ORIGINS OF BRITAIN’S HOUSING CRISIS: ‘Stop-go’ policy and the covert restriction of private residential house-building

by Peter Scott and James T. Walker (Henley Business School at the University of Reading)

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University of the West of England, The History of Council Housing. Copyright of Bristol Record Office

‘Stop-go’ aggregate demand management policy represents one of the most distinctive, and controversial, aspects of British macroeconomic policy during the post-war ‘long boom’. This was, in turn, linked to an over-riding priority among an influential section of policy-makers in the Treasury and the Bank of England to restore sterling as a ‘strong’ currency (second only to the dollar) and to re-establish the City of London as a major financial and trading centre, despite heavy war-time debts and low currency reserves.

This policy is often viewed as having had damaging impacts on major sectors of the British economy – especially the manufacture of cars, white goods and other consumer durables, which were deliberately depressed in order to support sterling and thereby facilitate the growth of Britain’s financial sector.

This research explores an important but neglected impact of ‘stop-go’ policy: restrictions on house-building. This has been overlooked in the general stop-go literature, largely because the policy was mainly undertaken covertly, without public announcement or parliamentary discussion.

In addition to publicly announced restrictions on public sector house-building – by restricting local authority borrowing and raising interest rates on that borrowing – the government covertly depressed private house purchases and mortgage lending by restricting house mortgage funds to well below market clearing levels.

The Treasury used a combination of informal pressure and, less frequently, formal requests, to get the building societies’ cartel (the Building Societies Association) to set their interest rates at levels that forced them to ration mortgage lending in order to maintain acceptable reserves. Officials particularly valued this instrument of stop-go policy owing to its effectiveness and its ‘invisibility’ (mortgage lending restriction was not publicly announced and was not generally even subject to cabinet discussion).

Meanwhile political pressure for action to increase house-building and home ownership (especially in the run-up to national elections) led to a perverse situation whereby government was sometimes simultaneously boosting demand for house purchases and covertly restricting the supply of mortgages – feeding into a growing house price spiral that has become an enduring characteristic of the British housing market.

This study shows that the application of stop-go policy to mortgage lending for most of the period between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s had a major cumulative impact on the British economy: depressing the long-term rate of capital formation in housing; creating inflationary expectations for house purchasers; having negative impacts on living standards (especially for lower-income families); and damaging the growth, productivity, and capacity of the house-building sector and the building society movement.

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