John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle.
The 2019 general election was won and fought on a clear mantra of “getting Brexit done”. Now that we have left the European Union and as we eventually emerge from the pandemic, it is time for the Prime Minister to re-focus on his mission to level up the UK.
Let’s be in no doubt that the Conservative Party’s electoral chances in 2024 depend to a large extent on whether people across the UK, and especially in the “Red Wall”, feel and see the benefits of this agenda. This was always going to be the case, even before the outbreak of Coronavirus. The pandemic has simply underlined some of the economic and social issues that have existed in Britain for too long. As a result, the task of levelling up has become more urgent.
The first challenge to overcome is one of definition. Who can explain what levelling up actually means? I understand work is going on behind the scenes to do exactly this. This needs to happen at pace alongside a clear set of metrics which can track progress on measures to which people can relate, from local healthcare and educational outcomes to unemployment levels and spending power. By regularly assessing progress in each of these metrics, locally accountable political leaders can identify specific challenges that are relevant to their community and put in place relevant improvement plans.
Second, the public are going to want to see results. Alongside the progress tracker, the Government and local MPs are going to require specific examples which they can use on the doorstep to show that constituents, their families and their communities are better off as a result of voting Conservative.
Brexit and then Covid have limited the amount of time and resource the Government can spend on working up specific policies which can be delivered before the country next goes to the polls and which chime with the electorate. Major infrastructure programmes are needed but these are often projects that take years to initiate and have little traction at a community level until final completion. As the saying goes, all politics is local.
Of course, the state of the public finances is also a huge problem for the Government. Any change of policy has to therefore be assessed on whether it delivers against a clearly defined vision of levelling up, whether local people can see and feel the benefits in their everyday lives, and whether it is cost-neutral or (ideally) a revenue raiser for the Treasury.
This is why a fundamental reform of property taxation is so appealing and could form a key component of the Government’s efforts to level up the country. The current system is out of date, confusing, unpopular, unequal and most importantly unfair. The Chancellor has acknowledged the need to make the system fairer and property taxes would be the ideal place to start.
The two obvious examples which irritate people from every walk of life are council tax and stamp duty. Council tax is based on property values from 1991 – 30 years out of date. That means that someone living in a house worth £100,000 pays around five times more tax as a share of property value than someone living in a home worth £1 million. Just 29 per cent of the public believe that council tax is calculated fairly and only 26 per cent believe that their own bill is set at the correct level.
Council tax has failed to keep up with the substantial increase in property values, especially in London. This has deprived the Treasury and local councils of much needed revenue and meant that lower income households outside the capital are paying more as a proportion of their home’s actual value than they should be. This has a profound impact, through no fault of their own, on their disposable income.
Stamp duty is a property tax which is an attack on aspiration and ownership. By taxing property transactions, stamp duty discourages homeowners from moving – be it an older couple downsizing or a growing family upsizing – that would lead to more efficient use of the country’s housing stock. The fall in transactions ultimately results in fewer new homes being built because the market signals, to which housebuilders respond, are distorted. Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty holiday to date has mitigated this damage, and wholesale abolition would be an even more potent remedy.
A fairer system would be to completely abolish both council tax and stamp duty and replace them with a new property tax which reflects the current value of people’s homes. A proportional property tax if you will. By setting that tax rate at 0.48 per cent the campaign group, Fairer Share, has calculated that over three quarters of households would be instantly better off.
The average household would see an additional £435 a year in their back pocket, while in some areas of the country such as Bishop Auckland and Bolsover the average household could respectively be £900 and £750 better off each year. Importantly the revenue raised would be split between central government to redistribute across local authorities in the form of grants, and local authorities would take a proportion of the overall rate.
From a political perspective, 97 per cent of households located in the “red wall” seats in England that the Conservatives took from Labour at the last election, would be better off. Traditional Tory seats would also fare well from this policy. In the Chancellor’s own constituency of Richmond, Yorkshire, 92 per cent of households would be better off to the tune of £600 while in South Cambridgeshire the average household would save £350 each year.
Obviously, creating a fairer, more transparent, and up to date property tax system would also mean that some households would end up having to pay more every year to reflect the current price of their home. That is why it is important that any such policy protects these people, who through no fault of their own or indeed through their own renovation work, have benefited from their home increasing in value.
To that extent, Fairer Share is proposing a monthly £100 cap on the total increase any one household could pay which would disappear at point of sale. At the same time – and to help those who are cash poor but living in a high value property – the new tax could be deferred until there is a change of ownership meaning that they wouldn’t lose out financially from the policy.
Replacing council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax is the right thing to do for millions of people up and down the country. This reform would have an impact beyond the regional. Ten years of low interest rates have led to increasing asset prices making houses unaffordable for the young and potentially driving them into the arms of the opposition. A solution needs to be found to protect the votes of tomorrow.
Politicians are still chastened by the memory of the negative reaction to the bungled and unpopular poll tax. And since then, council tax and stamp duty have become so unpopular that politicians are anxious about even raising the topic.
But “politics” can no longer be the excuse for failing to implement meaningful property tax reform. The changing political landscape may well be the catalyst for reform. It is the right thing to do from a political perspective, demonstrating that fairness is at the heart of everything the Conservative Party stands for.
With the next election beginning to loom on the horizon, this is a policy which will work on the doorstep and become the perfect flagship policy for the Prime Minister’s vision of levelling up the country.