There is nothing that sets the chattering classes chattering faster than the subject of house prices. Second only to the NHS, it is closer to a national religion than to a mere obsession, and reports are forever viewed through the prism of the owners. Any other form of inflation is reported as bad news, but it’s the opposite here. Even the tiny falls (taking prices back to where they were just before Christmas) are reported as “plunging house prices” like some national disaster.

Such is the government terror of anything resembling a bear market in residential property, that there is talk of a Help To Buy Mark II, or another subsidy despite the abject failure of Mark I. So used have we become to thinking of a house as a pension or something to pass on to the children that the greatest social divide is between the have-houses and the have-nots.

It’s hard to exaggerate how unhealthy this is, so how did we get here? Help-to-buy was only one factor, but there is no doubting the winners from this expensive idea – the big housebuilders effectively doubled their margins, as HTB buyers paid around 5 per cent more than others. Those housebuilders already had cartel-like dominance. Today, the biggest four command a third of the market.

Smaller developers, who in 1988 built two in five new homes, contributed just one in 10 last year. The rules demand that banks reserve much more against building loans than is needed for mortgages (where there is genuine competition) so the smaller fry are unable to get finance at a price they can afford.

The delays and bizarre decisions in the labyrinthine planning process have also done for many of them, as viewers of Clarkson’s Farm might suspect. Theresa Villiers, a former Environment Secretary, does not even accept that there is a housing shortage, an attitude described by Cap-X’s Robert Colville as BANANAs – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

This is what the market effectively forces builders to do. Hence the proliferation of bleak estates, highly dependent on car transport, and with the mean little windows that comply with the 3-D jigsaw of planning, insulation and environmental constraints. This week a study by a think tank, the Centre for Cities, pointed out that Britain has a cumulative shortfall of over 4m (unbuilt) homes since the last war. It pins the blame firmly on the planning rules.

These have been massively expanded since the original 1947 Act, mostly by stealth as local planners have become progressively more prescriptive about what can and cannot be allowed. This is a salutary lesson for those advocating more local control over development – the main consequence would be a lot less of it.

Old owner-occupiers already pull up the drawbridge against the young who want to join them, and such is geriatric voting power that no politician dare say that falling house prices would be a good thing. Unless and until the renters and wannabe home owners rise up at the ballot box, the government will rig the market to ensure that the prices never go down, and we shall all be poorer.

That’s inflation for you

How high is inflation? Measured on the Consumer Prices Index, it is down from its October peak, although at 10.1 in January, not very far down. Measured by the CPIH, which includes owner-occupiers costs, it is currently a slightly less gruesome 8.8 per cent. What of the Retail Prices Index, which for years was considered a kind of cost-of-living measure? The authorities would rather we forgot it. Scroll down quite a long way on the Office for National Statistics site, and the shocking answer appears. The latest measure of the RPI reveals inflation at a blistering 13.4 per cent.

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