The UK keeps sinking deeper into property inequality – and it's not alone

Oh, good, more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Outrage has been mounting over the untaxed incomes of the global elite, foreign ownership of urban land and soaring rents in the private rental sector. Much of this boils down to two key matters: who owns property, and how they are treated.

The UK, it seems, is a place that makes it very easy for individuals to generate a great deal of wealth from property, with little concern for social justice or the provision of affordable housing.

But this problem is not uniquely British. Across the world – and particularly in many developing countries experiencing fast economic growth – capital is flowing rapidly into real estate. And increasingly, governments are waking up to the need to effectively capture some value from these investments, for the public good.

Yet, as my research shows, this can be extremely difficult to achieve due to complex historical legacies around land, as well as deeply entrenched vested interests.

Consultants from the UK and other rich countries are often the first on hand to provide advice and propose systems of property and land taxation, to enable governments in poorer countries to bring in revenues that reflect the real value of developments. Meanwhile, ironically, the UK’s primary property tax – a monthly “council tax” paid by residents to local authorities – remains scandalously out of line with modern property values.

House prices are rising – but council tax isn’t. London, 1995 to 2015. Image: Alasdair Rae, University of Sheffield.

Of course, property inequality looks very different in British cities than it does in cities in developing countries. In many African cities, a clear majority of people live in slum conditions, the like of which are (thankfully) consigned to the past in Britain. Yet the property markets are being transformed by very similar processes.

International capital flows are central in both cases: wealthier migrants from low-income countries now based in the US and Europe often channel their earnings into untaxed property back home, while the UK solicits property investments from footloose international elites. Whatever the context, the outcome is largely the same: luxury properties abound, often unoccupied and almost always undertaxed, while governments fail to provide proper incentives for developers to invest in cheap housing.

These issues are particularly concerning in poorer countries, not only because of the scale of inequalities and gaping absences of affordable housing, but also because investments in luxury properties divert funds from other sectors, which urgently need capital to make the nations' economies more productive.

What to tax?

It seems clear that governments of both poor and rich countries need to find ways to reduce the appeal of massive investments in high-end property, and to spend more on housing and services for low-income groups. The question is: how?

Stamp duty is obviously one mechanism for capturing some of the value of property, but as this is a one-off payment it deals with only part of the problem. Updating the council tax is an important step in the UK – though this will be very politically difficult.

More fundamentally, however, simply updating council tax bands sidesteps major questions about exactly what we should be taxing when we tax property. Given the state of the UK property market, a proper debate is needed on these issues. But as this is also a global issue, the UN’s biggest conference on urban development issues in 20 years should also provide a forum for discussing this at the global level.

One possibility that has aroused significant interest is a land value tax. The idea is that public investments in infrastructure – rather than private individuals’ effort – make land valuable. So, the government should “recapture” this value for further public investment, by taxing property owners a proportion of the annual rental value of their land.

Less vacant land. Image: Sinkdd/Flickr/creative commons.

Some argue that taxing land also encourages people to use land productively, and deters speculation; in other words, if you are paying a relatively large amount of tax on a plot of land, you will want to make the best possible use of that land (by building a tall tower, for example), in order to maximise your profit.

By contrast, taxing buildings discourages investment and development, so many proponents of land value taxation argue that structures should simply be ignored. There is a certain progressive logic to this: for the most part, growth in land value provides a windfall to the owner, so it seems like a fair revenue to tax.

Should buildings be off the hook?

But a land value tax could have some undesirable consequences: exempting buildings from taxation encourages developers to build for maximum profit – and this often means constructing expensive, luxury residences for wealthy investors. What’s more, large buildings impose on the surrounding residents and public spaces in a number of ways which can be seen to warrant taxation – for example by blocking light, generating traffic and adding to pollution and noise.

In countries where forms of land taxation are relatively high, but building taxes small or non-existent, there is a tendency to speculate on buildings for which there is no obvious demand. This can be particularly harmful when there isn’t sufficient public infrastructure or services to support these looming edifices.


If we consider property tax as a means of redistributing wealth from the rich to the less well-off, then it makes sense to tax buildings. After all, why should one person be able to own a large, immovable asset without paying tax on it, when others pay tax on so many goods, services and incomes? Is it really fair for the residents of high-rise developments to pay a small fraction of a land value tax, regardless of the actual value of the luxurious apartment which they occupy (or, more accurately, don’t occupy)?

No – taxing property wealth is not only about taxing the windfall of increased land values: it is about acknowledging that the playing field of society is not level, and that the rich should pay more because they can. And it’s not just a question of social justice – it’s also about the kinds of incentives we want to create for investment, and the kinds of lifestyles that this promotes. We should not be so keen to encourage intensive investment in land that we exempt buildings – no matter how extravagant and unnecessary – from any kind of tax.

In many developing countries, innovative approaches to valuing and taxing property are being proposed and piloted, and concerted efforts are being made to overcome political resistance. The UK would do well to follow suit and bring its system of property taxation into the 21st century.

Politicians fear these issues, and public discussions about property tax has fallen all but silent since the Labour party failed to win the argument for a “mansion tax” at last year’s election. No solution is simple; but not talking about it won’t solve anything at all.The Conversation

Tom Goodfellow is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield.

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

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.