Why all progressives should support a land value tax

Through no effort of their own, landowners reap a £100bn annual windfall. Caroline Lucas's bill shows the way towards a moral capitalism.

Caroline Lucas, Brighton’s Green MP, has submitted a private member’s bill promoting a land value tax. After some delay, it should have its second reading on 1 March. Every progressive politician in Westminster should support this bill.

David Cameron considers it part of his job as Prime Minister to provide moral leadership. It’s worth recalling a few of his words: "we need to reconnect the principles of risk, hard work, and success with reward." According to him, markets are moral: "open markets and free enterprise can actually promote morality" because "they create a direct link between contribution and reward; between effort and outcome".

Connect effort with outcome, and markets will flourish, entrepreneurs will create jobs, work will get done and society will prosper. Woe betide those who cleave them apart. Karl Marx tried to separate effort and outcome with the words: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". When this was tried in the Soviet Union the powerful made sure their own needs were well catered for while the economy collapsed and the powerless starved in their millions.

Back home, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is assiduous in disconnecting effort and reward. Every year, the people of Britain are rewarded with £600bn for their efforts at work. HMRC takes one quarter of this reward away as income tax: £150bn.

There is an alternative. Taxes on windfall gains arising through no effort are popular and just. The tax system should target windfalls, not work, whenever possible. This is the aim of the land value tax proposed by Lucas. It targets a £100bn annual windfall that at present is hardly taxed at all. The lion’s share of this goes to powerful and privileged freeloaders who fight tooth and nail to keep every penny. In doing so they harm the economy and, as we shall see, damage the environment.

Who are these freeloaders? Nobody has explained this better than Winston Churchill in a speech in 1909: "Roads are made, streets are made, railway services are improved, electric light turns night into day, electric trams glide swiftly to and fro, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still… To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist as a land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is sensibly enhanced."

Churchill knew that landowners cannot change the value of a plot of land. Its value depends only on location and size. Is it near a station? A park? Good schooling? All of these factors are determined by the community, not the landowner. The landowner can increase the value of the property, by building on it, or extending existing structures. But any increase in the value per square foot of the plot on which the buildings stand is a free ride, and any profit made from this is pure freeloading on the efforts of the community.

Landowners, including homeowners, are freeloaders on a gigantic scale. The total value of the housing stock in the UK was £1.3trn in 1990. With only inflation it would now be worth £2trn, but instead its current value is over £4trn. This £2trn increase above inflation has come through a rise in the value of land itself, not through new buildings; comparatively few houses have been built in the last two decades. Landowners have gained £100bn yearly on average from a rise in land values. As Churchill might have said, never in the field of human endeavour has so great a reward been given for so little effort.

Lucas wants to reclaim this windfall via a land value tax; a tax which is levied on the value of the plot of land, without taking into account any building on it. A vacant plot in a row of houses would be taxed the same as a similar built-on plot. Buildings are the result of effort and enterprise by the landowner who should be rewarded with their use or profit. The value of the plot is not the result of any effort on the part of the landowner and any increase is a windfall.

The Green MP realizes our current tax regime harms the environment. Throughout our towns and cities, vacant sites are left derelict. Developers sit on vast land banks, create an artificial housing shortage, and blame the planning system for resulting problems. The tax system encourages land hoarding. Keeping a property empty and unused makes excellent sense to speculators, since minimal tax is payable on an empty plot. They cover our green fields with concrete and create urban sprawl, whilebrownfield siteslie abandoned.

This is the strange politics of today’s Britain. The Conservatives profess to be the party of enterprise, but are actually beholden to entitled freeloaders; Cameron’s fine words are so much empty rhetoric. Vince Cable champions a mansion tax but is slapped down by his coalition partners. Labour half-heartedly copies Cable’s best policies. It is Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, who shows the way towards a moral capitalism and an enterprising economy. All progressives should wish her bill well and rally around her bold initiative on 1 March.

David Cooper is secretary of Liberal Democrat ALTER (Action on Land ­Taxation and Economic Reform), a Liberal Democrat campaign group

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.