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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.