Stamp duty is a bad tax – but scrapping it will do nothing for first-time buyers

This was a better plan. Image: Getty.

Not a day seems to pass in this Conservative leadership contest without promises of tax cuts. Today the Times brings news that Boris Johnson is contingency planning an emergency No Deal budget to ensure the economy is “going gangbusters” by 31 October.

Central to that is said to be an idea to abolish stamp duty on homes worth less than £500,000 and reverse George Osborne’s increase in the levy, from 7 per cent to 12 per cent, on those worth more than £1.5m.

Stamp duty has few fans, and rightly so. It is a tax on transactions and so results in fewer of them, reducing housing market activity and disincentivising owner-occupiers from moving for work. It is inefficient and deserves to go.

However, on top of this is frequently added the complaint that it makes buying a house more expensive by adding an extra few per cent onto the purchase price. Indeed, this is how the idea is usually sold. Dominic Raab, who has been promoting the stamp duty reform Johnson is now considering, suggested earlier this year that it would “[save] first-time buyers up to £10,000 and [encourage] people to buy”.

But this is a misconception. That’s because, while stamp duty is levied on the buyer, the incidence – who actually shoulders the cost – is on the seller.

Consider a first-time buyer with an upper limit on their housebuying budget – after lawyers’ fees, moving costs and so on – of £510,000. They cannot afford to pay £510,000 for a property because the stamp duty liability – £15,500 – would take them over their budget.

Instead the most they can afford on the purchase price is £500,000, which would attract a stamp duty bill of £10,000. So the stamp duty has been capitalised into the price, reducing the value that can be recouped by the seller but leaving the buyer no better or worse off (except when they come to sell later).


If Johnson now abolishes stamp duty on homes up to £500,000 in value, the same buyer now has more of their £510,000 to put towards the purchase price. Assuming values above £500,000 will still be taxed at five per cent, this first-time buyer will now be able to spend a touch above £509,500 for the same property.

Who is the winner here? It’s not the first-time buyer – it’s the seller, who is £9,500 better off. The loser, to the tune of that £9,500, is the exchequer.

The effect on the first-time buyer is at best neutral but, in fact, if the plan is to abolish stamp duty on all acquisitions below £500,000 – including those by landlords and existing homeowners – then life is about to get harder for those trying to get their foot on the ladder.

Why? Because currently stamp duty is levied at higher rates on existing homeowners, and even higher rates still on landlords. This has depressed the price at which a landlord is willing to buy a property of a certain rental value below what the first-time buyer is willing to pay, giving the latter a distinct advantage.

Take a landlord who has £520,000 to spend on the same property as in our example above – plenty enough to outbid the first-time buyer whose maximum budget is £510,000. At current rates of stamp duty, while the first-time buyer can afford to bid £500,000 (with a tax bill of £10,000), the landlord can only afford to bid a touch above £490,000, on which the tax bill for them would be some £29,200. The first-time buyer gets the property.

If stamp duty were to be abolished altogether on property acquisitions up to £500,000, that would no longer be the case. The landlord would pay the same rate of stamp duty as the first-time buyer, and the winning bidder is the one with the bigger budget. Now, while the first-time buyer can afford to pay £509,500, the landlord can afford to pay £519,000 (but they probably don’t – they pay £1,000 or so more than the first-time buyer). The landlord gets the property.

This is the effect of the stamp duty reforms that are being mooted. Tax revenues will fall, house prices will rise, and first-time buyers will lose their advantage in the market against landlords. On efficiency grounds, this might all be a very good idea, and many will support it. But let’s be under no illusions about who will be the winners (existing homeowners) and who will be the losers (first-time buyers and the public purse).

If the aim is to help first-time buyers, retaining a higher rate of stamp duty on landlords makes sense. Even if that isn't the aim, the sensible way to abolish stamp duty would be to replace the lost revenues with a corresponding increase in other property taxes that are more efficient. The reconfiguration of council tax into a more equitable levy, calculated as a straightforward percentage of the value of the property (or even the land), would be a good place to start.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.