Help to Buy Britain, the new estates where nobody knows your name
Molly Crowther knew everyone on the street she grew up on. But she doesn’t know any of her neighbours on her new estate.
“It’s good because you don’t worry about annoying anyone by being too loud,” says the 27-year-old. “But I still think it’s really weird because we’re all the same age – young people living our own separate lives.”
Welcome to Help to Buy Britain – large estates of newly built “starter homes”, often built on the outskirts of towns and cities. They are dominated by homeowners from a single generation, young first-time buyers who only made it onto the housing ladder thanks to interest-free borrowing through the taxpayer-funded scheme.
The policy has been a mainstay of the Government push to increase home ownership and housing supply for nearly 10 years. And with housing secretary Michael Gove sounding uncertain last month about hitting the Government’s own target of building 300,000 new homes a year, it may yet survive beyond its scheduled 2023 end date.
Whatever the fate of the Help to Buy policy, the developments it has created will define large swathes of suburban Britain for decades to come. But while these estates provide much-needed housing, critics claim they do not always create communities.
Crowther lives on the new East Haven estate in the South Wales seaside town of Barry. Pristine two and three-storey red brick and light blue new homes line her road with plenty of parking and a footpath and wide ribbons of green grass running down the middle.
The development is part of a wider scheme of nearly 2,000 new homes built by a consortium of three housing goliaths – Persimmon, Barratt and Taylor Wimpey. Named Barry Waterfront, it sits close to the docks, and all the homes were available through Help to Buy. On its website, Yorkshire-based builder Persimmon describes the estate as “a regeneration project”.
However, Crowther, who bought a second-floor two-bedroom flat, isn’t so sure.
“My flat is great,” she explains. “But, like so many people who grew up in this area, I’ve been priced out. I grew up in a wealthier part of town and, as people have been priced out of Cardiff and moved into its suburbs, people who lived here have been priced out too.”
Barry, Crowther says, is now full of people who would “never have lived there” 10 years ago.
“Since the pandemic and especially with working from home, people have bought up the bigger properties in the town and pushed young people who grew up here like me out.”
Rose Grayston, housing policy expert and co-author of the “No Place Left Behind” report, which she published alongside former No 10 housing adviser Toby Lloyd, is concerned about the problems that new Help to Buy estates can cause.
“We found that the people who live in these homes see their homeownership dream sour as they confront the reality of living somewhere with no local shops or services,” she told i, referring to estates she has seen across England.
“No places to meet in their neighbours and roads clogged up with others trying to escape their suburban dormitory.”
She points to a lack of community and social infrastructure and “low standards in place-making”.
Mr Gove appeared to acknowledge these concerns last month when he said the Government wanted to build “communities that people love” with the required infrastructure.
But not everyone minds living in a disconnected way if it means they are on the property ladder. Jordan Wilkinson, a 29-year-old maintenance engineer working for a car manufacturer, is very happy with the new Oxfordshire estate that he and his wife moved into.
They bought the Linden Homes three-bedroom semi-detached new-build house on the Rye Gardens estate, Sutton Courtenay, in 2016 and live there with their six-year-old daughter. According to Wilkinson, most people on the estate are in their 30s and 40s.
“On the whole, people do their own thing,” he says. “We had a nice relationship with some of the other families who also had kids at the village school but there were people in the street that I never met in five years of living there.
“I really like the house and the area. There were roughly 50 houses on the estate, and it was popular because it’s on the outskirts of the village which is close to a business park and a train station with direct links to London.”
Like Crowther, Wilkinson bought his home through Help to Buy. Launched in 2013, the policy was intended to “turn generation rent into generation buy” at a time when house prices were rising, pricing first-time buyers out of homeownership.
It was also intended to help the housing market and developers after the 2008 financial crash left them struggling to find both investment and buyers. In 2009/10, only 115,000 new-builds were completed in England – fewer than any year in peace time since the 20s.
According to the Government’s own figures, since Help to Buy was introduced, 346,000 households have used it to purchase a home. Britain urgently needs these new houses, but the young also need them to be affordable. And while Help to Buy has delivered on the first of these, the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, says it has not made housing any cheaper. At Barry Waterfront the developers’ own figures suggest a distinct lack of truly affordable housing.
Taylor Wimpey said that of the 58 homes it’s selling in the current phase, only nine are social housing apartments. Similarly, of Barratt’s 431 homes for the open market (which will include homes purchased with Help to Buy Wales) only 65 were affordable homes.“Help to Buy is just solving a problem of building housing,” says Crowther.
“But it’s not helping affordability because nobody I know from Barry is able to afford it. I don’t think it’s building community.”
All of the developers involved with Barry Waterfront told i that they had met their obligations under Section 106 of the 1990 Planning Act which stipulates that housebuilders must contribute to local infrastructure.
Barratt Homes cites its support for a new link road, school and nursery, parks and a waterside promenade, Persimmon points to “the first new sustainable urban high street in Wales” on the estate and Taylor Wimpey says “place-making” is at the heart of the development.
But while developers may improve wider community facilities when they build Help to Buy homes, the scheme can provide them with a lot of money in return. Persimmon alone reported a record-breaking profit of £1bn just before the pandemic when almost half of its house sales were facilitated by the scheme.
Analysis from housing market expert Neal Hudson shows, over time, Help to Buy has allowed builders to keep land costs low by focusing on greenfield sites, while they profit from rising house prices that buyers can afford because of support from the government scheme.
Grayston also points to “fantastic” Help to Buy profits from house builders who have benefited from “a captive market of households whose only shot at homeownership is to use the scheme”. But, she adds: “For communities, and for the environment, it’s a disaster.”
In Barry, despite her misgivings about the lack of community, Crowther loves her home and has high hopes for the development she has invested in. Meanwhile, Wilkinson and his wife are less concerned. They recently sold their home and are planning to move on because they want a bigger house.
A Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities spokesperson said Help to Buy had supported more than 346,000 households, and the Government was investing more £12bn in affordable housing and more than £5bn “in infrastructure such as schools and green spaces, creating vibrant communities for people to live and work”.
How Help to Buy works
The Help to Buy equity loan scheme is now the only version of the scheme available after the Help to Buy ISA was wound down. It allows first-time buyers to buy a home with just a 5 per cent deposit. First-time buyers can borrow 20 per cent of the purchase price of their home (40 per cent in London), interest-free for five years. They must then take out a mortgage to pay for the rest.
Molly Crowther used the scheme to buy her flat from Persimmon at the end of last year. The business apprentice consultant earns just over £20,000 a year and her purchase would have impossible without her Help to Buy loan. The flat cost £147,995. She had a £30,000 deposit and paid a £500 reservation fee, took out a Help to Buy equity loan for 20 per cent of the outstanding value at £29,599 and has a mortgage on the rest at £88,000.
The Government said the current plan was to wind Help to Buy down after the 31 March 2023. But the scheme was originally supposed to end in 2016 and has been continually extended ever since.