Government's cowardice over council tax has left it in a mess

When council tax bands have little to do with today's value, how can it replace a mansion tax?

Simon Jenkins writes in today's Guardian that it's strange that Vince Cable carries on talking about a mansion tax when we already have one, called the mansion tax:

England's property-based council tax stops at the present H-band. This means that the same tax is paid on all houses valued at more than £320,000 at 1991 prices (roughly £950,000 today). In parts of London, this means half the houses pay the same. Nick Clegg is right to protest that "it cannot be right that an oligarch in a £4 million palace in central London pays the same council tax as someone in a four-bedroom family home". It is ludicrous.

So what is the problem? The answer is no politician dares change it. All are cowards. They bid the rest of us to show spine, come to the mark, tighten our belts and take cuts without complaint. Yet faced with an equitable fiscal reform that could net billions in revenue, they cringe and whimper and protest it is all too hard. Like tackling drug illegality or the criminal justice system, politicians who think that something is politically toxic end up making it so.

Jenkins suggests that if the Liberal Democrats weren't cowards, they would introduce new tax bands, above band H, and charge increasing levels of council tax on them, "perhaps triggered at half-million pound steps".

But the real way we can tell that governments – not just the Lib Dems – are cowards is that, even aside from using council tax to introduce a mansion tax by proxy, they haven't even done the most basic housekeeping.

As Jenkins suggests, council tax bands are levied on the value of houses in 1991. If a rising tide floats all boats, then that's not too problematic – the most expensive houses in 1991 would still be in band H now, and the right people would be taxed the most. But it doesn't float all boats. Some houses have risen in value faster than the average, while some have risen in value less fast.

Despite this, there has never been a reassessment of council tax bands, and so many people are paying tax based on assets they do not actually have. Introducing higher tax bands without reassessing the existing houses would merely compound that error.

Doing so has nothing to do with raising revenue, and everything to do with basic fairness. If governments can't even bring themselves to do that, don't expect them to go much further with actually using council tax for good.

Houses for sale. But what's the council tax on them? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.