Britain launches Help to Buy mortgage scheme

UK lenders hesitant despite the lure of capital relief while critics say scheme is election gamble

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 6:16am

Britain yesterday launched a much debated programme to help people buy their own homes and set out the small print it hopes will persuade more of the country's big banks to take part.

RBS and Lloyds, both of which are part-owned by the government, have said they will start marketing state-backed "Help to Buy" mortgages this week. Smaller lenders Virgin Money and Aldermore have also agreed to sign up.

But talks with other big lenders have gone down to the wire.

Banks such as Barclays and HSBC want to see how much capital they must set aside to cover loans to homebuyers who may put down deposits of as little as five per cent.

Prime Minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne brought forward the launch of the programme to this week from its original start date in January. They dismiss concerns that the programme will fuel a boom-bust cycle in British housing. They say it will help people who have been frozen out of the property market by the big deposits sought by banks which remain wary after the financial crisis.

Critics say the plan was rushed out to give the government a boost ahead of a 2015 general election. The opposition Labour party says Help to Buy will not fix the fundamental problem of low levels of housebuilding.

"Unless George Osborne acts now to build more affordable homes, as we have urged, then soaring prices risk making it even harder for first-time buyers to get on the housing ladder," said Labour lawmaker and finance spokesman Chris Leslie.

How popular the scheme will be will depend largely on how regulators view the state guarantee. The government is prepared to run up a liability of up to £12 billion (HK$149 billion) - enough to support £130 billion of new mortgage lending. But take-up could be much lower than that.

The main attraction for lenders will be the ability to offer high loan-to-value mortgages without tying up punitive amounts of capital. In exchange for the guarantee, the government will charge a fee of up to 0.9 per cent of the loan's value. This is designed to cover any losses to the taxpayer, if borrowers default.

The scheme was first announced in March when Britain's housing market and its economy looked in need of help. Property prices have since jumped - particularly in London - leading to fears the scheme could cause a new bubble.

A survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors showed that British house prices rose at the fastest rate in 11 years in September and sales hit a four-year high.