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BLOG: Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring

Matt Smith
Written By:
Matt Smith

There may be cries of yet another housing bubble here in the UK, but it’s wise to pay closer attention to regional detail, says Matt Smith.

Rather unbelievably, there has been a lot of debate at a senior level in the mortgage industry in the last few months that the convergence of a recovering economy and the government’s schemes to kick-start house sales are creating a house-price bubble – a view supported, at first glance at least, by the fastest rise in prices since their peak seven years ago.

Given the issues of interest-only mortgages, capital adequacy and affordability, you might be surprised but the industry has been falling over itself to provide evidence of the impending implosion.

Certainly the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) would agree that Help to Buy and other initiatives have prompted the sector to come alive. Even the Office of National Statistics has reported that UK house prices have risen to a record level.

It calculates that the average price of a house or flat in the UK is now £247,000, giving the highest figure since the index was first calculated in 1968.

But look more closely and once again big variations around the UK have been revealed. London price rises in the year to August, at 8.7%, were more than double the next biggest increase of 3.8% in the East Midlands. Prices across the UK rose by 3.8% in the year to August 2013, up from 3.3% in July. However, excluding London and the South East, prices rose by just 2.1%.

Should we be worried? No. It is true that the rise in supply has not kept pace with the rise in demand, particularly in London, pointing to more price rises ahead and estate agents have significantly upgraded their forecasts for house price growth in recent months and now expect growth of 2% over the coming year and of more than 4% in each of the next five years.

But we have been here before. Calls for interest rate rises are misguided. This is far from a UK wide bubble and interest rates are a very blunt tool for managing regional booms. From the outset of the credit crisis Mervyn King said that monetary policy was only one tool for dealing with the issues of the nation’s debts.

Fiscal policy had a significant part to play too. Mark Carney reiterated this view recently when he said interest rates were not the only policy option to deal with a booming housing market.

Over and above this, it’s worth reminding ourselves we have an election in 2015 for which we will all need to feel considerably wealthier and optimistic and that, while austerity is the public medicine we need, G20 nations are agreed that debt and consumer spending are the only way to get growth in the short term. In the UK that means leveraging housing assets.

Against that backdrop, we should keep regional issues in perspective. In the words of Corporal Jones, “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwairing.”

Matt Smith is a mortgage commentator and managing director of integrated creative agency, WPB Creative