Why any tax avoidance "clampdown" is a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole

Danny Alexander's "mansion tax lite" has been torpedoed by oligarchs claiming their £2m+ properties are "open to the public". It shows how hard it is to stop the rich - and their lawyers - finding creative ways to beat the taxman.

In all the furore around the Budget, the Spending Review and so on, many have ignored the introduction of the Lib Dems so-called "mansion tax for tax-dodgers". This "tax", which only affects properties worth over £2m, was actually the closing of a loophole. 

The loophole in question - which allowed people to avoid stamp duty on expensive properties using offshore companies - was theoretically sealed from the start of April. A super-duty of 15 per cent was imposed on the purchase of properties worth more than £2m by companies; and an annual charge of up to £140,000 every year was levied on them once they were bought.

Well, in theory, at least. Like almost everything else the Lib Dems have promised to do, this has all fallen down around their ears. Why? Well, that's all down to clever tax lawyers seeing a new loophole, accidentally provided by short-term lettings website Air BnB.

You see, there's an exemption written into the rules, which lets off properties which are "open to the public" from the new tax. It's meant to exempt stately homes and museums, which are often private homes but open for viewing over the summer, and quite legitimately put the earnings from the tea room into a company. No one wanted them to be hit with a levy intended to stop tax-dodging oligarchs.

Of course, when you close a loophole intended for oligarchs, you'd better be sure not to open another, or their lawyers will spot it. One bright tax lawyer came up with the idea that if you offer to let out your property - regardless of whether you actually let out - it's technically "open to the public", in that literally anyone could pay to go and stay there. Provided, of course, they can afford whatever you are charging.

It's probably pretty reasonable to charge a fortune for your One Hyde Park flat, given the amenities, which include all your mail being X-rayed, iris recognition in the lifts, panic rooms, bomb-proof windows, a 21-metre swimming pool, a cinema, a golf simulator, a wine cellar and room service via a secret tunnel from the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel next door.

So, you advertise your One Hyde Park flat (registered to an offshore company, of course - as 59 out of 77 flats in the building are) on Air BnB, no one volunteers to pay the huge fee you ask for, and you save yourself 140 grand in tax. Worst case scenario, you have to let out your flat to someone, but you probably don't care, because you can arrange to be skiing in Gstaad for that week anyway.

Some of the properties currently being offered on AirBnb are at eye-wateringly high prices. While there is no evidence that, for example, this £3,175 a night flat is using the loophole I've described - I can confirm from a tax lawyer for a major firm (who asked not to be named) - that offering your flat out to rent has become the standard advice being doled out to his firm's "high net worth clients".

So, Air BnB will doing brisk - perfectly legal - business as every oligarch and his babushka registers. And no one who is well advised will pay the Mansion Tax-lite. And the Lib Dem plan is yet another failure. Thanks internet!

Of course, while there is some schadenfreude to be had from yet another Lib Dem flagship policy running aground on the rocks of reality, it's also a salutary lesson for policy makers on the sheer difficulty of clamping down on tax avoidance. Even if they close the "AirBnB loophole", the lawyers of the rich will find another, as long as the "open to the public" exemption still exists.

This story is a great example of how the government's attempts to clamp down on tax avoidance amount to a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole - if we want to get serious about tackling tax avoidance, what we need is root and branch reform, not tinkering at the edges. Put away the mallet, George, and pick up a bazooka.

One Hyde Park in London: many of its apartments are owned by companies in the British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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