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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage