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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.