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.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

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