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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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.