Osborne has a mini-mansion tax already up his sleeve

Coalition negotiations over the Autumn Statement are fraught but there is one wheeze that could help the Chancellor.

After November’s rash of mini-elections, the next big item on the political calendar is the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on the economy – on 5 December. (Yes, it is autumn. Winter formally begins with the solstice, but that’s a debate for a different blog.)

The weak performance of the economy means new devices are required if George Obsorne is to show sufficient progress towards his key fiscal targets. That obligation has forced the coalition into another tricky round of tax and cut negotiations. Broadly speaking, the Chancellor wants the lion’s share of the savings to come from the welfare budget. The Lib Dems accept that the benefits bill is too big to be spared but they insist on some form of wealth tax to spread the burden of pain. Their preferred device is the “mansion tax” – a levy on posh real estate.

There are a number of obstacles to this. For one thing, the Chancellor appeared to rule it out before his party’s annual conference. But I’m told by a number of sources that the Prime Minister is the bigger obstacle to wealth taxes of any kind. Perhaps the Chancellor was stung by his misreading of the politics around the 50p income tax rate into recognising the public appetite for conspicuous contributions from those at the very top. David Cameron, by contrast, is said to be stubbornly hostile – something which is causing the Lib Dems considerable frustration.

Usually, people around Nick Clegg are careful not to criticise the Prime Minister too much, saving their darkest whispers for moans about Tory backbenchers who are perceived to be sabotaging the coalition project. The tone now seems to be changing as top Lib Dems mutter about Cameron’s “Shire Tory” instincts and impulse to protect “his rich friends”. In the last couple of weeks I have heard language from people very close to Clegg that echoes the Labour charge that Cameron is out of touch, doesn’t understand how much ordinary people are suffering and is the product of a rarefied, gilded world where his priorities have been warped. As coalition mood music, this is new.

Cameron is also steadfastly refusing to consider any cut in pensioner benefits, having made a “read my lips”-style pledge to protect them in the election campaign. As one government strategist puts it, the PM is terrified of a “split-screen moment” in 2015, with the sequence where he flatly denied he would raid pensioner entitlements in 2010 run alongside some mealy-mouthed U-turn. He will do anything to avoid that hazard.

That doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre. A freeze in the overall level at which benefits are paid (experienced as a cut when inflation is rising) is likely to do a fair amount of the fiscal work. Another idea floating around is to limit the number of children for whom families can claim child benefit. Iain Duncan Smith has floated a cap of two. The Lib Dems seem divided on this. Some hate the whole idea, thinking it redolent of Victorian-era horror at the idea of poor people breeding. Others think it might be necessary but resist the IDS level. One figure close to Clegg describes a two children-per-family benefit rule as “a bit Chinese” – a reference to Beijing’s one-child-per-family rule.

There’s much more of this kind of argument (and briefing) to come in the weeks ahead. I’m told by someone intimately involved in the negotiations that they will “go to the wire”. So I’ll save some more observations for another blog.

One final thought. Someone in Westminster who spends a lot of time looking at fiscal policy, among other things, yesterday drew my attention to a little-advertised consultation the Treasury carried out over the summer.

It stems from a line in the 2012 Budget, in which the Chancellor promised to raise some money by taxing property transactions carried out by “non natural persons”. That means, roughly speaking, companies, investment schemes and “non dom” individuals who are resident abroad for tax purposes. The relevant section of the Budget speech is as follows:

A major source of abuse – and one that rouses the anger of many of our citizens – is the way some people avoid the stamp duty that the rest of the population pays, including by using companies to buy expensive residential property. I have given plenty of public warnings that this abuse should stop.

Now I'm taking action. I am increasing the Stamp Duty Land Tax charge applied to residential properties over £2 million bought into a corporate envelope.

The charge will be 15%. And it will take effect today.

We will also consult on the introduction of a large annual charge on those £2 million residential properties which are already contained in corporate envelopes. And to ensure that wealthy non-residents are also caught by these changes, we will be introducing capital gains tax on residential property held in overseas envelopes.

Then go to section 2.12 of the consultation document and you get some more detail on the “annual charge” on properties worth more than £2m owned by “non natural persons”, due to be introduced next year. The idea is to make it less attractive for the owners of high value residencies to hold them in corporate vehicles. That in turn should make it easier to charge the new 15 per cent stamp duty rate and capital gains tax on any transactions involving those properties.

I can’t begin to speculate about how much money the Treasury would realistically expect to make from this device. I would, however, hazard a guess that it can be spun quite heavily as a tax clampdown on rich foreign tax dodgers and a kind of mansion tax. That would, of course, mean essentially re-announcing something that has already been signaled, but this government is as good at serially re-announcing things as the last one was. Better even.

To form part of a credible “wealth taxes” story it will have to be packaged up with something much more substantial, but it has Osborne wheeze written all over it. The consultation has been done, it hits “foreign millionaires” and “mansions” and it’s been flagged up already so can be squared with the PM. From the Chancellor’s point of view, as headline-nabbing political tactic, what’s not to like?

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation