Why Osborne is wrong to reject property tax reform

The Chancellor has missed another opportunity to make our tax system fairer and more economically efficient.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor is eager to show that the wealthy will contribute to the on-going process of deficit reduction. Although the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly called for a ‘mansion tax’, this will almost certainly be achieved by further restricting the tax-free amount that individuals can pay into private pension pots. Opposition to raising taxes on property-owners from within the Conservative Party has been too great, indicating that the coalition will fail to deliver serious reform of property and wealth taxes in this Parliament. 

This is a missed opportunity given the endemic weakness of the current system. Inheritance tax is deeply unpopular and raises little money, while the ‘wealthy and healthy’ can avoid it with judicious tax planning. Stamp duty is easy to collect but lacks any economic justification and unnecessarily distorts people’s decisions about moving house. Council tax raises the most revenue among the three, around £26bn a year, but is regressive and levies the same amount of tax on properties of hugely different value. This is the result of the unwillingness of successive governments to revalue domestic properties since the introduction of council tax in 1993.

Properly designed property (and land) taxes make economic and fiscal sense according to the OECD, particularly if levied annually on regularly updated property values. These taxes tend to have the smallest negative impact on incentives to work or invest, provide a relatively stable tax base and could improve the use of land and property. This suggests that reforms to council tax could seek to increase the amount of revenue raised over the long-term, as well as increasing fairness and efficiency in the tax system. This could help to pay for the extra public services we want as we get older and richer, or offset cuts in business or labour taxes that might help boost jobs and growth.

There is no shortage of ideas about how Britain’s property taxes could be reformed, with sensible solutions put forward by the authoritative Mirrlees Review, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Shelter. For example, a flat rate tax of 0.6 per cent on current property values would raise roughly the same revenue as council tax but with lower bills for people living in homes worth less than £250,000. In the long-term, stamp duty could be scrapped entirely and the revenue found elsewhere, but reformed in the medium-term to lessen its impact on house prices at particular price points. More radical would be a land value tax, popular with economists but operated in relatively few countries. As a first step, the economic and fiscal impacts of a tax on high-value but undeveloped land should be assessed. This could help free up underused land for house-building.

The biggest block to reforming property taxes is the fear that large numbers of middle class families will end up paying more tax. However, the UK’s devolved administrations have shown that these political constraints can be overcome. The Welsh Assembly Government re-valued properties in 2003 and added an extra council tax band, while in Northern Ireland, which runs a system of domestic rates rather than council tax, the administration successfully updated the valuation base in 2007. An initial revaluation would probably be controversial but this would lessen over time if properties were regularly re-valued, which many countries do every one or two years without much fuss. And let’s not forget the removal of mortgage interest tax relief, a massive subsidy to middle class homeowners, which was gradually phased out by 2000 with little public outcry. Incremental change coupled with some off-setting of losses among those paying more seems to have been important. We can’t expect new proposals on property and wealth taxes in the Autumn Statement, so learning the political lessons from these reforms will be crucial to making further progress in the next Parliament.

Kayte Lawton is senior research fellow at IPPR.

Chancellor George Osborne and Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury leave 11 Downing Street on 4 December, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kayte Lawton is senior research fellow at IPPR.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories