Its index showed prices in London rose by 8.7% in the 12 months to August and that, when figures for the capital and the rest of the south-east were stripped out, UK house prices were up by 2.1% over the 12 months.

Only in London and the south-east were prices higher than at their previous peak. However, the east of England and the south-west were coming close to that level, the ONS said. The ONS data showed that new entrants to the housing market have seen a steeper rise in prices than homemovers, with prices paid by first-time buyers up 4.9% on August 2012’s figure, compared with a 3.3% rise for movers.

In August 2013, the average price paid for a house by a first-time buyer was £185,000, while existing owners paid an average of £283,000.

Despite the headline figures suggesting that prices are running away, economists said activity was still well below the levels recorded before the financial crisis began, and only London was giving real cause for concern.

Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight, said: “While the strength of house price rises in London is becoming an increasing concern and pushing up the overall national increase in house prices, the ONS data support the view that we are currently a long way off from an overall housing market bubble emerging.

He added: “In fact, in many areas house prices are still well below their 2007 peak levels and rising only modestly at the moment.” Housing eceonomists at Capital Economics said the ONS figures were “weighted towards high-value homes and therefore the very strong London market. On most measures, prices are still 10% to 15% below their previous peak.”

However, they ackowledged that price rises had outstripped their expectations and that in the short term Help to Buy could give a “significant boost” to the number of buyers.

“While we suspect many will fail the affordability tests, it will put some upward pressure on prices,” they said.

“There is a risk that expectations of a new house price boom will become self-fulfilling, even if Help to Buy supports only a few buyers. In that case, the Bank of England is likely to step in to calm the market.” © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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