Opinion: A Mansion Tax to replace higher rate tax?

Mansion tax is not Land Value Tax, but it is a place to start down the road to shifting a significant part of the tax base from income to wealth.

There seems little argument that mansion tax would be a more effective method of taxing non-resident Non-Doms who acquired over 60% of the properties valued at over £2m in recent times.

The inequalities in wealth in the UK far outstrip inequalities in income. The top 10% of households own more wealth than the rest put together: 0.3 per cent of Britain’s population owns 69 per cent of its land.

The HMRC report on the yield from the 50p tax rate indicates there are approximately 300,000 taxpayers with income over £150,000. The total income of these top rate taxpayers is circa 100 billion. There is every reason to believe that the same taxpayers own much of the high value property in the UK. Higher rate and additional rate taxpayers constitute about 15% of total taxpayers.

HMRC statistics indicate that approximately £60 billion is raised from higher rate taxes. Basic rate taxpayers pay a combined rate of tax and national insurance of 32%; higher rate taxpayers 42% and additional rate taxpayers 47%.

Combining basic rate income tax and national insurance into a single tax rate of 32% on income would leave an additional 10% or 15% of income to be recouped from higher rate and additional rate taxpayers. How might this be achieved with a mansion tax replacing higher rate income tax?

The simplest method would seem to be to take the top 15% or so, by value of properties (as an approximation of the current population of higher rate taxpayers) and apply a flat rate to the value (in excess of the threshold) that equates to the tax shortfall from setting income tax at a flat 32%.

Alternatively, a graduated rate could be applied, with a higher rate on the top 1% to 2% of properties to maintain a differential, as now, between the two higher rates.

France imposes an annual levy of 0.25 per cent on any property valued at more than €1.3m and 0.5 per cent over €3m. This is applicable to all property no matter what the residency status of the owner. The Italians charge their residents 0.76 per cent on the value of any property that they own overseas. Denmark has a land tax at the local level.

The arguments for a mansion tax in place of higher rate income tax include less opportunity for artificial tax avoidance and a more equitable distribution of the tax burden, in relation not only to income, but also to wealth.

As regards asset rich income poor taxpayers like retirees and farmers – my view is that those with income below the current higher rate threshold should be relieved from the tax (excluding Non-Doms). I feel it is inequitable to roll up such taxes until disposal or transfer at death.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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  • Alex Sabine 18th Apr '12 - 1:28pm

    The fallout from the budget over the ‘granny tax’, charitable donations, conservatory tax, caravan tax and (most absurdly) ‘pasty tax’ is a potent reminder, if any were needed, that revenue-neutral (and indeed any far-reaching) changes to the tax system inevitably create losers as well as winners, and that the voice of the losers is heard loudest even when they are vastly outnumbered by the winners.

    To point out this universal law of budget changes is emphatically not to say governments should give up on pursuing tax reform. On the contrary, our creaking tax system urgently needs radical reform to raise the necessary revenue equitably at a lower economic cost. But governments would be well advised to tread more carefully and purposefully through the minefields! In particular I would suggest:

    – Reforms need to be systematic rather than piecemeal, so that there is an overall package which has a clear and coherent rationale and which can be explained and defended on that basis. Piecemeal tinkering with no clear roadmap from year to year makes it easier for lobby groups to organise and demand that special privileges be retained or extended, doesn’t deal convincingly with complexity (and in some cases makes it worse because of the tendency to compensate losers in ad-hoc ways), and often leaves governments taking a lot of political pain for footling changes that are of no budgetary significance.

    – As an extension of that last point, if you are going to do tax reform, be ambitious and make sure it is worth the candle. So, to take one relevant example, it is unlikely to be worth a Chancellor’s while making a few small tweaks to VAT while keeping in place the vast majority of exemptions, zero-rated items etc, since he will not plausibly be able to claim a real simplification and won’t raise much revenue, but will attract ire for each particular change and plenty of anomalies will remain (eg caviar being untaxed while pasties are taxed). By contrast a sweeping base-broadening reform of VAT that had a clear intellectual rationale and dealt with the major anomalies would (a) be a genuine act of simplification which would improve economic efficiency and (b) raise a lot of revenue that could be used to reduce the rate of VAT while also compensating the poorest households in better-targeted ways than exemptions from VAT.

