Is tax Britain’s problem? No – it’s housing

In obsessing over the mansion tax we risk ignoring the real issue.

Amid talk of mansion and jewelry taxes, it’s interesting to reflect on The New York Times’ recent piece "The Myth of the Rich Who Flee From Taxes".

Rather than moving to avoid tax, the paper reports that:

A large majority of people move for far more compelling reasons, like jobs, the cost of housing, family ties or a warmer climate. At least three recent academic studies have demonstrated that the number of people who move for tax reasons is negligible, even among the wealthy.

One of those studies, "Tax Flight Is a Myth", is particularly notable. It finds that, although there are huge discrepancies between tax rates in different US states, under a third of US citizens change their state of residence over their lifetime.

Some people certainly do move for financial reasons – only not the ones that we might assume. New Jersey introduced an annual additional tax on those with incomes over $500,000 in 2004; by the end of 2007, no more than 70 tax filers had left the state and New Jersey was a net $3.75bn better off than under the old tax system.

It is property prices that are much more important. Consider the case of Florida: with no state income tax, you might expect the state to be flooded with those wishing to escape taxes. Except, in the late 2000s, Florida’s population actually declined. Lack of state income taxation might have been appealing, but it couldn’t make up for Florida’s rapidly rising housing prices.

What can the UK learn from these studies? Retaining the 50p tax rate probably wouldn’t have led to the wealth exodus that George Osborne feared. And for something labelled “socialist” the proposed mansion tax is striking in its caution: someone with a house worth £3m would pay only £10,000 extra a year. It wouldn’t raise the redistributive sums the left hopes, and nor would it punish successful businessmen as the right fears.

In obsessing over the mansion tax we risk ignoring the real issue. As in the case of Florida, Britain’s economy is undermined by the exorbitant cost of housing. According to Halifax, the average age of first-time house buyers is now 30, and it is 32 in London (pdf). Rather than debate the morals of taxing houses, we need to focus on how to make housing more affordable.

Taxing homes like this wouldn't have the impact either the left or right predict Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation