Austerity not so welcome when it hits the rich

Labour has run into a little local difficulty with its Mansion Tax proposal. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, although the proposal is very popular amongst the general public, many of the people affected by it have easy access to the media – notably journalists themselves, so-called ‘celebrities’, and other powerful people. There are also large clusters of them in some inner London marginal Labour seats. So they can raise a stink in a few hours while it took months of extremely hard slog by a lot of people to get some coverage for the abomination known as the bedroom tax, which hit much poorer people much harder.

The latest ‘celebrity’ to get acres of coverage was the unutterably unfunny Griff Rhys Jones, who said he would leave the country if it is introduced. ‘Goodbye’ was the common Twitter response. This man made much of his money from the BBC at our expense and, although it appears he has carried out major improvement works to his home, its value (assessed at £7m by Zoopla) has risen with the tide of the property market rather than through his own efforts.  The media has been full of the notion that people owning very valuable properties do so because of their ‘hard work’ and ‘prudence’ rather than a taxpayer-subsidised and economically damaging inflation which has given them a windfall. And, unlike most people, Rhys Jones always has the option of living on his yacht.

Property taxation is in a mess. The exemption of primary residences from capital gains tax – the only major class of asset to be exempt – costs the Treasury an estimated £10bn a year and is the key ‘subsidy’ to home owners. Council tax stops rising on homes worth £320,000 and more, they are all banded together. It is not progressive, which creates the extraordinary outcome that tenants living in ordinary homes pay as much council tax as a Russian oligarch living in a £20m home in Chelsea. Not only is this unfair but the system as a whole feeds rather than manages house price inflation.

Mansion Tax is one effort to tackle extreme housing wealth inequality. It is aimed at tackling wealth that is largely unearned and, so far, untaxed. It is one way of demonstrating that we are ‘all in this together’ and the money will go towards saving the most popular British institution of them all, the NHS.

Labour has thought through how it might operate in practice to avoid some of the pitfalls that have been identified. The threshold will rise in line with the general increase in value of such properties so more and more properties should not become subject to the tax. It will be a banded system rather than depending on valuation of each individual property, making it easier to administer. Home owners who are asset-rich but cash-poor (incomes up to £42k) will be able to defer the charge until the property is sold. Paul Dimoldenberg, the Leader of the Labour Group on Westminster Council, has revealed that there are only 61 H-band council tax payers in the borough who currently receive Council Tax Benefit, so the size of the problem seems manageable and is significantly less than some of the scare stories.

Ed Balls has already made it clear that the tax will be applied progressively. Owners of properties worth £2-£3 million will pay around £3,000 a year but it will rise above that, so the biggest burden will be shouldered by those owning the most valuable properties. It seems that the rate for £2m-£3m properties will be close to what people would have to pay if the other alternative – adding extra bands to the Council Tax – were adopted instead.

My own preference would be for a more thorough-going reform of property and land taxation, as I have argued on Red Brick before. I would prefer to see a more progressive Council Tax regime with more bands, with the additional income being netted off the grant received by councils from central government (so the benefit could be applied nationally).

The argument that the Mansion Tax is unfair on London has been widely repeated. But I agree with Paul Wheeler on this point: ‘Yes the mansion tax is a ‘tax on London’ but only to the extent that Corporation Tax on Banks is a tax on London because that’s where the money is’. Labour should not resile from the principle that the owners of the greatest wealth and the most valuable properties should pay more tax. There is still room for debate about how it should be applied. For example, the £2m threshold could be re-set by apply the proposed inflation-link retrospectively. Mansion Tax was first mooted at £2m about 4-5 years ago. It could be raised to take account of inflation since, taking a significant number of the ‘just £2m’ properties out of the scope of the tax. This would reduce the initial tax take but I think it would be seen as fair and would take some of the sting out of the political debate.

Whilst of course welcoming the extra money for the NHS that will come from the Tax, I must admit to some disappointment that, as a property tax, it will not be reapplied to boost housing capital spending. Previous commitments to boost housing grant for affordable homes – a share of the 4G bandwidth sale and a share of the bankers bonus tax – have quietly disappeared. Labour’s only specific commitment to raising housing grant is to give housing higher priority within existing capital programmes. That just doesn’t seem robust enough to meet the party’s commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

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