A council tax isn't a wealth tax

How should the government settle the inequalities in property wealth?

Very important, this one: the council tax isn't a wealth tax. That's a claim I've seen repeated around the place with relative frequency recently, most notably in Polly Toynbee's Guardian column today. She writes:

Wealth taxes only deliver 5.9% of revenues, mostly in council tax (which often falls on renters, not owners). Inheritance tax brings in just 0.5%, only paid by 3% of estates, halved since Labour unwisely doubled couples' exemption: it's the most avoided of all.

As she says, the incidence of council tax falls on the occupier, not the owner. If you have very little wealth but high income, you may rent a Band-H house and end up paying the same council tax as someone with very high wealth and very low income.

In practice, then, council tax is a tax on residency, not on property wealth and certainly not on wealth overall. (Legally, it's not quite that simple. A lease is still a form of ownership, so it's not quite the case that non-owners are taxed.)

It may be the case that, at the top end, that doesn't matter. If we were to introduce the "mansion tax" by adding a new band on top of council tax for properties over £2m, for instance, there would be few renters hit. But even then, there would still be some.

The distinction is important to make, because as the movement for a true mansion tax—or better still, a land value tax—grows, the opposition will try to claim that what we already have is good enough. It isn't.

The inequalities in property wealth are astronomical. A chart put together by researcher Andy Whightman makes that astoundingly clear. He writes:

This data was obtained from the Office of National Statistics by Faiza Shaheen of the New Economics Foundation and shows the average net property wealth for each 1% of the income distribution. The top 1% of the population has net property wealth of £15,040,000 whilst the bottom 33% has nothing. The top 1% own more net property wealth than the rest of the 99% combined.

But there's another way the government could take advantage of the discrepancies in property wealth to earn some income, settle the housing market and reduce inequality. Michael Darrington, former CEO of Greggs, writing in the Telegraph today, suggests a £100bn housebuilding programme funded by quantitative easing. But in focusing on the revenue source, he's missed the most impressive part of his plan, because he also suggests that:

While there are plenty of suitable sites for building already available, a programme on the scale I envisage would clearly require more.

One way to achieve this would be through the compulsory purchase of farmland at a sensible multiple of its agricultural value—say three or four times—which would give farmers a very good profit but not the lottery-winning values currently ascribed to development land.

But rather than the expensive and illiberal procedure of compulsory purchase, there's a more radical option available. As Darrington implies, land with planning permission is worth more than land without—a lot more. Frequently well over 20 times as much, in fact. And the institution with the power to convert land without planning permission into land with planning permission is the same one trying desperately to build houses.

In other words, an entire housebuilding program could probably be funded on the difference between the purchase price of agricultural land and the sale price of land with planning permission.

Councils could buy up agricultural land, award themselves planning permission, build houses, and sell some off while keeping the rest for social housing. In fact, such is demand for land with planning permission, they wouldn't even need to build them; they could just sell the land without houses, but insist that part of the sale price be that some houses built on the land be used for social housing.

In fact, councils wouldn't even need to buy the land. They could just grant planning permission with the same requirements on more land than they have been now. Because the real bottleneck is there, and not really with housebuilding at all.

Former council houses, refurbished and made energy-efficient. 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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.