A land value tax should pay for London's new Garden Bridge

The proposed garden bridge. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

By 2018, you should be able to leave London’s Garden Bridge to the north onto Arundel Street. As you leave behind the tourists having a nice day out, or turn away disappointed because the bridge is closed for a private corporate event, you should remember that the biggest winners from the £60m of public funding will be the developers and owners of places like the brand new Arundel Great Court.

This £351m development will feature a new five-star hotel and 151 luxury flats, and could be completed around the same time as the bridge. In their summary of the business case for the Garden Bridge, Transport for London (TfL) notes that projects of this kind usually make the local area more desirable, and so drive up land and property values. TfL estimates that the value of the Arundel Great Court development could rise by 5 per cent if it’s built.

Consider, too, all the people who already own land in property in the area. They should be able to charge even higher rents to tenants, and command a higher price if they choose to sell their office space or flat, all without lifting a finger.

TfL reckon the total one-off uplift in land and property values for businesses and residents brought about by the new bridge will be in the order of £84m. That’s more than the public money that TfL and the Treasury are contributing. Their £60m, drawn from transport budgets, will help a charitable trust build a bridge with little transport value and no public right of way, and which results in a £84m windfall to private interests.

(As an aside, in the midst of a desperate housing crisis, on page 97 of this document, TfL describes this windfall to wealthy land and property owners as a “large positive”. They add this windfall to the positives in their cost-benefit analysis. Given the mayor’s declared concern about high house prices, shouldn’t his transport agency be looking at rising land and property prices as a negative?)


Why can’t the Mayor capture this windfall gain to offset the public subsidy for the bridge? TfL hope to use planning obligations on new development to capture some of it – but that won’t go very far.

City Hall and TfL have been looking at Tax Increment Financing for regeneration in nearby Vauxhall and Nine Elms. This mechanism enables them to borrow money from the government to invest in regeneration: once the scheme is completed, it will result in greater tax revenues, which the government can use to paying off the borrowing. There’s no suggestion of that being used here.

But there is another option: land value tax. If the mayor would back those campaigners calling for such a tax, he could use it to capture much more of the gain, potentially even reclaiming the £60m in full.

One simple way to do this would be to tax all land owners based on the rental income from their land, as used to happen. If the land owner is occupying, not renting, the space (as with a home owner for example), you can instead tax the “imputed rent”: that is, the amount they could theoretically charge if they did let it out.

Because the bridge will increase its neighbours’ potential rents then, were such a scheme to be implemented, they would have to pay more in tax. In return for the taxpayer’s contribution to the construction of a fancy new bridge on their doorstep, they would have to chip a little more back into the public purse.

A land value tax wouldn’t only help TfL finance this scheme. It could also act as a disincentive to investors looking to speculate on land and property, and encourage investors hoarding development sites to get on and build something. This could all help stabilise or even reduce house prices in an area of London where they are beyond ridiculous.

City Hall could use the revenue to build more social housing along the South Bank, or to build a much more useful pedestrian and cycling bridge from Canary Wharf to Surrey Quays, where a new crossing is actually needed.

If the mayor’s principal aim is to build his legacy, TfL’s plans will probably do the trick. But if he wants to build a better transport network and a more affordable city, he should seriously consider backing the campaign for a land value tax.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.