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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.