How the mansion tax will work, and who it will hit

If you're planning to own a mansion in the future, the tax isn't as bad as it seems…

Let's clear up one myth about the mansion tax straight away: it is not going to work the way Tim Montgomerie suggests in his Times column today. Montgomerie writes:

Last week Ed Miliband joined Nick Clegg in proposing a mansion tax so that the people who live in London’s parallel universe — many of whom come from overseas and pay little in the way of income taxes — might make a greater contribution. It was a perfectly reasonable intervention but, in a sign that the Conservative Party still hasn’t understood why it can’t win elections, many Tory MPs reacted with fury. Such a tax was, they complained, unfair on the person in a £2 million home who didn’t have the necessary £20,000 to spare.

A person with a £2m home would pay nothing in tax under any version of the mansion tax previously suggested. A £20,000 tax bill implies a house worth £4m. That's because the tax Miliband eventually produces is near certain to follow the same lines as the Lib Dems' desired tax, and be set at 1 per cent of the value of the home above £2m.

The reason why is obvious: if the tax was set at 1 per cent of the total value of any home above £2m, then there would be a huge incentive to depress, either artificially or actually, the value of the home. If your house was worth £2,010,000, it would be worth paying someone up to £10,000 to come round and do £10k worth of damage to it.

More practically, the lack of a cliff-edge at which the tax comes in is also likely to prevent it doing too much to property values. It will have a depressive effect, getting stronger as the house gets more valuable, and will likely knock quite a bit off the price of a £4m house. But the changes will be about pricing in the expected future cost of the tax to the sale price, not about avoidance. For much the same reason that no-body ever says "no thanks, I'd rather earn just £8,104 and not pay tax on my income", houses aren't going to start being sold at £1.99m in any real numbers.

But that example does reveal one of the bigger problems with the fairness of the tax. No, it's not the ridiculous example given by Toby Young of someone who finds themselves living in a £4m house without the money to pay the tax bill. If you can sell your house, buy a £2m one, and pocket the lifetime earnings of someone on the median wage as the difference, you do not really get to plead poverty.

Instead, it's that the vast majority of the incidence of the tax will be on the people who own the houses today. The depressive effect it will have on house prices will be pretty much instantaneous, and will then sit there forever. The tax will also slightly dampen the rate at which house prices above £2m increase — because every £100 increase in price imposes a £1-a-year increase in tax liability — but that is small fry compared to the initial hit.

That quirk explains why the suggestion of a tax provokes such vociferous outrage amongst those owning £2m+ houses. It really is unfair on them; but it's not a matter of unfairness against the rich, so much as unfairness against this generation of the rich. And really, for a government which has done so much to harm the cause of intergenerational fairness, that's a small hit in return.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.