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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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.