The tax so popular it has its own song

Chris Game

A good crossword anagram should have real meaning, ideally laced with a bit of humour. Like my personal long-time favourite, “I’m Tory Plan B”, which many Labour supporters still reckon fairly describes their three-time election winner, Tony Blair MP or PM.

As Labour leader, his latest successor looks like being ‘Mr Streaker’, aka Keir Starmer, with eliminated Emily Thornberry left ruing “my horrible entry”.

Switching to ministers, this week’s headlines are all about Home Secretary, Priti Patel – a clearly sensitive soul, and I entirely understand her feeling that “Rip it, petal”, was inappropriate advice from a senior male civil servant.

Next week, though, is still scheduled as Budget Week, when the headliner will be the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Potentially another anagrammatical pain, with only ten letters to juggle, but saved by the extreme haste of his appointment and some flashy punctuation: “Ask? I rush in!”

By long established Budget custom, the Chancellor reveals little of any planned tax proposals in advance. It gained attention, therefore, when Sunak deliberately pre-announced his intended “fundamental” review of business rates, and their replacement with a Land Value Tax.

“A riski hunch” perhaps, and yes, I know it’s not a perfect anagram, and yes, I promise it’s my last effort.

The political rationale was clear enough. Scrap an unpopular tax, paid not by landowners, but on rental values by small businesses and potentially Conservative-voting tenant retailers, and earn credit for enabling your Leader to claim he is saving struggling high streets.

But here’s the thing. Sunak chose not just to use the provocative T-word, but actually to call it a Land Value Tax (LVT – which a certain person I know thinks stands for Luxury Vinyl Tiling).

The idea – the tax, not the tiling – has been around for literally ages, advocated by, among many others, the 4th Century BCE Confucian philosopher Mencius, 18th Century classical economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the then Liberal MP, Winston Churchill, and the very up-to-the-minute Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It’s also possibly the only tax with its own song – or, more precisely, 19th century hymn. Entitled ‘God made the Land for the People’ and too long to quote extensively here, it is available on Wiki and includes:

“Why should we beg work and let the Landlords take the best? Make them pay their taxes on the land, just like the rest; The Land was meant for the People!”

Now try it to the tune of ‘Marching Through Georgia’, it really is a bit better.

So there’s no shortage of pedigree, or of possible alternative labels that might make it sound a bit less communistic to some of Sunak’s own party supporters. ‘Levy’ and ‘site-value’ both sound a bit vaguer, so why not try ‘site-value rating’ or – possibly my own choice – Location Value Rating?

Yet Sunak chose the very term that his actual political enemies – Labour, Lib Dems and Greens – had all used in their 2017 manifestos and that the Greens especially outlined in some detail in 2019:

“Our Green plan to transform land and property taxes will abolish Council Tax and Business Rates, replacing them with an LVT. The LVT will also absorb National Non-domestic Rates, Stamp Duty and Inheritance Tax on land, Capital Gains Tax on land sales, and Income Tax on land for owner-occupiers. The new LVT will charge the landowner a proportion of the capital value of the land each year (estimated to be around 1.4% of current values.)”

 I doubt Sunak is thinking on this scale, but the key point still holds. Long-term simplification and rationalisation take time – which most councils’ finances don’t currently have.

Anyway, on this topic at least, Labour’s 2019 manifesto was even more cautious than 2017’s. That manifesto pledged to “initiate a review into reforming council tax and business rates and consider new options such as a land value tax, to ensure local government has sustainable funding for the long term” (my emphases).

It may sound an open-minded, evidence-driven approach to policy development, but to the Tory ‘Red Top’ media it was raw meat, and they eviscerated it.

Re-badging it a ‘Garden Tax’ – misleadingly, with garden values already included in council tax – they reckoned it would cost the average home (in South-East England, that is) an extra £4,000-plus, treating the unlaunched review as if it were Commons-ready legislation. I expect Sunak’s proposal will receive similar treatment – no, just kidding!

Labour’s 2019 manifesto was more tentative still, restricting any review to business rates and emphasising that any LVT would apply to commercial landlords. Politically understandable, but it undermines much of its full potential, as outlined by the Greens.

So why do I prefer Location Value Rating? Because I feel it’s easier to understand. Land’s true ‘location’ value derives considerably less from the actions of individual property owners than from the wider, longer-term efforts of the community in creating transport links, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.

It is therefore the community that should benefit from this ‘value added’ or ‘unearned betterment’, not frequently absentee landowners who currently have no incentive even to put their properties on the market.

Next Wednesday, though, those actually in local government, rather than bossing it, want to hear about the immediate, not medium-term, future. Above all, what is the Government’s policy on further, and ultimately full, business rates retention, that it’s been piloting for nearly three years now? And is this LVT talk just a distraction?

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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