The big election issues: Dutch housing market under mounting pressure

Foreign affairs ministry accused of sabotaging Saudi fraud investigation

The Netherlands goes to the polls to elect a new government on March 15. Gordon Darroch is taking a close look at the five big issues dominating the campaign: healthcare, immigration, Europe, the elderly and housing. Part 4: housing The Dutch housing sector is under increasing pressure to keep up with demand. A working group set up by the government has concluded that 50,000 new homes need to be built in the next few years. Rents and house prices are both rising faster than inflation, making it especially challenging for young professionals and those looking to buy their first home. At the same time some homeowners are still feeling the after-effects of the house price crash and negative equity that was a major feature of the 2008 recession. The problem is particularly acute in the social housing sector, which still accounts for 29% of all homes despite the efforts of Mark Rutte's government to liberalise the sector. According to D66's manifesto the average waiting time for a house in the public sector is eight years and in extreme cases people are having to wait for 21 years. D66 has set a target of building 100,000 new affordable homes to cut the waiting list. Other parties to specify housebuilding targets include Labour (PvdA), which wants to build 50,000 homes a year. The animal rights party PvdD calls for empty offices to be converted into homes to ease the shortage. Private sector Several parties see the private sector as key to easing the housing crisis. The Christian Democrats (CDA), D66 and the ChristenUnie all want to liberalise the market, particularly for tenants whose rents are just above the limit of €700 a month for social housing. A shortage in the €700-€1000 bracket is causing a backlog in social housing and exacerbating the problem of scheefhuurders – sitting tenants whose incomes have risen far faster than their rents, sometimes over decades. The Socialists (SP) focus on reducing rents, pointing out that average housing sector costs have increased by 30% in six years, creating hardship for half a million people. 'Rents down' is also the full extent of housing policy in the PVV's manifesto. The Socialists would use social housing to tackle the shortage of homes for low earners, by extending eligibility to people earning 150% of the average income. This is in direct contrast to the VVD, who want to make space for more private landlords by lowering the upper threshold for social housing to €600 a month. 50Plus says social housing landlords should be compelled to build enough homes for elderly people. Owner occupiers In the housing market itself, much attention has been focused since the recession on the hypotheekrenteaftrek – the mechanism that allows homeowners to offset their monthly mortgage payments against income tax. Labour, Denk and the ChristenUnie would all bring the maximum level down from €750,000 to €500,000, while D66, the SP and the SGP also have plans to scale it back in the longer term. The latter two parties also want to reduce the level of mortgage debt; in the case of the SGP this would involve allowing people to use money from their pension pots to pay off their mortgages. Several parties want to relax the criteria for new mortgages to help first-time buyers; the VVD, for example, say banks should be able to look at buyers' potential future earnings as well as their current earnings. One reform from the Rutte government that many parties target is the verhuurdersheffing, or landlord's levy, applicable to owners who have at least 10 rental properties within the social housing price bracket. The measure is worth around €1.3 billion a year to the public purse, but opposition parties say it deters landlords from investing in improving the quality of housing. Free-market champions VNL want to abolish it outright, while the CDA would cut it by around 30% so corporations can build more affordable homes. The VVD, which pioneered the scheme, would increase the charge and use the money raised to fund an income tax cut. Finally, energy use and sustainability feature in several parties' manifestos. GroenLinks want more investment in parks and green spaces, and will campaign for a European agreement to make all new buildings energy neutral within two years. D66 have a more modest target of making 30% of homes energy neutral by 2030. The PvdD wants to permit more 'tiny houses' – small portable homes or extensions which could be used, for example, as granny annexes – to tackle the housing crisis without needing to develop green space. Party manifestos VVD: Lower the rent ceiling for social housing to €600 to encourage more private sector landlords. More flexible mortgage lending criteria to help first-time buyers and non-contract workers. New migrants no longer to be given priority in waiting lists. Housing benefit to be based on income rather than rent level. PVV: 'Rents down' PvdA: At least 50,000 new homes a year to be built, with quotas for affordable housing. Structure rents so that people on lower incomes pay less. Cap mortgage tax relief at €500,000. SP: Cut social housing rents by €400 a year with no rent increases above the level of inflation. Extend eligibility for affordable housing to people earning 1.5 times the average salary. Oblige social landlords to invest in improving their buildings. D66: Build 100,000 affordable new homes to cut waiting lists. Scale back mortgage tax relief and encourage householders to pay off mortgages. Incentives to cut energy use to make 3 million homes energy neutral by 2030. CDA: More rental homes in €700-€900 pm bracket to cut waiting lists. Cut landlord tax by €500 million so corporations can build more sustainable homes. Raise rents for scheefhuurders – social housing tenants on low rents and relatively high incomes. GroenLinks: Invest in parks and green spaces to improve quality of residential areas. Adjust rents in social housing to reflect tenants' income. Phase out mortgage tax relief and provide support for first-time buyers. ChristenUnie: Stimulate private rental sector to create more homes in the €700-€1,100 price bracket. Abolish landlord tax. Exemption from purchase tax for first-time buyers. Cap mortgage tax relief at €500,000. SGP: Scale back mortgage tax relief and scrap the homeowner's tax (eigenwoningforfait). Allow pension contributions to be used to pay off mortgages. Starter loans and longer mortgage terms to help first-time buyers enter the market. More affordable homes for families and low earners. 50Plus: Compel housing corporations to build enough homes for elderly people. Fiscal incentives and changes to planning regulations to encourage energy saving. National programme to tackle shortage of affordable homes. No change to mortgage tax relief. PvdD: Convert empty offices to homes or student residences. Encourage 'multiple generation homes' so families can stay in the same neighbourhood. Raise rents for social housing tenants on higher incomes. Phase out mortgage tax relief over 30 years and abolish purchase tax. Denk: Abolish landlords' levy to cut rents and encourage investment. At least 30% of land sales to go to small developers. No rent rises above inflation for low earners. Limit mortgage tax relief to €500,000 but extend eligibility to interest-free ('halal') mortgages. VNL: Build more homes. Abolish landlords' levy for private tenants.  More >

