You can't accuse the EU of lacking chutzpah. Less than a day after David Cameron denounced it as "too big, too bossy, too interfering", the European Commission has called on the government to change its economic policy - and much else. In a document released last night, it urges Cameron to raise taxes on high-value properties, to increase the supply of housing, to adjust the Help to Buy scheme, to make childcare more affordable, to raise capital spending and to improve the implementation of Universal Credit. A day before the state opening of parliament, it adds up to a draft Queen's speech.
Here are a few extracts:
Action is needed to further boost the supply of houses - by creating appropriate incentives to raise supply at the local level. The authorities should continue to monitor house prices and mortgage indebtedness and stand ready to deploy appropriate measures, including adjusting the Help to Buy 2 (loan guarantee) scheme, if deemed necessary.
Reforms to the taxation of land and property should be considered to alleviate distortions in the housing market. At the moment, increasing property values are not translated into higher property taxes as the property value roll has not been updated since 1991 and taxes on higher value property are lower than on lower value property in relative terms due to the regressivity of the current rates and bands within the council tax system.
The commission's proposals have prompted a predictably sardonic riposte from the Treasury: "As one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, we always listen to the commission's recommendations with interest." Conservative eurosceptic Dominic Raab said: "Having helped bankrupt the eurozone and delivered the biggest anti-EU election results in history, the chancellor can be forgiven for treating the commission’s advice as spam when it arrives in his inbox."
But while it's not up to the unelected commission to determine Britain's fiscal policies (although like bodies such as the IMF, the OECD and every think-tank going, it was merely offering advice), the inconvenient truth for the Tories is that every one of its suggestions is entirely sensible.
It would be better for the government to make property more affordable by building more homes, rather than subsidising mortgages. It is absurd that the council tax bands have not been updated since they were first introduced in 1991, despite house prices rising by more than 250 per cent since then. There is a strong moral and economic case for increasing taxes on land and property. (Wealth taxes are progressive and hard to avoid, and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into more productive industries.) It is lamentable that there are just 5,910 people claiming Universal Credit (994,090 short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million) despite the government spending £612m on the programme.
That it takes the profoundly flawed EU to tell the government all of this is the real cause for outrage.