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Bubble Warp

A recovering economy combined with record low interest rates, credit-boosting programmes and a limited supply of new homes have led to a sharp rise in property prices in some parts of the UK in recent months with some now fearing the possibility of a housing bubble developing in London and the southeast of England.

But will the UK economic medicine that is now being considered to prick the bubble for the UK as a whole have a negative impact on the Scottish housing market and wider economy?

As the economy continues to pick up speed, Bank of England governor Mark Carney last weekend said that rapidly rising house prices are now the biggest threat to the UK economy. With supply continuing to lag far behind demand, Carney signalled that measures to resolve the "deep, deep structural problems" of Britain's housing market supply are now being contemplated.

Prime Minister David Cameron responded by stating that the UK Government will consider making changes to the Help to Buy scheme, which helps higher-risk and first-time buyers take out a mortgage.

If cooling measures are introduced, they will be in addition to changes introduced last month which now require lenders to check that mortgage applicants have enough spare cash to cope with any future hike in interest rates, which are expected to rise to 3% in 2019. Meanwhile, the Bank of England's new Financial Policy Committee is mulling over introducing tougher mortgage affordability tests for applicants later this year which would take more heat out of the market.

As the economy returns to normal, a study published on Monday by the Resolution Foundation think tank predicts that one in 10 mortgage holders risk being trapped in unaffordable borrowing deals as interest rates rise over the next four years.

The study found that around 770,000 households could become "mortgage prisoners" because of limited ability to switch to better mortgage deals. By 2018, there is also a risk that their monthly mortgage repayments would be eating up at least a third of their disposable income.

Echoing the study's findings, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable last week warned that booming house prices are destabilising the economy and that rising household debt in proportion to income represents a "real, real, real worry".

However, house price inflation in Scotland now stands at 4%, half that of the UK-wide annual increase of 8% and substantially less than the 17% house inflation being experienced in London, where prices are 30% higher than their 2007 peak. The average house price in Scotland now stands at £161,873, just 2.4% below its pre-crisis peak of April 2008. While house prices here have recovered better than in the north of England - where house prices are 8.1% below their pre-recession peak - they are still far below the UK-wide average of £250,000 and London average of more than £450,000.

The overall figures for Scotland mask some significant regional differences, with sharp increases in house prices being recently recorded in Aberdeen - where the average house price reached a record high of £219,117 in March, up 17.1% on 2013 - and Inverclyde, up 20%. In Edinburgh, the average house price rose 3.4% to £230,420 in the year to March and strong growth was also recorded in the west end of Glasgow. By contrast, house prices in Midlothian fell 10.8% over the year and Stirling and Perth have also experienced house price drops.

According to economist David Bell of Stirling University, none of the data so far suggest that a housing bubble is building north of the Border. "Unlike London, the Scottish housing market is not very robust at the moment," he said. "Turnover is low compared with before the crisis and in some places it's taking a long time to sell houses. It seems to me that making it more difficult by raising interest rates would not help the housing market."

There are, though, a number of hopeful signs that the Scottish property market is beginning to emerge from the downturn of the last five years. According to Registers of Scotland, more than 17,800 properties were sold between January and March: the highest fourth-quarter figure since 2007-08. The total value of sales in the quarter was £2.73 billion, up by 27.2% over the year.

Bell said that there is a danger the Bank of England would in the future attempt to use the single blunt instrument of interest rates to deal with the two quite different issues of rising house inflation and general inflation, which is currently below its target of 2%.

"If you have a particular problem in the southeast of England then you should implement special measures for that part of the country rather than a single policy for the whole of the UK," Bell said.

The Scottish housing market, Bell added, suffers from a scarcity of smaller properties - particularly one and two-bedroom flats - and an over-supply of three or four-bedroom family homes. With increasing numbers of people opting for the single lifestyle, demand for smaller properties is likely to push up prices in that sector of the market.

Bell also said that the Scottish housing market is quite different from that of southeast England where large numbers of ­properties are bought by cash-rich buyers who have no need for mortgages. Tweaks to monetary policy targeted at stabilising the housing market in the southeast of England would have no effect on such transactions.

Earlier this week figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the Consumer Prices Index rose 1.8% in April but the Bank of England still expects the rate of inflation to remain below its target for at least the next couple of years.

April's rise in the CPI, the first increase in the rate for 10 months, means that the cost of living is again increasing faster than wages, which rose at an annual rate of 1.7% for the three months to March. Although the economy is picking up speed, Bell said that significant increases in wages this year remain unlikely.

Bell said he agreed with a recent suggestion from Nigel Lawson, the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Help to Buy mortgage scheme aimed at higher-risk borrowers should be restricted to homes costing no more than £300,000 rather than the current limits of £600,000 in England and £400,000 in Scotland.

Although the current Chancellor George Osborne has said that there is no evidence that Help to Buy is inflating prices, Lawson believes that the scheme should not be available in London's overheated property market as it stokes demand in an area of the country with high prices and a limited supply of new homes. Halving the scheme's threshold to £300,000 would effectively mean that it would cease to operate in London.

By providing an interest-free loan of up to 20%, the Scottish version of the shared equity scheme allows borrowers to access the lower interest rates typically associated with a 25% deposit while only having to find a 5% deposit.

Since its introduction in September last year, the Scottish Help to Buy scheme has helped more than 1100 people buy a home. Last week, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that a further £40 million would be invested in the scheme, bringing the total assistance so far to £275m.

Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay said the main challenge facing Scotland's housing market was the fact that the construction of new homes is languishing at around 13,000 a year: around half of the 25,000 new homes being built annually before the financial crisis. But demand for new homes has continued to grow, with immigration from eastern Europe having led to a steady increase in the population of Scotland over the last four years.

A substantial number of construction companies went out of business during the financial crisis which means that there is now little building capacity to up supply. Those firms that did survive now find it hard to obtain finance to embark on big building projects which require good cash flow.


Measures to toughen its lending policy announced this week by Lloyds Banking Group to cap applications for mortgages larger than £500,000 to a maximum of four times a borrower's salary are unlikely to have much effect in Scotland, where banks and building societies have a better record of lending responsibly, according to Mackay. Recent data on income multiples show that in the last quarter of 2013, first-time buyers in London borrowed an average of 3.7 times their income, in comparison with a British average of 3.3 and a Scottish average of 2.9.

According to Mackay, house building in Scotland continues to be hampered by an inefficient planning system which means that obtaining planning permission for some projects often takes years. Successive Scottish governments have made "the right noises" about doing something to fix the problem but little of substance has so far been implemented. Speeding up and simplifying the process of applying for building permission to build on brownfield sites is something that could, given sufficient political will, be introduced quickly.

The only area of Scotland where rising house prices could have a negative effect on the economy, he said, was Aberdeen, where two oil firms recently announced the relocation of jobs to the northeast of England and Glasgow because of the difficulties workers had in finding reasonably priced accommodation.

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