The business - Patrick Hosking reveals how Gordon messed up

Gordon Brown would never admit he messed up. But in the Budget, he quietly withdrew a tax perk that

The most interesting feature in the Budget was a little-noticed change to stamp duty. No, not the well-trailed concession on residential property, which will remove 300,000 home purchasers a year from the tax net, many of them first-time buyers.

Another change was introduced, much more quietly, to the duty on commercial property - office blocks, shopping centres and the like. Gordon Brown scrapped a concession he introduced two years ago that exempted buyers of commercial property in "disadvantaged areas" from stamp duty.

More money was at stake than on the residential change, but the reform received a fraction of the column inches. It wasn't in Brown's speech at all. And there was no explanation in the accompanying documentation.

But this was as close as the Chancellor ever gets to an admission of failure. "I messed up," he might as well have said. "I allowed some of the wealthiest property investors in the land legally to dodge £600m or so in tax." It is one of the least impressive episodes in the Chancellor's long tenure at the Treasury.

It started in 2003, with an honourable attempt to boost regeneration in some of Britain's poorest neighbourhoods; Brown exempted from stamp duty property transactions in 2,000 of the country's most deprived council wards.

But the concession was badly designed. It applied to all existing commercial property, not just development. So it would benefit even the most neglectful of landlords, who failed to invest a penny in the properties they owned.

The definition of "disadvantaged areas", based on the wealth of local residents, was also deeply flawed. Some of the most sought-after commercial locations came up as "disadvantaged", including the Canary Wharf financial district, Holborn in central London, a big chunk of the prosperous city centre of Leeds, and a number of the country's most lucrative shopping centres, including Lakeside, Thurrock, and Meadowhall, Sheffield.

Property investors couldn't believe their luck. The rule change saved them up to 4 per cent of the purchase price of commercial property across a fifth of the country. At a stroke, the book value of all their property in these areas was lifted without their applying a lick of paint. The benefit to the poor, living in the shadows of these office blocks and shopping malls, was probably negligible. The government reckons it will collect an extra £340m, £350m and £370m in the next three years by ending the tax break. So £600m seems a reasonable estimate of how much the real-estate owners saved in the two years when the concession was available. Compare this with the £250m a year (and falling) cost of the much-vaunted hike in the stamp duty threshold on residential property from £60,000 to £120,000.

The Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott had warned of the iniquities of this "farcical" tax concession for months. He plans to write to the National Audit Office demanding a full inquiry. If it decides to investigate, it might also examine what happened on Budget Day itself. The Chancellor announced the change at 1pm, but it didn't come into force until midnight. Property buyers and their lawyers rushed to meet the deadline and thus save up to 4 per cent on the purchase price.

My colleague at the Times, Jenny Davey, unearthed four large deals worth £500m that were done in the 11-hour window presented by Brown. They included a £135m office block in Canary Wharf and a £127m building in St Katharine's Dock, a district better known for the gin palaces of billionaire oligarchs than for its deprivation. The delay cost the Exchequer at least £20m in tax forgone, probably far more.

Smokers and boozers had only till 6pm to beat the duty hikes on cigarettes and wine. Why undeserving property investors were given one last opportunity to squeeze yet more savings from a discredited tax perk is beyond me.

Those pushing the benefits for free markets can be every bit as doctrinaire as the most diehard Marxist. Take directory enquiries. The old 192 number was sacrificed for the gods of customer choice and competition. The result? Most residential customers pay more than before, the National Audit Office has found. Millions of people are confused by the array of 118 services and their charges. They may well get a less accurate service than before. So determined was Oftel, the then regulator, to introduce Adam Smith's invisible hand that it didn't properly investigate the "do nothing" option, the audit office found.

Sometimes, the pursuit of choice is ludicrous. Sometimes, well-regulated monopolies are the least bad option. It's a lesson for schools and hospitals, not just the telecoms industry.

Patrick Hosking is investment editor of the Times