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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

0800 7318496