Ministry 'sabotaged Saudi fraud inquiry'

Foreign affairs ministry accused of sabotaging Saudi fraud investigation The foreign ministry has been accused of obstructing a criminal inquiry into corrupt payments by a Dutch building firm to the Saudi royal family. The Telegraaf newspaper reported in 2013 that Ballast Nedam had paid hundreds of millions of euros to a member of the House of Saud to secure military building contracts on the Arabian peninsula. The bulk of the money, some $450 million, went to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud. Documents obtained recently by the TV station Human revealed that the ministry of foreign affairs blocked an attempt by the Dutch tax service's fraud division (FIOD) to interview a Saudi witness during its investigation of the case. According to the document, which is the basis of a documentary broadcast on Monday, the interview was abandoned 'because of bilateral relations, the status of those concerned and the possible risks to the witness who was to be heard.' Investigators in the case told the Telegraaf that they had been frustrated by the ministry's intervention. The then foreign affairs minister Frans Timmermans denied any interference in the case when the issue was raised by Socialist MP Harry van Bommel. 'The Netherlands' interests in Saudi Arabia, whether diplomatic, economic or of any other kind, have not been allowed to have any kind of influence on the criminal investigation into the illegal payments affair,' said Timmermans when questioned by the Telegraaf. Ballast built two airfields in Saudi Arabia for a total sum of $580 million. FIOD believes the contracts were only worth $249 million and the illegal payments made up the difference.  More >

