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.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.