Annual budgets serve many purposes, one of which being to show that governments are making good on election (or other commitments). Affordable housing (or the lack thereof) has long been a political hot potato in the UK and therefore it was only to be expected that the government would take some form of action to address this in the budget.
The promises in brief
There were two key points which directly relate to housing throughout the UK. The first was the promise of a £2.5bn housing infrastructure fund, which should lead to the building of 100,000 new homes in areas of high demand. The second was the promise of £1.4bn which was specifically for the provision of 40,000 affordable homes. With regards to this second point, it’s worth noting that this pledge actually goes even further than simply providing the funds. The government has relaxed the rules around bidding for the funds, meaning that companies have more options open to them than previously. In addition to this, there was a £3.15bn funding pot provided to London for the provision of affordable homes.
The budget also contained a number of promises relating to infrastructure, which could feasibly have an impact on the property market, for example increasing transport options may make it viable for people to travel to work from places they would otherwise have been forced to overlook and similarly rolling out superfast broadband may increase the options for home/remote working, which again could have a knock-on effect on the property market.
A stick for buy-to-let, a carrot for new homes
In 2015 the government delivered two sucker punches to BTL landlords. It made changes to stamp duty so that those owning more than one property paid an increased fee and it reduced the amount of mortgage tax relief which landlords could claim. The 2016 statement left BTL landlords alone, although plans were announced to clamp down on fees charged to tenants by letting agencies, but contained the announcement that the government would be supporting house building in general and the provision of affordable homes in particular.
However with new taxes and stricter lending controls coming into force in a few months the buy to let market is not looking as promising as it once did.
The outlook for 2017 and beyond
At the moment it’s rather hard to say what effect all these changes will have in practice. First of all, the autumn statement was only a few months ago and happened right before the Christmas period which has its own set of rules (some economic sectors being frantically busy, while other go into seasonal limbo). Secondly some of the changes are yet to be enacted and in some cases, it’s unclear at what point they will be implemented. For example Philip Hammond’s promise to put the brakes on agency fees is to be implemented “as soon as possible”. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, there is very little clarity on how these pledges are going to be implemented in practice. For example, the government has relaxed rules around bidding for funds to develop affordable housing so that, in principle, bidders could develop homes for affordable rent instead of having to offer some sort of ownership option, be it shared ownership or rent to buy. These new rules, however, have yet to be tested. In other words, at this point it’s entirely unknown whether or not bidders will consider it worth their while developing property intended purely for rent or whether their applications will be accepted if they do. It’s also unclear where the priority will be in the “high demand areas”. London would be an obvious example of a place where housing is desperately needed, but it has already been designated its own pot of affordable housing funds. Presumably the answer to these questions will be revealed in time, but the government acknowledging the importance of home building in the UK is, at least, a positive sign.