The UK needs to rethink its local taxes. It’s time for land value tax

We’re saying nothing. Image: Getty.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley on the future of property tax.

Last week Chris Williamson left the Labour frontbench after he suggested changes to council tax that are not Labour Party policy. Jeremy Corbyn was right to ask for Williamson’s resignation: shadow ministers floating policy ideas that are not part of their briefs, particularly in relation to taxation, is a recipe for chaos. However, the question of how we should reform local taxation is something the Labour Party needs to consider.

Council tax is fundamentally flawed. For a start, taxing people based on the notional value of their property in 1991 is absurd. Indeed, even calling it ‘their’ property isn’t quite accurate, given the tax is paid by the occupier not the owner – so poor tenants living in expensive properties pay more than richer homeowners whose property is worth less.

Council tax bands have never been revalued, so billionaires living in multi-million pound houses pay the same amount as middle-income homeowners. The most expensive property sold in the UK in October last year went for just shy of £16m in Westminster. The cheapest was £18,500 in County Durham. The owner of the Westminster property would pay just £250 a year more in council tax than the owner of the County Durham property. Council tax bands can’t be varied individually either, so if a council wants to raise taxes on the most expensive properties it must raise taxes for the cheaper ones as well.

There is nothing progressive about council tax. It’s time we scrapped it, along with stamp duty and business rates, and replaced it with a fairer system.


In 2015 I led an investigation for the London Assembly into Land Value Tax (LVT). This led to the Tax Trial report which called for the mayor of London to be given the power to trial LVT in part of the capital. LVT is a tax on the annual rental value of land in its “optimum use” (as defined by a public authority).

Unlike council tax and business rates it is not a tax on the property that sits on the land. It is paid by the land owner, not the tenant, and applies regardless of whether the land is developed or not. It is not only a source of taxation but a disincentive for landowners to “land bank” sitting on undeveloped land and waiting for its value to rise.

Since 1995, the value of land in the UK has risen by 544 per cent whereas the value of the buildings sitting it has only risen by 219 per cent. And the value of land is largely determined by its location, not by any effort on the part of the landowner – a point made by Winston Churchill, a proponent of LVT, in 1909:

“Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived.”

When the state invests large sums of public money in a project like Crossrail, land values rise along the route. LVT would allow some of that rise in value to be recouped by the taxpayer.  

Some of the same problems with council tax would apply to LVT: for example, what about homeowners who are asset rich but income poor? I’m convinced that a more progressive system could be constructed to allow people to choose whether to defer their payments until they sell their home, and most people wouldn’t be paying any more than they currently pay annually in council tax in any case. 

What LVT would do is generate a lot more revenue from very wealthy landowners such as the Duke of Westminster who can afford to contribute more. Surely that’s a proposal that everyone in the Labour Party can get behind?

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.