Post war British economic policy and house-building
Macroeconomic policy frameworks followed by governments have definite impacts on all sectors of the economy including the housing sector. Post Second World War the British government was still recovering from the aftermath of the war and was dealing with recurrent political and economic failures. The government responded to these crises by following a ‘stop-go’ policy of demand management. The policy entailed raising taxes, cutting government expenditure, and reducing demand in order to slow down the growth of the economy – the ‘stop’phase.It was felt that as soon as economic activity had fallen to a particular level and the balance of payments had improved, the entire process could be reversed by cutting taxes and stimulating demand – the ‘go’ phase.
What were the crucial elements in the implementation of this policy and what was the impact? A recent paper published in May 2019 in the Economic History Reviewby Peter. M. Scott and James. T. Walker finds that a crucial but covert element of the ‘stop-go’ policy was the policy of restricting private and public-sector house-building.
The ‘stop-go’ policy in terms of private British housebuilding entailed restricting mortgage availability from the mid 1950s to the 1980s. This was achieved through keeping building society interest rates low relative to other interest rates, thus starving them of mortgage funds. Building societies were then a crucial element in Britain’s house mortgage market. In 1973, gross advances disbursed by building societies stood at £3.5 billion compared to £319 million by banks. Interestingly, mortgage restriction was never publicly discussed and ironically sometimes even operated alongside ambitious housing targets and well-publicised policy initiatives to boost housing demand.
The paper evaluates the impact of this policy on the wider economy. The authors find that the policy restricted private house-building to varying extents over most of the quarter century from 1955. Building societies reacted to the shortage of funds by raising minimum deposit ratios to well above the 5 per cent typically required for new houses in the 1930s, while tightening criteria for lenders regarded as good risks.This also had the impact in reducing the available quantity of housing stock and impeded changes to its geographical mix through a period of significant regional shifts in employment thus reducing the mobility of labour.