Mehdi Hasan: Time to talk about land taxes

An important contribution from the FT's Samuel Brittan.

Samuel Brittan, often described as the "doyen of British economic journalists", has an important column in today's Financial Times, provocatively entitled:

Tax England's green and pleasant land

Brittan - despite his background as a Thatcherite and monetarist - has been one of the most vocal, consistent and well-informed opponents of austerity economics in recent years. Today, he says:

Whatever one thinks of fiscal austerity, governments will need a new source of income in future if only because of demographic trends.

So what does he propose? A land tax. Indeed, as the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable argued at his party's annual conference in September 2010:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

I'm not sure it's an either/or question, of income taxes versus land taxes, but Cable is correct to point out that the latter are harder to dodge, avoid and evade. And while a land tax is progressive and fair, and a potential means of redistributing wealth, it's also a mainstream and sensible proposal.

"[F]ar from being an outrageous Bolshevik idea," explains Brittan in today's FT

the case for a land tax is one of the oldest and least disputed propositions in economic thought. The underlying theory was developed at the beginning of the 19th century by the highly respectable David Ricardo. Many chancellors have said that they would jump at a tax that had no disincentive effects on work or enterprise but had a strong redistributive element. The problem was that the amount of preliminary work required would take more than one parliament and any credit for the measure would redound to their successors.

He continues:

A land tax is one of those subjects - basic income is another - which divides commentators into a great majority who never mention it, and a minority who talk of nothing else. The result is to give supporters a cranky appearance, while the eyes of chancellors of either main party glaze over if you as much as mention the subject.

The basic point is that the supply of land, with rare exceptions such as reclamation in the Netherlands, is fixed. But because of its scarcity owners can command an income over and above the normal return to the enterprises placed upon it. Gross UK trading profits of non-financial and non-oil corporations are running at over £200bn per year or about 20 per cent of gross domestic output. Some part of this - we do not know how much - is not true profit but the return on land. There is one way in which the supply of usable land can increase. That is when land, previously off limits, is newly released by local authorities for development. The consequent increase in value, say some land tax campaigners, is created by "the community", which is entitled to a share of the increment. But to argue in this way is to sell the case short. The case for a land tax is valid even for land which always was available for development or which remains in agricultural use.

My editor Jason Cowley made the case for a land tax in a New Statesman cover story in October 2010:

An annual land value tax would not only provide a new and fairer source of income, Wetzel said, but would encourage owners of empty buildings and empty land to put their properties to good use. Towns and cities would become more efficient and the need for urban sprawl would be reduced.

Meanwhile my NS colleague Rafael Behr addresses the issue of land taxation, and the wider rows and divisions over taxation and the forthcoming Budget, in his politics column this week. Clegg, he writes

clings to the idea of a "mansion tax" on houses worth more than £2m.

That policy is toxic for Tories, whose safe seats are dotted with fancy real estate. The prospect of sizing up the nation's housing stock for a new tax threatens also to make ordinary households look wealthier than they feel. Labour, by contrast, is open to the idea. The mansion tax is being actively debated in Ed Miliband's office, partly because the leader's freshly advertised enthusiasm for fiscal discipline needs reinforcing with revenue-raising measures and partly because, with parliament on course to stay hung at the next election, there are strategic reasons to flirt with Lib Dem policy.

Privately, senior figures around Miliband admit to being impressed at how effectively Nick Clegg has set the terms of pre-Budget debate and put the Tories on the defensive. Although Labour harbours no affection for the Lib Dems, there is recognition of a shared interest in branding the Conservatives as defenders of inherited privilege and hoarded wealth.

A senior Labour figure told me recently that the the party leadership plans to focus on "taxes at the top" in the coming days and weeks. Good. It's a case I made in the Guardian just a fortnight ago - and I do hope that land taxes, mansion taxes and the rest feature as part of the impending discussion. Perhaps the shadow health secretary can chip in again. And David Miliband too. Oh, and from the right, ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie.

I leave you with Brittan's concluding line from his excellent FT column:

If politicians really want to think about the unthinkable, as they sometimes claim, here is a place to start.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle