In the middle of all the fawning over Trump, the newspapers got their teeth into a Labour story this morning. According to the Daily Mail it was about “the policies of Venezuela” and “Labour’s garden tax: Party unveils new Corbyn cash-grab on your private green space and force the sale of vacant land on the cheap.” The Daily Express said “Jeremy Corbyn proposes ‘bombshell’ tax RAID on hard-working homeowners who have a garden.” The Telegraph’s slightly more moderate headline but equally inaccurate story was: “Jeremy Corbyn unveils plans for ‘progressive’ tax raid on homes and gardens of the middle class.”
Such disgraceful behaviour by Corbyn and the Labour Party attracted my interest, but when I tracked the actual report down I found it was a detailed and thoughtful analysis and set of recommendations around an issue which has huge implications for people who want affordable homes.
Called ‘Land for the Many’: Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed it was produced for the Labour Party by seven contributors* including George Monbiot and Laurie Macfarlane – whose work we have covered on Red Brick before. Land is the hidden issue behind the housing crisis and the full report is well worth a read – because if you rely on media portrayals you might get the wrong impression of it.
Monbiot sets out his stall in a powerful preface, worth quoting at some length:
Dig deep enough into many of the problems this country faces, and you will soon hit land. Soaring inequality and exclusion; the massive cost of renting or buying a decent home; repeated financial crises, sparked by housing asset bubbles; the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems; the lack of public amenities – the way land is owned and controlled underlies them all. Yet it scarcely features in political discussions.
The sense that even in discussing land we are trespassing is so strong that this critical issue remains off the agenda. Yet we cannot solve our many dysfunctions without addressing it. This report aims to put land where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion. It proposes radical but practical changes in the way land in the UK is used and governed. By these means, it seeks to make this a nation that works for everyone, with a better distribution of wealth and power, greater financial stability, economic security and environmental quality, greater participation in the decisions that affect our lives, an enhanced ability to create our own homes and neighbourhoods and a stronger sense of community and belonging.
Despite the hysterical headlines, the report is not yet Labour policy: it contains proposals that will considered between now and the general election. But the reaction shows what a mountain of bias and misrepresentation Labour has to climb to get a serious debate going on this vitally important topic.
Is any of hysteria justified? Let’s look at the key proposals
- free and open access to data on land ownership
- an explicit government goal to stabilise house prices to improve the long-term house-price-to-income ratio.
- redirect bank lending to productive sectors and reduce speculative demand for land.
- proposals for a Common Ground Trust to buy land underlying a house, to reduce house prices and bring in the idea of socialised land rents.
- major reforms to private renting with a cap on rent increases and an ambitious social housing programme.
- replace council tax with a progressive property tax payable by owners not tenants – with surcharges for empty and second homes and non-UK residents.
- phase out stamp duty land tax for owner occupiers.
- replace business rates with a commercial Land Value Tax.
- new Development Corporations buy sell and develop land to crate new towns.
- enable public bodies to buy land at closer to current use value, estimated to be able to reduce the cost of affordable housing by 50%.
- remove permitted development rights that allow offices to be converted to homes without needing planning permission.
- stronger public involvement in planning.
- proposals to promote community ownership and control of land and buildings.
- greater provision of parks and stronger use of the public realm. And a stronger right to roam.
It’s a detailed report, an instructive read, and in my view spot on in its analysis. It follows on from a lot of good work on the land question done by others in the recent past and covered on Red Brick, see Dave Treanor here, London Assembly Housing Committee here and Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laurie Macfarlane for the New Economics Foundation here.
The Monbiot et al report is a serious contribution to a genuine debate, so it is enlightening to see how it is treated by the media. Most of it was hugely hostile, and I couldn’t find a word about it on the BBC News or Sky News website. Let’s see if Channel 4 can do a little better. But it shows the real difficulty Labour has in promoting progressive policies for wider debate, and the inherent bias in the mainstream media against leftish proposals, even when they are as strong and beneficial as these.
When the headlines say ‘an end to council tax’ or ‘an end to stamp duty’ then the public might have a chance of understanding what it’s about.
* The seven authors are : George Monbiot (editor), Robin Grey, Tom Kenny, Laurie Macfarlane, Anna Powell-Smith, Guy Shrubsole, Beth Stratford.