11 EU countries are about to implement an FTT: the UK should make it 12

The Overton window is shifting, and now might be the time for an FTT.

In UK political circles, little serious consideration was given to the idea of a general financial transaction tax (FTT) before the financial crisis and recession. The City’s view that it would damage the UK’s successful financial industry held sway. But in the last few years, politicians have become more sceptical about what the City tells them and have expressed varying degrees of support for the principle of an FTT. The stumbling block, though, remains the possibility that an FTT introduced unilaterally in the UK would see the City lose business to other financial centres, in particular to New York.

Like the perennial threat that bankers are on the brink of leaving London for other shores as a result of the bankers bonus tax, or the bank levy, or the 50p tax rate, this claim is exaggerated. A badly designed FTT might result in business leaving these shores; a well-designed one could minimise that risk.

And the UK already has a well-designed FTT to act as a model: stamp duty on share purchases. This is very hard to avoid because the tax is paid when the change of legal ownership of shares is registered. If the tax is not paid, the purchaser does not legally acquire the shares. At least 30 other countries also have effective FTTs, and they are applied in 13 of the world’s top 15 financial centres.

Now 11 EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy, intend to introduce a financial transaction tax of 0.1 per cent on trades in shares and bonds and 0.01 per cent on trades in derivatives. We have argued in a recent paper that the UK should join with these countries broaden its FTT to trades in bonds and derivatives. If it is worried about losing business to New York, it should actively lobby US policy makers to introduce an FTT of their own, rather than waiting passively for them to act.

It has been estimated that joining the other 11 EU countries could raise up to £20bn a year in additional tax revenues. These could be used to ease the pressure for cuts in departmental spending and welfare payments. Better still, some of these revenues could be diverted to capitalise a British Investment Bank that would invest in infrastructure projects and lend to small and medium-sized business.

In a recent speech, Ed Miliband backed the idea British Investment Bank, together with a network of regional banks to help revitalise the economy. But he has not identified where the money to set up these banks and enable them to start lending would come from. Given the UK’s still large public sector borrowing requirement, this is a serious omission. An FTT could be the answer.

Of course, setting up these banks will take some time. In the interim, revenues from an FTT could be used directly to increase public spending on infrastructure. This would reconcile theviews of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who made the case for kick starting economic growth by investing in infrastructure projects and the Prime Minister, who has argued against unfunded tax cuts and borrowing for spending.

Extra infrastructure spending, a new bank – or set of regional banks – and a tax on financial transactions will not, on their own solve the UK’s economic problems. But they would be a step in the right direction. 11 EU countries are about to implement an FTT; the UK should make it 12.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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