Leaders cancel each other out in debate

Sober election debate fails to produce clear rival to Dutch PM Rutte The first television debate of the election campaign concluded without an outright winner as none of the five leaders on show landed a decisive blow in more than two hours of rigorous debate. In the absence of the front-runners in the opinion polls, Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders, the middle-order parties had the chance to make up ground. Wilders and Rutte pulled out in protest when broadcaster RTL increased the number of participants from four to five. The debate covered most of the major themes of the campaign, from the cost of healthcare to refugees and Islam to the issue of whether car drivers should be taxed by the kilometre. D66 leader Alexander Pechtold was named in a viewers' poll as the winner of the contest, with GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver a close second. The absence of Wilders gave the debate a more sober tone, particularly on the question of whether Islam posed a threat to Dutch identity. Pechtold used the issue to go on the offensive against Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma, accusing him of pursuing policies that would turn Muslims into 'second-class citizens'. Buma retorted that Pechtold was out of touch with ordinary people's concerns: 'The Netherlands is angrier, more anxious and more insecure than ever,' he said. Labour (PvdA) leader Lodewijk Asscher signalled a departure from his party's recent position on refugees. 'A society can only take so much,' he said, referring to the troubled reaction to the swell of asylum seekers from Syria in 2015. In contrast, his two rivals on the left, Jesse Klaver of the GreenLeft group and Socialist Emile Roemer, argued that efforts should focus on ending the conflict in the Middle East. The debate was expected to feature a tussle between the three leaders on the left, but Klaver and Roemer largely avoided a direct confrontation with Asscher. Each leader was allowed to call out one of their rivals for a head-to-head mini-debate: Roemer used his to press Klaver on a point from Friday's Radio 1 debate, when the GreenLeft leader challenged Asscher to form a cabinet without Rutte. Klaver seemed to backtrack, insisting he was ruling out nobody as coalition partner – except Wilders. Klaver, the least experienced of the leaders, looked flustered early on but grew stronger in the second half of the debate, when he moved on to stronger ground such as motorway charging. Traffic jams could be cut by 60% by charging drivers 15 cents a kilometre in rush hour and three cents at other times, the GreenLeft leader argued, improving both energy consumption and productivity. Asscher's most difficult moment came at the beginning, when Buma attacked Labour's policy of scrapping the excess charge (eigen risico) on healthcare because it deterred people from seeking medical treatment. Asscher was part of the cabinet that had raised the contribution significantly, Buma pointed out: 'If you really believe that, then you're responsible for the people who've been avoiding treatment for the last four and a half years.' Klaver challenged Pechtold on the same issue, arguing that high upfront costs were making healthcare inaccessible for those who need it most, but the D66 leader accused Klaver of wanting to introduce a raft of new taxes to pay for his plan. Pechtold claimed 70% of people were against abolishing the excess charge: 'healthcare isn't free,' he said. Roemer, the champion of the National Healthcare Fund, tried to take the initiative on health and jobs, arguing that a million households were being priced out of medical treatment, but was called out by the fact-checkers for his claim that the cabinet had 'destroyed 365,000 jobs.' Asscher pointed out that unemployment was falling and acknowledged that changing working patterns were creating uncertainty, but did not go beyond a vague pledge that he would work to 'make fixed contracts the standard once again'. Initial figures showed that 1.2 million people watched the live debate on TV – not enough to displace Boer Zoekt Vrouw on NPO1, which drew 3.5 million viewers.  More >

Dutch royals pose in the snow

Dutch royals pose in the snow ahead of skiing holiday The Dutch royal family took part in their traditional ski holiday photo session on Monday, with king Willem-Alexander joking about turning 50. ‘Life begins at 50,’ the king, who will reach the milestone in April, said. ‘Fifty is the new 30.’ The king, queen Maxima and three princesses always pose for the press at the start of their holiday in return for an commitment to leave them alone for the rest of the break. This year the photo session was without princess Beatrix, who was in Lech, Austria last week with princess Mabel and her daughters. It is five years ago that Mabel’s husband Friso was seriously injured in an avalanche after skiing off piste. He died in summer 2013 after spending 18 months in a coma.   More >

Humpback whale swims off Den Helder

Humpback whale spotted swimming in Den Helder naval base A humpback whale has been spotted swimming in the waters of the naval station in Den Helder, marine group SOS Dolfijn said on Monday. The whale appears to be healthy and is exhibiting normal behaviour, the organisation said. The naval base is closed to the public and the authorities have been warned to keep clear. Humpback whales are not uncommon in Dutch waters and have been spotted several times since 2003. 'They usually swim back to sea without any problems,' a spokeswoman for marine life centre Ecomare said. In 2012, a humpback whale beached off the Wadden island of Texel and died, despite the efforts of rescuers. Sinds vanochtend zwemt er een bultrug in de Marinehaven. Het dier toont normaal gedrag dus met rust laten is nu het advies. — SOSDolfijn (@SOSDolfijn) February 27, 2017   More >