Tag Archives: landnotes

Caroline Spelman: “Me Am Bizarro Minister”

One of the more annoying Superman villains is Bizarro. Not really a villain at all, he’s a kind of bad copy of Superman who just does the opposite of Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Unfortunately, it would appear that Caroline Spelman has decided that this is the perfect job description of a Shadow Cabinet Minister. Don’t actually apply any logic, just oppose everything. Even more unfortunately, no-one appears to have shut her up.

For a while now, the Tories have been shouting to anyone who will listen about the nasty way the government is revaluating the rates in Northern Ireland and making dire predictions that they plan to do the same in England. This is epitomised by this quote by Spelman:

“If Labour introduce this invasive system fully in England, your council tax bill will depend not just on the features of your house, but whether you have good schools or clean streets, and whether you have low or high rates of crime.

“This is the hallmark of an oppressive and greedy government – finding ever more stealth ways to tax working families and pensioners, and trampling over privacy when it suits them.”

Where does one begin with a juicy quote like this? Firstly, the existing system of council tax was a) introduced by the Tories and b) is based on property values. It is a fact, however inconvenient, however poorly measured it might have been in the past, that property values are contingent on “whether you have good schools or clean streets, and whether you have low or high rates of crime”. Always has been, always will be. That’s where the phrase “location, location, location” comes from dear.

There are two alternatives to a system of taxation that is dependent on such things. One is a local income tax, which the Tories condemn with equal venom. The other is a poll tax, where everyone pays exactly the same no matter what. Is this what Bizarro Spelman is suggesting she would prefer?

But it gets worse, because if you analyse this quote she seems to think that it is BETTER to tax people on the basis of the features of your house than external factors.

This is complete, arse over tit, economic Bizarro-logic. Think about it for a second. What she’s saying is that you should be taxed for installing double-glazing but not for benefiting from good local services. I’ve spent quite some time trying to figure out what she would actually approve of, and I’m completely stumped.

Because any changes to the council tax system is ultimately just a change to how the cake is carved up, the only thing one can conclude she is calling for is for poor people living in grotty areas to subisidise rich people living in nice areas to a greater extent than they do now. In this respect, she is less Bizarro and more good old fashioned Tory. Plus ca change.

UPDATE: Oh God, it get’s worse, with Andrew Stunell joining the circle jerk. This is a particularly choice line:

“They often have spent many years in their own home and would now simply become the victims of house price rises over which they have no control at all.”

Run that by me again? People who, due to no effort on their part, see their property values rising exponentially are VICTIMS? Where do I send the condolence card?

Seriously, someone needs to tell Andrew that it is Lib Dem policy now to SUPPORT the principle of property taxation.

Taxation Okey-Kokey

The Observer has been given a sneaky-peak of the Lib Dem’s Taxation Commission’s current thinking and it sounds good. 2p off the basic rate of income tax, paid for by increases in environmental taxation and “tougher tax rules for the wealthy”.

By the latter, I’m taking it to mean, at least in part, to some kind of “progressive property tax,” although Vince Cable’s quotation about share income being taxed at a lower rater than general income suggests reform of capital gains. Nonetheless, I welcome it: the Lib Dems absolutely should be the party of low income tax. These reforms suggest a “direction of travel” that I’m very comfortable with.

But there is a cloud on the horizon however. Read carefully, and it is clear that we are just talking about national income tax here. Existing Lib Dem policy is to replace Council Tax with a local income tax of, on average, 3.5p in the pound. If this policy isn’t significantly changed by the Tax Commission, we would have to go into the general election with the highly confusing policy of saying that, nationally, we want to cut income tax while locally we want to pile it on. In net terms, every taxpayer would end up paying 1.5p more in income tax.

Kiss goodbye to any electoral benefit we might expect from the tax shift, in other words: our message to the electorate would be horribly confused. We wait and see what the Tax Commission come up with, but there seem to be two solutions. The first one is to replace Council Tax with something else, maybe a genuine tax on property that is continually revalued (every 1-2 years for instance, like everywhere else: Council Tax is mostly based on 1991 values and thus has little to do with actual values) and taxes high value property at the same rate as low value property. The Band system of council tax leads to effectively a subsidy on the rich that the middle classes have to pay. Better yet, base it solely on site values and leave the capital entirely out of the equation. The second solution would simply be for our policy to not have a policy: local authorities should be free to raise their taxation however they pleased. Of course, that would be pretty meaningless as a policy if 75% of local government expenditure continued to come from national government: a shift to 50% or even 25% would, at a stroke, give local authorities far more clout, and enable us to drop the basic rate of income tax even more.

The problem is, a lot of senior Lib Dem spokespeople have gone on record to say that our local income tax policy is here to say. It seems to me though that we’ve reached a crunch point: either we think income tax is a good tax that we want to shift the burden onto, or a bad tax that we want to shift the burden away from. There is no middle way or third position. That is the decision the Lib Dems, collectively, have to make over the next 3 months. Fudge this, and all our critics will be vindicated.

Old = new

Thank you Cristina Odone for revealing to me that Kirsty Alsopp, the smug presenter of Location, Location, Location whose latest wheeze is to do a series on the wonders of buy-to-let, is the daughter of the 6th Baron Hindlip. So it turns out that the poster child of new feudalism is in fact a member of the old feudal class. Explains everything, including her near ubiquity in Cameron press launches.

Lest I be accused of attempting to shoot the messenger, I should point out that I agree that programmes like Location, Location, Location are merely the symptom not the cause, and that under the circumstances they probably do help people get onto the property ladder who would otherwise not have a look in. But they aren’t matched with a reforming zeal. From what I can see, the Hon. Allsopp thinks the solution to everything is just to mouth platitudes about the need to build more houses; if it was as simple as that she would be out of a job.

“Lost generation of 18- to 40-year-olds unable to cope with debts and soaring house prices”

No shit Sherlock:

The study, by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and Bristol University, published today, is the biggest of its kind undertaken in Britain. It paints a picture of a generational divide fuelled by higher education costs and the collapse of company pension schemes – with 42% of adults now with no pension and 70% with no meaningful savings.

So, what does the FSA propose doing about it?

The FSA will call today for a new national strategy to improve Britain’s financial capability, including workplace-based financial seminars targeted at 4 million employees; making personal finance more prominent in the national curriculum from 2008; and “money doctor” packs which will be sent to 1.5 million new and prospective parents each year.

Is it me, or is this code for “fuck all”? I don’t need to attend a seminar to tell me I can’t afford to buy a house – I need affordable housing. I don’t need more education to tell me how to afford paying a pension; I need to stop subsidising rich old people living in expensive housing.

Talking of rich old people…

Help the Aged criticised the report which, it said, ignored the needs of older people.

*YAWN!* It always has to be about you, doesn’t it? We’ve had nothing but report after report about the needs of old people. Cash poor, asset poor old people I have every sympathy for: that’s me in a few decades. Cash “poor” asset filthy-rich I have no time for; why can’t their assets pay for their generation’s poor? Why do I have to pay, just because I don’t have vast sums wrapped up in property?

Mutter… grumble… grr…

Generational Theft?

I spoke at a breakout session at yesterday’s Meeting the Challenge conference called “Generational Theft?” and organised by Liberator (or more precisely Simon Titley). I thought I’d put my own thoughts on how the debate went here, if for nothing else than to help Simon with his official report.

The other speakers were Ed Vickers and Simon Bryceson. Given that they clearly knew far more about what they were talking about than me, I was flattered to have been asked to be on the platform, but I like to think I may have made some contribution in terms of bringing the discussion onto campaign strategy and policy ideas. And since I don’t know the names of all the contributors, and they might object to me quoting them here in what was a frank discussion, I shall adopt Chatham House rules. Continue reading Generational Theft?

Blink and you’ll miss it: the return of Lib Dem property taxation?

Hold the phone!

Campbell to ditch high-tax policy

They are likely to propose that the system be made more progressive without the higher top rate. Instead, the party may suggest higher capital gains or property taxes on the better off.

It looks like a head of steam is brewing to both ditch the supertax and (my requirement) to ditch the party’s opposition to property-based taxes. Something tells me however we will end up with a somewhat better policy than council tax however…

With Huhne making similar noises, it suggests this election will be an interesting debate that goes beyond left and right. Hughes I suspect will champion the supertax, but he is also on record as a known LVT supporter so that may cause him difficulties. Oaten’s fudge is looking more foolish by the minute. Claiming to be the vanguard of the left won’t wash and he will make a fairly uncomfortable piggy in the middle I suspect.

