Significant numbers of people using the Government’s Help to Buy equity loan scheme in England would have been able to purchase a home anyway, according to a spending watchdog.
Around one in 25 home buyers using the scheme had household incomes of over £100,000, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.
The scheme had also helped to support large developers’ annual profits, according to the NAO, which said it was too early to tell whether the initiative had provided value for money.
Five firms combined – Redrow, Bellway, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt and Persimmon – accounted for just over half of sales made across England with the support of the scheme between 2013 and 2018.
Redrow made up 3.7% of sales, Bellway accounted for 6.7%, Taylor Wimpey made up 11.9%, Barratt made up 13.3% and Persimmon accounted for 14.8%, according to the NAO’s analysis.
Larger firms tended to be better equipped to administer the scheme, the report said.
The NAO said the Government’s challenge now was to wean the property market off the scheme, which was launched in April 2013.
Research found 37% of households would not have been able to buy any property without the scheme.
But nearly a third (31% ) of buyers could have purchased a property they wanted without the scheme.
And some buyers could have bought a property without the support of Help to Buy, but not necessarily a property they wanted.
Around 4% of the 211,000 buyers who had used the scheme by December 2018 had household incomes of over £100,000.
Over the whole scheme, which is not means-tested, 10% of buyers had household incomes of over £80,000, or over £90,000 in London.
Commenting on the report, Fran Boait, executive director of campaigning body Positive Money, said: “It’s now beyond clear that rather than helping those who can’t afford to buy a home, Help to Buy has mainly been a subsidy for a housing bubble, benefiting property developers and existing home owners.”
The NAO’s analysis found that buyers who had used Help to Buy had paid less than 1% more than they might have paid for a similar new-build property bought without the support of the scheme.
By 2023, the net amount loaned through the scheme is forecast to peak at around £25 billion, with the investment expected to be recovered by 2031/32 and a positive return made overall.
But the NAO said the investment was exposed to significant market risk as it was sensitive to house price changes and the timing of buyers repaying loans.
It said there was also a cost in terms of opportunity in tying up money for a considerable period, rendering it unavailable for other housing schemes or priorities.
The scheme was launched by what is now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Home buyers receive an equity loan of up to 20% (or 40% in London) of the market value of a new-build property. They are not charged loan fees on the loan for the first five years of owning their home.
Between the start of the scheme in April 2013 and September 2018, 38% of all new-build property sales were supported by loans through the scheme, accounting for around 4% of total house purchases across England during this time.
Around 81% of all buyers supported by the scheme were first-time buyers.
It was announced in 2018 that from April 2021, the revised scheme would be restricted just to first-time buyers, with lower regional limits on the maximum house purchase price.
The NAO said changes to the scheme aimed to reduce overall demand for it in its final two years, preparing the housing sector for its end in 2023.
Take-up of the scheme had been lower in London, where average house price-to-earnings ratios were higher, compared with the rest of England, the NAO’s report said.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Help to Buy has increased home ownership and housing supply, particularly for first-time buyers.
“However, a proportion of participants could have afforded to buy a home without the Government’s help.
“The scheme has also exposed the Government to significant market risk if property values fall, as well as tying up a significant public financial capacity.
“The Government’s greatest challenge now is to wean the property market off the scheme with as little impact as possible on its ambition of creating 300,000 homes a year from the mid-2020s.
“Until we can observe its longer-term effects on the property market and whether the department has recovered its substantial investment, we cannot say whether the scheme has delivered value for money.”
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said Help to Buy has delivered against its objectives, to increase home ownership, boost housing supply and generate economic activity.
He said: “Help to Buy has been central to supporting new-build sales rates, and thus the construction of desperately needed homes, while the wider second-hand market has remained sluggish.
“At present, the mortgage market is not equipped to support realistic lending to first-time buyers purchasing in the new-build sector.
“We will continue to work with lenders and stakeholders to try and ensure the withdrawal of Help to Buy does not lead to reduced housing supply or first-time buyer aspiration.”
Housing Minister Kit Malthouse said: “Help to Buy has been genuinely life changing for first-time buyers across the country, helping them secure their first step on the property ladder.”
He said the scheme has been “win-win” – supporting first time buyers, increasing home building and also set to make a profit for the public.
He said: “From 2021 the scheme will be extended and strengthened to make it exclusively for first-time buyers to support those who need it most.”