Delays in UK house building caused by the pandemic have forced the government to consider drafting plans to extend its help-to-buy scheme for new home purchases beyond the end-of-year deadline.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is considering whether to back a proposal supported by the housing minister, Robert Jenrick, and housebuilders, that would keep the scheme in place for an extra three months to clear the backlog caused by the lockdown of construction sites in the spring.
While the Treasury says no final decision has yet been taken, the chancellor is under pressure from large construction companies to help the sector emerge from recession and ensure that 18,000 buyers do not lose their chance to buy subsidised homes due to the delays linked to Covid-19.
Help to buy, a scheme that began in 2013, allows people to buy a home with a deposit of as little as 5% of the purchase price, with the government providing an equity loan of up to 40% in London and 20% in the rest of the country.
The housing ministry said that in the seven years between the launch of the scheme in the spring of 2013 and March 2020 the initiative had enabled 272,000 households to buy a new-build home.
“The government continues to work closely with all parts of the housing industry to understand the challenges and opportunities they face,” a housing ministry spokesman said.
The help-to-buy scheme aimed to help people to buy homes at a time when mortgage lenders were reluctant to offer loans without hefty deposits.
From the outset, however, it has been criticised for driving up house prices, subsidising people who would have bought a home anyway, and boosting the profits of the major housebuilders.
A National Audit Office report in 2019 said 63% of people buying a home under the scheme could have done so without help from the state, and official figures showed households with incomes of more than £80,000 a year were more likely to take advantage of the initiative than those with incomes below £30,000.
Help-to-buy transactions underpinnned about half of Persimmon’s sales in 2018 when the housebuilder racked up profits of more than £1bn. Vince Cable, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the company of “pinching their profits from the public purse”.
The government responded to the criticism by announcing plans for a less generous replacement scheme that would be available only to first-time buyers.
The House Builders Federation said that of the 18,000 people likely to be affected by the December deadline about 40% would be ineligible for the new scheme.
David O’Leary, policy director at HBF, said: “Coronavirus forced the home-building industry to shut down, and while builders are now back on site, working within strict safe operating guidelines, completions have inevitably been delayed.
“It is an obvious response to extend the deadline to allow for these delays, but as a result of inflexibility of the rules thousands of home buyers look likely to miss out on the opportunity to use help to buy and so be able to purchase a new home.
“With mortgages for first-time buyers now few and far between, help to buy is more important than ever. Reducing the availability of help to buy will have a knock-on effect, undermining attempts to increase the delivery of new homes at a time when the economic benefits that the industry brings are desperately needed.”