The right warms to property taxes

Tory MPs and others on the right are beginning to recognise the case for greater taxation of propert

I recently noted that Tim Montgomerie, the influential editor of ConservativeHome, had declared his support for greater taxation of property (including a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax"), a cause the New Statesman has long championed. Since then, others on the right have joined him. In a piece on ConservativeHome today, Tory MP Mark Reckless, rightly noting that we tax property less than almost anywhere else in the world, calls for a range of new property taxes to replace the 50p rate. He calls for the coalition to ensure the rich pay stamp duty (many avoid it by putting properties into shell companies), to levy capital gains tax on non-UK residents and to introduce a mansion tax, although with the threshold set at £5m rather than £1m or £2m. In return, he says, the coalition should reduce the 50p rate to 45p and the 40p rate to 38p.

Elsewhere, the Spectator's James Forsyth writes about the growth of the "undeserving rich", those who have acquired huge wealth through illegitimate means. Forsyth cites the example of bankers and oligarchs but, to my mind, this category should also encompass those who have benefited immensely, through little effort of their own, from the dramatic rise in house prices over the last decade. As NS editor Jason Cowley argued in a October 2010 cover story ("The coming battle over land and property"), there is a strong meritocratic argument for heavier taxation of unearned wealth (inheritance, property and land) and lighter taxation of earned income. Property taxes are also harder to avoid than those on income (you can't move a mansion to Geneva) and reduce the distorting effect that property speculation has on the economy. For the psephologically minded, it's worth noting that high-end property taxes are popular. Last week's Sunday Times/YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the public (including 56 per cent of Tories) support a mansion tax, with just 27 per cent opposed (38 per cent of Tories).

Yet most on the right remain instinctively hostile to Vince Cable's call for greater taxation of land and property. They should realise that they are missing a trick. In an age of austerity, the Tories cannot afford to be seen as the party of the wealthy. Replacing the 50p rate with a range of new property taxes would change the terms of debate and send Labour back to the drawing board (the 50p rate may not raise as much revenue as Ed Miliband and Ed Balls hope). Simply abolishing the top rate is neither morally, nor politically, nor fiscally credible. The right should not miss an opportunity to demonstrate that it can think imaginatively about wealth, property and opportunity.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.