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.

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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