    – Measures need to be properly thought through, not thrown in at the last minute in a feverish atmosphere of pre-budget coalition horse-trading (as happened with the tycoon tax which was apparently the inspiration for the caps on tax relief introduced in the budget, and in the previous budget with the hike in tax on North Sea oil and gas extraction). A more open budget planning environment (but not one conducted by politically motivated leaks to the media designed to manage expectations or stake out the coalition parties’ bargaining positions) and more substantial pre-legislative scrutiny would help here.

    Two points on presentation:

    – While simplification is desirable and important, ministers should not hide behind this when pushing through tax rises while trumpeting the tax cuts in the (vain) hope that people won’t notice where the money is coming from – this practice, beloved of Gordon Brown, just undermines credibility and trust. The fact that there will be losers needs to be openly acknowledged and justified in the context of the wider case for the reforms. To believe this is impossible is to condemn us to treating as sacrosanct one of the most complex and burdensome tax systems in the developed world, with all the inequities as well as inefficiencies that it involves.

    – One of effects of leaking almost all the details of the budget (and many of these leaks seem to have come from the Lib Dem camp) is that the media, and to some extent the public, discount the popular stuff like raising the personal allowance and all the attention focuses on the few bits that haven’t been leaked. Scouring the Red Book for the hidden ‘stealth taxes’ becomes the name of the game for the media. Even from a narrowly political standpoint, this is poor expectations management: surely it would make more sense to leak more of the bad news, and then the good news would be the story… Better still, end the pretence of budget secrecy but also stop leaking like a sieve; instead institute a more open budget planning process as mentioned above.

  • Sage words Alex.

    “..our creaking tax system urgently needs radical reform to raise the necessary revenue equitably at a lower economic cost.” This is a common refrain among many commentators. The Mirrlees Tax Review, has furnished a platform for just such a fundamental reform program.

    Mirrlees main recommendations are:

    Taxes on earnings
    · Merge income tax with employee (and ideally employer) NICs
    · End the opaque practice of tapering personal allowances and move to a transparent,coherent rate schedule
    · Introduce a single integrated benefit, getting rid of the very highest effective marginal tax rates (90% and more) faced by some low earners
    · Strengthen work incentives for those whose youngest child is of school age and for 55- to 70-year-olds relative to others
    Indirect taxes
    · Remove nearly all the current zero and reduced rates and, where possible, exemptions from VAT. Introduce a comprehensive package compensating the less well-off on average whilst maintaining work incentives.
    · Retain a destination basis for VAT while ending the zero-rating of exports
    · Introduce a tax equivalent to VAT on financial services
    · Replace council tax and stamp duty land tax on housing with a tax proportional to the
    current value of domestic property, to stand in place of VAT on housing
    Environmental taxes
    · Introduce a consistent price on carbon emissions, through a combination of extended
    coverage of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and a consistent tax on other emission sources. This would include a tax on domestic gas consumption.
    · Replace much of the current tax on petrol and diesel with a national system of congestion charging
    Taxation of savings and wealth
    · Take interest on bank and building society accounts out of tax altogether
    · Introduce a Rate of Return Allowance for substantial holdings of risky assets (e.g. equities held outside ISAs, unincorporated business assets, and rental property) so that only ‘excess’ returns are taxed
    · Tax capital income and capital gains above the Rate of Return Allowance at the same rate schedule as earned income (including employee and employer NICs), with reduced rates for dividends and capital gains on shares to reflect corporation tax already paid
    · Maintain and simplify the current system of pensions taxation, ending the excessively
    generous treatment of employer contributions and replacing the tax-free lump sum with an incentive better targeted at the behaviour we want to encourage
    · At least remove the most obvious avoidance opportunities from inheritance tax and look to introduce a comprehensive lifetime wealth transfer tax
    · Tax capital income and capital gains above the Rate of Return Allowance at the same rate schedule as earned income (including employee and employer NICs), with reduced rates for dividends and capital gains on shares to reflect corporation tax already paid

    Business taxes
    · Introduce an Allowance for Corporate Equity into the corporation tax to align treatment of debt and equity and ensure that only ‘excess’ returns to investment are taxed
    · Align tax treatment of employment, self-employment, and corporate-source income
    · Replace business rates and stamp duty land tax on business property with a land value tax for business and agricultural land, subject to confirming practical feasibility

  • Alex Sabine 18th Apr '12 - 3:53pm

    Joe’s proposal to replace the higher rates of income tax with a variant of the mansion tax, thus creating a single rate of personal tax of 32% while shifting the tax burden of wealthier people onto their assets, has some clear attractions. It is certainly a more plausible way of giving effect to the slogan ‘tax wealth, not income’ than simply introducing a mansion tax while not cutting high marginal income tax rates, which seems to be the preferred option of many Lib Dems (who seem to want to increase taxes on *both* income and wealth at the top end rather than shifting the burden in a pro-enterprise direction).

    I have expressed some reservations about various so-called ‘wealth taxes’ in previous posts. For one thing, there isn’t a simple ‘income good, wealth bad’ distinction to be drawn. Since the key to greater prosperity in the long run is saving, investment and asset ownership, we don’t want the tax system to penalise these things in the name of cutting taxes on earnings simply because this puts money in the wage earner’s pocket in the short run.

    Remember that the key reason why capitalist economies have generated rising prosperity over time has been the accumulation and increasingly productive use of capital, which increases real wages; and this likely to make a bigger difference to the average person’s lifetime living standards than tax changes designed to boost take-home pay.

    Thus I don’t share the widespread Lib Dem enthusiasm for high capital gains taxes, although I do accept we need a backstop to the income tax system to prevent the conversion of income into gains; nor do I like the pejorative references to affluent savers ‘salting their money away’ as if there is no link between the level of savings and the level of investment in the economy.

    I’m certainly not keen on a generic ‘wealth tax’ of the kind the Wilson government tried to introduce in the mid-1970s – but failed to do so because of the nightmarish administrative complexity and legal challenges it would have given rise to. A wealth tax in this sense is, as Wikipedia tells us not inaccurately: “generally conceived of as a levy based on the aggregate value of all household holdings actually accumulated as purchasing power stock (rather than flow), including owner-occupied housing; cash, bank deposits, money funds, and savings in insurance and pension plans; investment in real estate and unincorporated businesses; and corporate stock, financial securities, and personal trusts”.

    A tax of this sort couldn’t fail to damage the incentives for wealth creation. Indeed, more generally it needs to be appreciated that you won’t encourage wealth creation and investment through high taxes on investment returns (whether capital gains or capital income). Really, if greater economic welfare is what we are after, we want to lighten the tax burden on both income and capital, while shifting the burden onto land and resource use.

    For this reason, I do think that property – or more specifically the land it sits on – is a different case, because here we are talking about a finite resource which gives rise to economic rents. Therefore I think there is a good case in principle for a land value tax, and if one can’t be designed in a practical way (the Mirrlees Review was inconclusive on this, although it did suggest replacing business rates with a LVT) then a flat-rate tax proportionate to property value would probably be a good proxy.

    However, it should be part of an overall rationalisation of the taxation of property in the UK, not tacked on as an addition to council tax, business rates and stamp duty. Stamp duty in particular is a badly designed tax and should go as part of a wider reform of property taxes, and a decision also needs to be made about whether property taxes are best suited as the principal source of finance for local government or as national taxes which can be used to finance reductions in (national) income and capital taxes.

    I also think the intellectual case for taxing only ‘mansions’ is pretty weak. If it is desirable to tax property wealth more and income less, then surely it must be desirable whether the properties are worth £250,000, £1m, £2m or £20m. If the argument is that we already do tax lower-value property (sort of) through council tax but that the most expensive properties are undertaxed, then surely the answer is a combination of revaluation of the housing stock (which needs to happen anyway) and changes to the rate structure of council tax, not tacking on a special tax for big houses with its own system and costs of collection.

    In Joe’s case there is, ironically, more logic in the mansion tax than in official Lib Dem policy, since the reason these high-value properties would be specially targeted for a tax hike would be that many of their owners would be benefiting from a big cut in income tax and the revenue to pay for this would need to be levied at a national level. But if a more broadly-based national property tax proportionate to house value was set at the right level the extra revenue generated relative to his proposal could be used to reduce his flat rate of income tax at the same time or further raise the personal allowance, thus compensating middle earners for any extra property tax they would be paying with lower taxes on income and savings.

    The other problem with the mansion tax is that by setting a threshold of £2m, it allows wealthy people to accumulate a portfolio of expensive properties each of which individually is below the threshold for mansion tax. It seems Chris Huhne’s collection of properties is one such example of where no mansion tax would be payable, so you can imagine what fun the media would have with that!

    In any event, a mansion tax or other new property tax should only be introduced as part of an overall rationalisation and clearing-up of the way we tax property, not as an expedient to bash the rich. In fact in overall terms the UK does NOT tax property lightly compared to other countries, but we do tax it in particularly inefficient and (in the case of council tax) regressive ways, and it is this that needs addressing in a comprehensive root-and-branch way.

