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.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.