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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PMQs review: David Cameron's call for Jeremy Corbyn to resign will only help him

 "For heaven's sake man, go!" The PM's appeal was sincere but the Labour leader can turn it to his advantage. 

It is traditionally the leader of the opposition who calls for the prime minister to resign. At today's PMQs, in another extraordinary moment, we witnessed the reverse. "For heaven's sake man, go!" David Cameron cried at Jeremy Corbyn, echoing Oliver Cromwell's address to the rump parliament ("in the name of God, go!") and Leo Amery's appeal to Neville Chamberlain in the 1940 Norway debate.

While it was in his "party's interests" for Corbyn to "sit there", Cameron said, it wasn't "in the national interest". Some will regard this as a cunning ruse to strengthen the Labour leader's position. But to my ear, Cameron sounded entirely sincere as he spoke. With just two months left as prime minister, he has little interest in seeking political advantage. But as he continues to defy appeals from his own side to resign, the addition of a Tory PM to the cause will only aid Corbyn's standing among members. 

After rumours that Labour MPs would boycott the session, leaving a sea of empty benches behind Corbyn, they instead treated their leader with contemptuous silence. Corbyn was inevitably jeered by Tory MPs when he observed that Cameron only had "two months left" to leave a "a One Nation legacy" (demanding "the scrapping of the bedroom tax, the banning of zero-hours contracts, and the cancelling of cuts to Universal Credit"). Cameron conceded that "we need do more to tackle poverty" before deriding Corbyn's EU referendum campaigning. "I know the Hon. Gentleman says he put his back into it. All I can say is I'd hate to see it when he's not trying." 

The other notable moment came when Theresa May supporter Alan Duncan contrasted Angela Merkel with "Silvio Borisconi" (a Hansard first). Cameron replied: "Neither of the people he's talking about are candidates in this election, it's an election I will stay out of ... I was given lots of advice, one of them was not to go to a party with Silvio Berlusconi and I'm glad I took it." Given the recent fate of those who personally mocked Johnson during the referendum campaign, Duncan's jibe may not do May's cause much more help now. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.