These five maps prove it’s time to reform council tax in England

Bristol, where homes are probably quite under taxed. Image: Matt Cardy/Getty.

As local authorities set out their budgets for the year, council tax is set to rise in many regions across England. Councils in Lancashire, Coventry, Cornwall and Surrey, among others, have agreed to hikes of up to 4 per cent.

But while council tax will be crucial to help local authorities absorb cuts from central government, there are serious doubts as to whether the levy is fit for purpose.

First introduced in 1993, council tax is imposed on properties to help pay for local services, council wages and administration. In general, how much council tax people pay depends on which “band” their property falls into. These bands are allocated by property value, ranging from A (the lowest value) to H (the highest value).


But here’s the catch: in England, council tax bands are still based on property values from 1991.

I decided to map out the differences between 1991 council tax valuations and today’s house prices, to see whether the tax is as regressive and arbitrary as some suggest.

The big housing boom

Let’s begin with some numbers. If your house was worth £50,000 in 1991, and its price had risen with inflation, it would now be worth about double that.

If this had occurred uniformly across the country, it wouldn’t be a problem – but we all know that this didn’t happen. Instead, house prices rocketed, particularly in London and the south-east. For example, in 2014 the average price in Burnley was £85,000 (up 166 per cent since 1995), while in Kensington and Chelsea it was £1.2m (up 558 per cent).

The fact that some prices have risen more than others is a major issue, because it means the amount we pay in council tax is increasingly detached from the relative value of our properties. In other words, those whose properties have risen disproportionately in value are paying less than their fair share of council tax.

House Price Growth, 1995 to 2014. Source: ONS.

Looking at average house price growth in the top and bottom 25 local authorities in England since 1995, we can see that prices have gone up across the board – but there is now a much bigger gap between the richest and poorest areas.

With a little help from colleagues at the Consumer Data Research Centre, I mapped out the differences between house prices and council tax bands. Below, I have shown the biggest council tax band for each area in the borough, alongside a small inset map showing average house prices. Both maps are coloured according to the 1991 council tax banding.

Council tax bands vs house prices, 2015 (Islington). Source: Valuation Office Agency/HM Land Registry/author provided.

Starting with the London borough of Islington, we can immediately see that the variation in council tax bands sits in stark contrast to today’s average house prices. In 1995, the first year data are available for, the average house price in Islington was £105,000. By 2014 it had reached £533,000. Most properties in Islington belong in the top band of council tax – but, according to the data, there are no areas where more houses fall under band H than any other category.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is also the case across much of London.

House prices by council tax band in London, 1995-2015. Source: HM Land Registry/author provided.

In more rural locations, such as West Oxfordshire, the contrast between council tax bands and current house prices is not as stark. But the variation is now very much out of line with the original 1991 valuations: some areas have gained value more quickly than others.

Council tax bands vs house prices, 2015 (West Oxfordshire). Source: Valuation Office Agency/HM Land Registry.

To take two contrasting examples from elsewhere in England, we can look at Cornwall and Liverpool. In the former, the purchase of second homes has driven up house prices, so much so that the council removed the 10 per cent discount for these properties in 2013, following a change in government regulations.

Council tax bands vs house prices, 2015 (Cornwall). Source: Valuation Office Agency/HM Land Registry.

Meanwhile in Liverpool, where around 60 per cent of properties are in the lowest value band A, the current variation in house prices is also out of line with the 1991 bands. House prices have risen much faster in some areas than others, particularly in well-connected, inner-suburban areas such as Mossley Hill and Aigburth. The effect – as noted by the New Policy Institute – is that “as time goes by, council tax becomes ever more arbitrary”.

Council tax bands vs house prices, 2015 (Liverpool). Source: Valuation Office Agency/HM Land Registry.

When you look at these maps, the absurdity of continuing to use bands set in 1991 is pretty obvious. Naturally, it raises the vexed question of what should be done.

Well, we could re-value properties and introduce new bands, like Wales did in 2005. Or, as in Scotland, we could pursue more radical change. There, ideas for reform include property revaluation, a land value tax, and even a local income tax.

Personally, I would favour some form of land value tax, as proposed by leading economists such as Dame Kate Barker and Joe Sarling. But of course this brings its own set of challenges: for instance, unfairly taxing the Islington resident who had the good fortune to buy a house there in 1991, but who lives alone and never seeks to benefit from the value of the land or property.


At the very least, a widening of the bands at the top and bottom to reflect the growing gulf between the richest and poorest areas (and the residents' ability to pay) would be a start. With detailed data on house prices, and the technology to crunch complex datasets, this should not be an insurmountable problem. The bigger issue is that, politically speaking, such reform is “dramatic and unpopular stuff”.The Conversation

Alasdair Rae is senior Lecturer in urban Studies & planning at the University of Sheffield. He tweets as @undertheraedar.

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

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.