Bulletins Globally Speaking | October 26, 2016

Property Taxes Are Killing The Golden Goose

The property industry has just been warned by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to “keep an eye out” for changes to real estate taxation in this year’s Autumn Statement.

Change is indeed needed, but would come hard on the heels of a bewildering number of changes over the last few years that have left the industry reeling, and with little faith in Government’s ability to do anything but attack the golden goose with murderous intent. So here is a plea for a different approach.

Stamp Duty Land Tax has become a huge additional expense to moving home over the years since it replaced the flat rate Stamp Duty. It is a brake on mobility and unfairly penalises people who need to live where homes are expensive.

The Government should move to shift the revenue burden from the most expensive time in most people’s lives – completing the purchase of their home – on to the Council Tax system. This is the levy paid annually by households to Local Authorities, with property put into different bands based on value. Unfortunately, that band valuation was last done in 1993, when the average home cost £62,000, not the £218,000 it costs today.

An immediate review followed by a shift of emphasis away from Stamp Duty Land Tax and on to Council Tax would not only give extra money to cash-strapped local authorities, but would put them in a better position to build or enable more affordable homes for rent or sale. It should also reduce house prices for those wanting to own a home as Stamp Duty Land Tax was reduced.

Whilst this shift in emphasis would certainly mean that annual costs going forward would be higher for some buyers, the significant increases could be targeted at the most expensive end of the market. Additional charges could also be introduced for properties kept empty, or indeed investment properties, balancing things in favour of owner occupiers. Council Taxes are generally a manageable expense, particularly as payment can be spread out in instalments.

Local Authorities would receive more money over the ownership lifetime of a home, as opposed to the current Stamp Duty Land Tax regime, whereby a one-off levy goes straight to the Treasury, and does not benefit the areas in which it is collected.

This reform ought to be an obvious one for a Government ostensibly committed to both devolving more power locally (power costs money) and improving the opportunities for home ownership.

The problem currently is that the rapid escalation in property prices has created an unsustainable imbalance between ownership taxes and acquisition taxes. Each rise in property values increases this distortion still further.

This may be good news for the Treasury, but it isn’t for anyone trying to buy a home, particularly in property hotspots such as London and much of the South East, where the affordability gap is now acute and there are not enough homes to buy or rent.

The failure to revalue for council tax purposes is also palpably unfair, meaning that many people are denied the opportunity to move down a band.

Research suggests that a revaluation of Council Tax should be relatively painless. Only four per cent of London homeowners would be likely to see an increase in their bills in excess of 50 per cent according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, experts in social policy. Not bad, then, especially as a number of London Councils have the lowest Council Tax in the country.

Most countries have a version of Stamp Duty Land Tax, of course; and this is not an argument for abolishing it entirely. But the Government has been wrong to keep increasing the take and using it as a blunt instrument to try and improve supply. That simply isn’t working. Instead, the rising Stamp Duty Land Tax take in the UK is distorting the market, stopping sales and reducing opportunities for mobility.

An annual tax based on the actual current value of a house is a fairer system, provided relief is available for those who suddenly find themselves becalmed in a valuable home but without the income to stay there.

Whatever the Autumn Statement brings, let us hope that Ministers have really thought about bringing fairness to the system, encouraging mobility and creating an environment that makes it easier, cheaper and more likely for the industry to build more homes.

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on 25 October 2016.