An overlooked argument for property taxes

More sensible taxation of property could reduce the problem of unaffordable house prices.

The trouble with talk about taxes is it's all bluster. The Daily Mail talks with glee of Eric Pickles discontinuing a database that could have allowed the revaluation of council tax bands. Yet the article fails to mention some key points, not least those 3.7 million households worse off as a result of our failure to revalue council tax, or that hard-pressed homeowners in London effectively pay a much lower proportion of the value of their homes in tax.

There's something about the value we attach to our homes that seems to generate an especially strong emotional response when the words "tax"and "property" are used together. Which is odd, as council tax fell from 0.7 per cent of a property's value in 1993-94 to 0.5 per cent in 2006-07. And that brings me to my next point - fairness. Most of this difference in how much of a property's value was taxed will have been capitalised into higher house prices. This benefits existing owners at the expense of first-time buyers, bringing us to a situation where 80 per cent of first time buyers get assistance with deposits. We also have a government-backed mortgage indemnity scheme to allow people to buy property with a higher loan-to-value ratio, targeted at new-build homes which are generally more expensive to buy.

So, despite the noise everyone makes about housing affordability, especially in London, you'd be hard pressed to find much discussion about how more sensible taxation of property could help our problem with unaffordable house prices. Discussion tends to focus more on why unearned house price gains aren't homeowners "fault" - but there lies the main argument for taxing property (or for that matter, land). Anyone who bought their property in 1994 didn't earn that 250 per cent increase in the value of their home between 1994 and 2008.

A mansion tax would be aimed at £2m-plus properties. But without a revaluation and extra council tax bands between £320,001 and £2m, it wouldn't solve this fairness problem. It would just mean £2m-plus mansions get a bit cheaper for the rich to buy. At the moment those with a property at the lowest point of the top band (£320,001) are liable for twice the tax of a Band D property (£68,001) even though their property's value is actually 4.7 times more. Now, even allowing for subjective definitions of fairness, does that sound fair to you?

So how do you make the system fairer? Well, you could regularly revalue council tax so that it more accurately reflected property prices, moving to a tax based on a percentage of the property's value. Of course, whilst you would hope such a tax might avoid the hoarding of housing highlighted by The Intergenerational Foundation, it wouldn't have to force pensioners out of their homes. To deal with any hardship faced by the asset rich but income poor, taxes could be deferred until the property was sold, or we could have a rebate system as we do now for those who can't afford to pay their council tax bills.

A growing number of commentators including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggest we need to reconsider property taxes. If we need to raise revenue to pay off the deficit and keep the economy growing, property taxes are well worth a look. And with a potential £10.6bn in missed revenue in 2009, which could have been ring-fenced to fund new homes, let's hope the plight of all those locked-out first-time buyers isn't ignored.

Kathleen Kelly is a Programme Manager for Place at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Kathleen Kelly is Programme Manager for Place at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the anti-poverty think tank.

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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.