Council tax is the new poll tax. It’s time for reform

A poll tax protest, Hackney, March 1990. Image: Getty.

Rummage around in the “too difficult to touch box” of policy issues and somewhere near the bottom you’ll find a slip marked “council tax reform”. But as that tax is increasingly becoming as unfair as the poll tax it replaced, politicians need to be bold and reform this failing tax. Here’s why.

The poll tax was a political disaster which is widely credited with precipitating the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. In response to the failed poll tax, the current council tax system was introduced in 1993 as a pragmatic fudge. Now politicians fear touching the issue again.

But council tax increasingly resembles the unpopular poll tax which it replaced. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) out yesterday highlights how this system of taxation is failing.

It is increasingly a regressive tax, with those living in the lowest-value homes paying a higher proportion of council tax with regard to property value, than those living in the highest value homes. A household in a Band A property in London would on average pay nearly five times what a Band H household would pay as a proportion of property value.

The council tax system also takes too little account of people’s ability to pay and punishes the poorest. The devolution of council tax benefit in 2013, together with the cut in the funding provided for it, means that people on the very lowest incomes are paying council tax for the first time since the poll tax – and bills are rising.

IPPR research found that the burden of council tax on London’s poorest households is more than six times greater than those on the highest incomes – and that was before the latest round of increases. At the same time, the number of those in arrears and facing prosecution has also dramatically risen.


Furthermore, the current system is an increasingly unsustainable source of local government finance, not least due to its regressive features, discounts and exemptions. Meanwhile, upward pressures on local government spending are rising.

Council tax, like the poll tax before it, is punishing those on the lowest incomes, and it’s time for an overhaul. There is public appetite for fundamental reform and politicians should no longer ignore the issue. Council tax needs to be reformed to create a more progressive, fair and sustainable system.

In our report focused on the system in London, we propose that the first step should be to devolve council tax to London’s government, as also proposed by the London Finance Commission. London’s unique housing market and strong sub-national governance make it well suited to a pilot devolution deal which could later be rolled out across the country. A reformed system needs a sub-national approach, rather than the current overly centralised one.

Second, action should be taken urgently to protect those on low incomes. A capital-wide council tax benefit system is needed to support London’s most vulnerable households. This will ensure no minimum payment is required of those on the lowest incomes and restore eligibility for support to at least their pre-2013 levels.

Third, in the long-term council tax should be replaced with an annual flat-rate tax proportional to present day property values. This should be levied on owners rather than occupants. A rate of 0.25 per cent would raise the same funds for London as the current system, but 80 per cent of households would benefit from paying lower tax.

Any reforms should also be accompanied by an improvement in public services to ensure the reform commands political and public support.

Reform of council tax will not be easy: there’s a reason why it has remained unreformed in England for nearly three decades. But it’s time that politicians abolished this failing tax, just like the poll tax before it.

Luke Murphy is associate director for energy, climate, housing and infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.