  • Alex Sabine 18th Apr '12 - 4:22pm

    Thanks for your summary of the Mirrlees review Joe. I’m persuaded by about 80% of their recommendations and I agree they – and not existing party policy – should be the starting point and benchmark for serious tax reform debate in the Lib Dems and elsewhere.

    The recommended change to corporate taxes – equalising the tax treatment of debt and equity finance – makes a lot of sense and I’m interested in their Rate of Return Allowance which exempts all normal returns from tax and above that taxes gains and earned income alike. Hard to argue against broadening the VAT base on economic grounds (ours has far more exemptions and zero-rated items than many other countries) although I suspect that one will be a very hard sell no matter how intelligently it was packaged and the losers compensated.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Apr '12 - 9:14am

    Remember that the key reason why capitalist economies have generated rising prosperity over time has been the accumulation and increasingly productive use of capital, which increases real wages; and this likely to make a bigger difference to the average person’s lifetime living standards than tax changes designed to boost take-home pay.

    But that is not what we have been seeing in recent decades in the UK. Instead, capital is being sucked unproductively into rising house prices. Despite the tax regime having moved in the way you say will boost productivity and living standards, for most people living standards have risne little in recent years, the peak period for growth was in those decades when taxes were higher. So what you are arguing has been tested and found not to work.

    Whether it would work better were taxes shifted onto unproductive capital gains and income is yet to be seen. The big problem is that if such things are suggested there are screams of anguish from the political right, who use the argument that they are an attack on enterprise and ownership. I would like to see some honest debate on this. What proportion of capital gains tax is really a tax on enterprise and what proportion is a tax on being lucky enough to own assets which make money for you while you sit and do nothing? The argument that the trustafarian should enjoy large dollops of untaxed cash because that rewards the hard effort of his or her ancestors which built it up seems rather weak to me.

  • Michael Seymour 19th Apr '12 - 10:11am

    Mansion tax is an ill thought out idea. I live in an area which was regarded as a slum when I first moved in 1963, it is now regarded as one of the most expensive areas in London. The value of properties have risen exponentially in the last 20 years, it is now largely occupied by the rich and super rich, many of whom are foreigners who don’t pay taxes here. As a retired person my income, which is made up by the State Pension and what is now a very modest private pension, is £12,000 a year after tax. most of this goes on rates, utilities and a very modest life style. If I’m going to be penalised by this ill thought out additional tax I may be forced to sell.. Well I hear people say, ‘why don’t you sell and move to a cheaper area?’ I don’t want to, this is the area I’ve lived in most of my life. Who would I sell to? The rich and super rich. I see this idea as as a deliberate attempt to favour those people, whilst penalising the the less well off. If the tax was based on income it would make sense. Why punish people like me? This is plainly a Conservative idea heavily supported by Nick Clegg. If this goes through I will never support the LibDems again.

  • Richard Dean 19th Apr '12 - 10:36am

    Wealth is not measured by how many mansions a person owns. Other forms of wealth include ownership of shares, debt, and intellectual property. So the first and obvious comment is that a mansion tax does not achieve the objective of taxing wealth. Instead, it will perhaps reduce the resale value of mansions.

    As an alternative, how about a liquid asset tax, so that people who keeparge amounts of cash not working are penalised? Or another alternative, an income tax rate that increases with wealth, or with unproductive asset wealth, so that people are discouraged from investing in unproductive assets like personal mansions?

  • Matthew,

    The last 15 years has seen a succession of unsatisfactory reforms to the taxation of capital gains. The Mirrlees review makes the following recommendation:

    “The taxation of saving should treat different forms of savings in broadly comparable ways, should not introduce important incentives for individuals to consume earlier rather than later in their lifetimes, and should not have effects that are unduly sensitive to the rate of inflation. Significant reforms are needed in the UK to reduce arbitrary differences in the tax treatment of different assets, to exempt from taxation, as far as possible, the normal return on savings, and to make the system inflation-proof. Getting the taxation of saving right is also important in ensuring that the personal and corporate tax systems line up.

    These goals can be achieved by an approach that taxes only ‘excess’ returns, and which exempts from taxation the component of income and capital gains earned on savings that corresponds to a risk-free or ‘normal’ rate of return—for example, that paid on medium-term government bonds. Our main recommendations for reform would accomplish this by making interest on ordinary bank and building society accounts free from taxation, and by providing a ‘Rate of Return Allowance’ (RRA) for substantial holdings of risky assets such as equities, which can provide higher returns. For simplicity, we would retain a tax-free treatment of the returns from smaller holdings of equities and mutual funds, along the lines of UK equity ISAs. As well as being more efficient than the current system, reducing tax distortions to the timing of consumption, we believe these proposals would also make it fairer. The current tax system treats most harshly those assets that are most important to individuals with smaller amounts of savings, particularly interest-bearing bank and building society accounts. More favourable tax treatments are provided for pension plans and owner-occupied housing.”

