High stamp duty lowers house prices

A new paper from IZA confirms: it's sellers who really pay stamp duty.

Stamp duty is one of the most hated taxes in the country. That's partially because it's for large amounts, levied all at once: it hurts a lot more to hand over £8000 in one lump sum than it does to have it taken from you over the course of a year. It's also because it is a tax which is broken at a very fundamental level. Unlike nearly every other tax, stamp duty (technically called Stamp Duty Land Tax, SDLT) is valued at a percentage of the total value of the house, with the percentage increasing as the value increases. That leads to some very strange effects on the housing market as people revalue their houses to avoid hitting the thresholds:

In this chart, from Savills, you can see the effect of the stamp duty thresholds at £125,000, £250,000 and £500,000.

But stamp duty is also hated because it raises the cost of moving house. The tax is payable by the buyer of the property, making it seem particularly painful for first-time buyers, who don't have the cash from selling a previous residence to provide the necessary liquidity.

But, as we know from other debates, who pays a tax isn't always as clear as it seems. The classic example is the employer's contribution to national insurance: they pay tax on 13.8 per cent of their employee's earnings, but there's evidence to suggest that if that tax did not exist, it would lead to higher wages, not higher profits. So is the same true for stamp duty?

Chris Dillow points to a paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA – the institute is German) suggests it is. The authors, the IMF's Ian Davidoff and IZA's Andrew Leigh, write that:

The short-term impact of a 10 per cent increase in the stamp duty is to lower house prices by 3 per cent… Since stamp duty averages only 2-4 per cent of the value of the property, these results imply that the economic incidence of the tax is entirely on the seller; that is, prices fall by the full amount of the tax.

The data is for the Australian market, but sits comfortably with snapshots like the Savills graph above, which show that, at least at the thresholds, sellers are extraordinarily sensitive to the cost of stamp duty. There's few for whom that's good news – though if you don't yet own a house and plan to buy one and never sell it, it won't hurt.

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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.