Where are Britain's selfless billionaires?

Rich people in other countries demand they be required to pay higher taxes more often than you might think. So why doesn't Britain have a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates, willing to pay a little bit more tax for everybody's benefit?

Let’s get one thing straight: no one likes paying tax. Most of us, though, are willing to put up with it as the price we pay for living in a civilised country. Because a world in which we give up a chunk of our income to pay for an imperfect government is better than one in which we get to keep our money, but can’t leave the house to spend it because all the roads are potholed and anyway our neighbours have plague.

Since we’re going to have to pay tax whether we like it or not, then it makes some kind of sense for those who can most easily afford it to make the biggest contribution. That’s certainly what the public think: support for Ed Balls’ plan to hike the taxes on the top one per cent is, despite what the newspapers might tell you, consistently running at around 60 per cent.

Oddly enough, though, there’s been remarkably little support for the plan from those who are actually going to have to pay the higher tax. The City, the business lobby and the right-wing press have all come out with responses so doom-laden that you’d think Balls had promised to nationalise Surrey.

This may seem a bit on the dog-bites-man side, but, actually, rich people demand they be required to pay higher taxes more often than you might think. In 2009, nearly 50 German billionaires signed a petition calling for the government to raise their own taxes, so they could help their country through the fiscal crisis. Two years later 16 of France’s wealthiest people did the same.

This isn’t just some kind of weird, continental hangover from socialism, either. Across the Atlantic, in the home of the free itself, Warren Buffett has been demanding his own government stop coddling him for some time; so, as it happens, has Bill Gates.

All these people, though, have one glaring characteristic in common: none of them are British. Here in blighty, it’s hard to find anyone who’ll come out vocally in favour of a policy that’s going to cost them personally.  There’s J K Rowling, of course, but she’s unusual in that she’s been dependent on the welfare budget and thus feels a sense of personal responsibility that many others lack.

And while there are other rich folk who’ve made a point of not bitching about taxes – James Dyson, Duncan Bannatyne, the Phones4U founder John Caudwell – the debate is generally couched in terms of “being happy to pay” rather than “being happy to pay more”. They don’t call for higher taxes, merely stress that people shouldn’t avoid the existing ones. And even then, Dyson’s business empire spent four years domiciled in Malta, before coming back onshore late last year.

All of which raises a question – where are our selfless billionaires? Those tricksy foreigners who’ve spoken in favour of higher taxes are no doubt unusual, but their lack of a parallel here in Britain is striking all the same.

One possibility is that our rich are, in global terms, genuinely hard done by (don’t laugh, it could happen). A top tax rate of 45 per cent, after all, isn’t notably low in global terms.  Or, just maybe, Balls’ plan really is a bad one. Maybe, if the government were to take one more pound in every £20 that high earners make over £150k, it really would succeed only in slashing growth and killing innovation.

We can’t entirely discount this possibility – so those among the hyper-wealthy who desperately do want to do more for the nation, and merely think that this is a bad way of doing it, are welcome to set out their alternative plans. An open letter to the Daily Telegraph should do the job nicely.

Or maybe something else is going on. Maybe most super-wealthy Britons genuinely believe the state shouldn’t get a single penny more out of them. After all, continental billionaires grew up with the European social model; American ones have a long history of philanthropy. Ours, though, are used to a political narrative in which government spending is always inefficient, the poor are always feckless, those on benefits always scroungers. The world repeatedly tells them that most tax is wasted. Given that, why would any sane person want to waste more?

No one likes paying tax. But as long as we never talk about the reasons why we do it, we’ll like it even less.

Warren Buffett has called for higher taxes for the US's super rich. Photo: Getty

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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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