Value capture isn’t going to solve Australia’s infrastructure problems

Some Australians building some apartments. Image: Getty.

Is “value capture” a wonderful untapped opportunity to fulfil all Australia's infrastructure dreams? Or is it just a new way to sting the taxpayer? Our new report casts a cold, hard gaze over value capture, and finds that it’s a good tax in theory, but will prove very hard to put into practice. The Conversation

Value capture is the name given to a policy whereby governments capture some of the increased value of land that results from building a new piece of infrastructure. Typically, the money the government “captures” is used to help fund the project.

At first glance, value capture seems marvellously fair, because it applies only to those who benefit from the particular project. So the people of western Sydney do not help fund a new railway station on the North Shore. But look a little closer: it also means that affluent inner-city residents don’t help fund a better railway station in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs.

Federal ministers from the prime minister down are enthusiastic about value capture and are pushing the states to embrace it. Only last month, urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher reiterated that the Commonwealth does not want to be “just an ATM” for the states. But if the federal ministers face up to some home truths, they may find value capture less to their liking.

Value capture is a tax

Home Truth No. 1 is that a value-capture scheme is a tax. That’s how it raises revenue. Politicians tend to shun the “T word”. They prefer to present value capture as an innovative financing mechanism. Sorry, it’s a tax.

Some advocates point to Hong Kong, where a private company builds and operates the rail lines, in return for cheap access to development rights around the new stations – a non-cash subsidy. Yes, integrating new infrastructure with rezoning and other planning changes is a great idea. But a similar model in Australia would have to be much smaller in scale.

That’s because in Hong Kong the government owns all the land. In addition, the city is dramatically denser than Australian cities: more than 7m people live in a built-up area of around 285 square kilometres, compared with Sydney’s population of about 5m in around 2,000 square kilometres. In a very dense city, good access to mass transit is highly valued.

Others in the value-capture camp point to tax increment financing (TIF) schemes. These have been used in the US with mixed success.

TIF schemes don’t involve a new tax, or indeed a funding source of any kind. Instead, they are financing schemes that earmark an expected increase in future revenue from existing taxes, such as land taxes, which can be attributed to a new piece of infrastructure. This increase is then used to repay special-purpose bonds.

But TIF schemes are of little value in the Australian context, since Australian governments have strong credit ratings and can borrow at extremely low rates of interest – more cheaply than private sector financiers can. Not only this, but TIF schemes generally do not offload project risk. They may instead come with a hidden government guarantee.

Family home would be captured

Which brings us to Home Truth No. 2: to raise a reasonable amount, a value-capture tax would need to include the family home. Owner-occupied housing accounts for around 65 per cent of total land values in Australia, and increases in its value are taxed very lightly (see the chart below).

Click to expand. Image: author provided.

To minimise the distortions value capture could have on the economy, it should be charged on unimproved land value, as a flat proportion of the land-value uplift attributable to the new infrastructure, with no exemptions.

A tricky question of who’s in and who’s out

Home Truth No. 3 is that many taxpayers are likely to feel aggrieved. Property prices go up – and down – for many reasons.

Drawing a boundary around a new piece of infrastructure to distinguish between those who must pay the new tax and those too far away to benefit is bound to involve rough justice.

Also, it won’t be easy for governments to convince people that their new tax bill still leaves them better off. Homeowners get the benefit of the new project on paper, but have to pay the tax bill in cash. Is this sounding like a political nightmare yet?

A way to reduce the political heat

There is, however, a way to implement value capture that could take a bit of the political heat out of individual decisions. Governments could pass general legislation that applies value capture to every transport infrastructure project with certain characteristics:

  • an identifiable beneficiary catchment;

  • a project that’s expected to makes an area significantly more accessible;

  • the amount of revenue to be raised far outweighs the cost of administering the scheme.

So, for example, value capture might apply to all urban passenger rail projects costing over A$50m. The tax might then be levied on all properties within 800 metres (i.e. walking distance) of a new station.

Once such legislation is in place, each value-capture tax may be slightly less politically fraught. This approach will minimise the opportunities for rent-seeking or corruption that arise from designing bespoke schemes for every individual project.

Broad-based land tax is better still

A better answer still could be a broad-based land tax. Such a tax is highly efficient, because land is an immobile tax base (see the chart below).

Click to expand. Image: author provided.

While it would not zero in on the beneficiaries of new infrastructure, a land tax would capture the effects of all infrastructure, old and new, as these translated into land values, making it scrupulously fair. A broad-based land tax would also be simpler to administer than a value-capture tax. That’s because there would be no requirement to police the geographic boundary of the catchment area.


So a broad-based land tax has some distinct advantages over a value-capture tax.

Some will say our conclusions are pessimistic, that a little more creativity could devise a way to design value capture so it painlessly funds public infrastructure. To which we would say: there’s no magic pudding when it comes to public money – the only sources of funding for public infrastructure are user charges or a tax. Value capture may involve taxing beneficiaries more than the general taxpayer, but it’s not a bucket of free money.

Yes, if value capture is done the right way, as a tax that embraces the principles of equity, efficiency and simplicity, it could make a positive contribution to infrastructure funding in Australia. But the truth is, there is nothing easy about capturing value.

Marion Terrill is transport program director and Owain Emslie an associate at the Grattan InstituteThey are the authors of the new Grattan Institute report, What price value capture?, available here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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