Ed Miliband delivering a speech on international development in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband pledges to scrap stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader promises to remove charge on properties worth up to £300,000 as party steps up housing offensive. 

At the start of the final full week of campaigning, Labour is maintaining its focus on housing, an issue that is playing a bigger role at this election than any other in recent history. After yesterday promising a cap on private rent increases, Ed Miliband will pledge to scrap stamp duty for almost all first-time buyers and to give them priority access to new homes - two strong policy offers that the Tories will struggle to match. He will also announce that Labour would begin construction on a million new homes by 2020 to deliver its commitment to build 200,000 a year by the end of the parliament. 

Stamp duty will be reduced to zero on properties worth up to £300,000, which Labour estimates would benefit nine in 10 first-time buyers by up to £5,000. The £225m cost would be met by tackling tax avoidance by landlords (through the introduction of a national register), increasing the tax paid by holding companies that buy property on behalf of investors, raising stamp duty on foreign buyers from outside the EU by at least 3 per cent and reducing the tax relief that rogue landlords receive for repairs and upkeep when the properties they own are not up to the required standard. 

Labour's "first call" policy would give first-time buyers that have lived in an area for more than three years priority access to up to half of all the homes built in their area. In addition, the "local first" policy would make it illegal to advertise properties abroad before doing so at home, increase taxes on foreign investors and allow local councils to charge 100 per cent more council tax on any homes that have been left empty for one year to discourage "buy to leave".

In a speech in the ultra-marginal Tory seat of Stockton, Miliband will say: "There’s nothing more British than the dream of home ownership, starting out in a place of your own. But for so many young people today that dream is fading with more people than ever renting when they want to buy, new properties being snapped up before local people get a look-in, young families wondering if this country will ever work for them. That is the condition of Britain today, a modern housing crisis which only a Labour government will tackle." 

Of the stamp duty pledge, he will say: "It is simply too expensive for so many young people to buy a home today, saving up for the deposit, paying the fees and having enough left over for the stamp duty. So we’re going to act so we can transform the opportunities for young working people in our country. For the first three years of the next Labour government, we will abolish stamp duty for all first time buyers of homes under £300,000."

The aim of widening property ownership has historically been viewed as a conservative aspiration but it is one that Labour has also embraced. In an article for the New Statesman in 2012, Marc Stears, Miliband’s chief speechwriter, wrote: "The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon." It is also true that the majority of voters continue to wish to own their own home. No party with an interest in winning elections can afford to neglect this desire. Miliband has made it his ambition to double the number of first-time buyers to 400,000 by 2025.

Unlike the Conservatives, however, Labour has recognised the economic reality that, even with state assistance, property will remain prohibitively expensive for many. There are votes to be won in improving conditions for the UK’s 11 million private renters (who now outnumber their social counterparts). Thirty five per cent are swing voters and more than half of these (52 per cent) cite the cost of housing as their greatest concern. Even more notably for Westminster psephologists, there are 86 constituencies in which the incumbent party’s majority is smaller than the former group. Of this total, 37 feature on Labour’s target list of 106 seats. It is with an eye to capturing such constituencies that the party has promised to standardise three-year tenancies, to cap rent increases and to ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants. In London, in particular, where the party hopes to win almost all 12 of its target seats, this will help give Labour the edge. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.