But of course, Ming is also claiming to be to the left of Labour (I haven’t read this yet as I tend to reserve the Guardian for my commute – will comment more later on it though). What we’re seeing is something much more nuanced than a battle between left and right, but real thinking that demands intelligent answers.

People who think this election is just about who is “nice” and has nothing to do with policy could not be more wrong. Our policy narrative for the next half-decade is going to be written over the next couple of weeks.

The Land

Peter and Dan Snow’s Whose Land is it Anyway? was a treat: a whirlwind tour around the issues surrounding land ownership in the UK today. And Kevin Cahill, mentioned yesterday, did get a “special consultant” credit in the titles (as well as a brief appearance).

Several key points were of interest: the landed gentry from feudal times continues to own a huge chunk of Britain, subsidised through the taxpayer’s nose; that there has been a notable drift with many of the oldest landowners, including the church, selling off rural land to purchase more profitable urban land; that the leasehold reforms in the 90s has produced a churn effect, enabling individuals to buy their lease, but this is doing nothing to increase supply and is simply carving up large estates into smaller holdings; that one of the best ways to see your property values shoot up is to have a film star move in around the corner.

Much food for thought, not least of all whether it really makes sense for Britain to be so rural given the population pressures. Having taken a greater interest in rural issues over the past half decade, what has struck me is how village life is being threatened by restrictive planning regulations primarily, which restrict the supply of housing and force locals to be replaced by commuters and retired people.

But to a degree, there is a danger that it could have slightly misled viewers into thinking that the issue is how much land by geographical area is in private hands, rather than value. When I talk about neo-feudalism, my problem isn’t Madonna buying a country pile, it is speculators holding urban dwellers to ransom. The buy to let phenomenon is a boom industry at the moment, but what will happen to the next generation 20 years down the line when even that market has closed to them. I really don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that without reform we could be looking at a whole underclass of essentially serfs; people with no assets and no prospect of gaining them. Their landlords may be Mr and Mrs Bloggs rather than the Duke and Duchess of Bloggshire, but the fundamental economics and social injustice of 500 years ago will be very real.

I’m not convinced we’ll ever get that far as the resultant problems of social dismobility and unrest will emerge long before it gets too ingrained, but that in itself points to a tricky economic future.

Owning land

Dave Wetzel of the Labour Land Campaign alerts me to an article by Peter Snow on the murky details around who owns UK land (in the print edition, this is directly below an interview with Nicholas van Hoogstraten ironically enough). This is also the subject of a BBC2 programme tomorrow (9pm).

Apparently all this draws heavily from Kevin Cahill’s book Who Owns Britain? (mental note to self: this has come down in price hugely – didn’t know they did a paperback. Purchase next time you have any money), but has been largely uncredited.

There is a real debate to be had in this country about how conservation policies have effectively kept land out of the hands of the masses, leading to a huge increase in property prices and what looks like a form of neo-feudalism emerging. Hopefully, this will help bring that debate into the public arena. On the other hand, Mark Thomas was shouting about all this in the 90s and didn’t get anywhere.

Sprawl balls

Coming in late, but what is Simon Jenkins on?

The implementation of single farm payments is thus critical to more than the fate of British farming. It will decide whether the countryside, at least in southern Britain, remains in a remotely rural form. Not only must the money be sufficient to keep farmers on the land but the rules must change. A new planning regime has to award rural Britain the same statutory protection long granted to urban Britain. Landscape must be listed and conserved. Otherwise, outside national parks, all is gone. There is no mystery about what this means: look along the coast of New England, round Los Angeles or on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Just how many houses does he think the UK needs? His dire prediction that the Single Farm Payment will lead to thousands of houses being built sounds remarkably like the answers to a lot of our prayers.

Yes we need proper planning laws, and yes we need to dissuade people from speculatively buying land, but with 99.9% of us living on just 8% of the land it will be a long time before we come close to the catastrophe that Simon Jenkins appears to think is just around the corner.