Here’s why Philip Hammond should abolish stamp duty

Looks like he’s thinking about it. Image: Getty.

When it comes to causes of the housing crisis, stamp duty land tax is far from the most important. And since it claws nearly £12bn out of primarily well-off peoples’ hands, many of those who care about housing will be content to let sleeping dogs lie, unpopularity notwithstanding.

But stamp duty does a lot more damage than it might seem – and when the housing market is so broken, it’s especially important to support any politically-achievable change that might make things a bit better.

Back in 1997 less than half of housing transactions faced stamp duty at all, and when they did, it was at a proportional 1% rate all the way up the schedule – that is, for houses worth both £50,000 and £2m (although there were next to no houses in the country worth £2m back then). Ever since then, politicians of both parties have been unable to resist ratcheting the rate up: the top rate is now 12 per cent.

It is progressive. But taxes on bicycles, using the train, and eating free range chicken would be progressive: progressivity isn’t the be-all and end-all of a particular tax, even if we want the system to be very progressive overall. There are many ways to soak the rich and if we want to do it then we should do it in a way that causes the least collateral damage to the economy at large – that is, to the rest of us.

Stamp duty is uniquely bad by this measure. The key problem is that stamp duty stops people from moving.

Housing ownership needn’t be the tenure that most people aspire to, but in practice it is. That means that, for people to live in a place they love, close to their family or friends, in range of a job they want – or indeed near that job so they don’t have to endure a hellish commute – they often need to own a house there. To own a house there, there needs to be a house there, and that’s why the most important solution to the housing crisis is building more houses. But even of the stock we have, we can use them more efficiently.

However, we do most of our property taxation specifically by taxing these moves. We barely (and regressively) tax people for occupying expensive property – or valuable land – through our ageing, ailing and increasingly preposterous council tax system. But we tax them heavily and progressively when they move.

Economists have tried to measure the effect many times, and find that even in the middle of the distribution, where tax rates are relatively modest, the impact can be large. The best research papers typically find that a 1 per centage point increase in tax rate cut property transactions in the affected range by something like 10 per cent – sometimes larger in the short run, when including re-timing to take advantage of a lower rate.

My suggestion is that the chancellor abolish it in the budget this year. Taxes don’t typically get abolished, but stamp duty isn’t a typical tax.

And there is an obvious place to get the revenue back: council tax. Council tax is regressive by design, and has become more regressive over time as property prices in certain parts of the country have soared, and yet have faced no extra tax due to already being in the top band.

This banding itself is ridiculous. New build homes are put in bands based on what they would have been worth in 1991, assuming nothing had changed. So Brixton, for example, is still assumed to be cheap and relatively run-down, and new flats in swish Oval Quarter worth hundreds of thousands of pounds are in band C, paying peanuts.

Reforming council tax so it taxed properties at around 10-15 per cent of their rental value up the scale, like if VAT was on housing services, would easily cover the cost of scrapping SDLT. It would be similarly progressive, fairer, and have none of the damaging economic disincentives to moving.

No, it wouldn’t solve the housing crisis – but none of the real solutions to the housing crisis are on the table. This move is exactly the sort of thing a Tory chancellor could and would do. And at times like these the housing market can do with all the help it can get.

Ben Southwood is head of research at the Adam Smith Institute.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.