  • Michael,

    The above proposals for mansion tax would apply to higher rate taxpayers only. Anyone resident in the UK for tax purposes, with income below circa £42.5k would not pay any mansion tax at all – no matter how much their property was worth.

    Rich and super-rich foreigners who were not resident in the UK for tax purposes would pay the mansion tax regardless of declared income.

  • Richard,

    It is true that wealth is not solely held in property, but a very substantial proportion of UK wealth is held in this form. It is difficult to impose a wealth tax on moveable assets and probably not desirable to impose taxes on pensions funds, where much of the type of assets you describe are held.

    For these practical reasons, immoveable Land and Property offers the best opportunity for devising a wealth tax that is equitable, not economically damaging and not subject to easy avoidance.

    If a property tax helps to subdue the tendency to house price bubbles in the UK, that will be of benefit to the entire economy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Apr '12 - 3:55pm

    As a retired person my income, which is made up by the State Pension and what is now a very modest private pension, is £12,000 a year after tax. most of this goes on rates, utilities and a very modest life style. If I’m going to be penalised by this ill thought out additional tax I may be forced to sell.. Well I hear people say, ‘why don’t you sell and move to a cheaper area?’ I don’t want to, this is the area I’ve lived in most of my life

    If you live in a house worth over two million pounds then you could very easily pay such a tax through an equity withdrawal scheme and live there for the rest of your life. Indeed, those proposing such schemes have said they should be accompanied by a state guaranteed equity withdrawal scheme which guarantees people like you are in no danger of losing the house they have lived in all their lives.

    But do you not care at all for the next generation who are not in the fortunate position to have been able to buy when property in that area was cheap? What about those brought up as children in that area, growing up wanting to live in their own home area and raise a family but finding they just cannot afford to buy?

    A property tax will help bring down house prices by making home ownership a less attractive “investment”. If people who just buy up houses not to live in them but because it makes more money through capital gains than anything else find that is no longer the case, they will stop putting their money that way and put it somewhere else – it would be nice if it was investment in industry to get this country back working instead of thinking we can all make a living out of selling our houses to each other. This madness of so many people thinking house price rises are somehow a magic money-making machine, so much of our economy based on the supposition they will go on rising forever, so much brainpower which is spent on house purchasing and related trades rather than on more productive enterprise is at the root of the economic crisis our country is in. The inaffordability of housing for so many, the misery it causes when people desperately try to get it by bidding more than they can afford, the misery and family breakdown caused by that and by people squeezed up in too small accommodation because they can afford no better, the people living in situations of abuse because they cannot afford to move out – all that, you care nothing about? No, your attitude is a dismissive “I’m all right Jack” one – accompanied by this completely false claim that this tax would force you out of your home.

  • Matthew,

    I would not support a mansion tax on basic rate taxpayers, whether funded through an equity release scheme or rolled-up to be paid when the property is sold or demised.

    The economic utility of a home to its occupier does not change significantly, simply as a result of an inflationary rise in market value over time. The state can adequately capture taxation on the increased in value of such properties, when a bequest is made from the estate at death.

    As to your other comments on the need to dampen house price inflation and the imperative for a redirection of the economy to more productive enterprise, I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Apr '12 - 4:55pm

    Joe, the utility of a home does not change just because the state has an equity share of it in lieu of property payments. Its owner is still free to live in it and enjoy it just as much.

    I’m afraid when we are seeing so much suffering, so many cutbacks due to the state not having the income it needs to provide the services people demand from it, it seems to me to capture much more of the money that sloshes around due to inflated house prices is the fairest way to pay for it, much fairer than taking income tax or sales tax from people who are struggling to get by. The biggest insult of all is that thanks to the council house give-away of a generation ago, and the huge rises in house prices more and more people are having to be housed at huge expense to the taxpayer in private rented housing, a big state handout to people whose main qualification is being rich enough to have been able to get into the buy-to-let lark. So people who can’t afford to buy are paying for people who can afford to buy more than they need, who are making even more money due to the rise in house prices blocking people from buying – profit three ways round.

    I would prefer a more thorough-going property or land tax than the “mansion tax”, and for such a tax to be balanced by needs based allowances. The great problem is the misleading screams of anguish such a thing will generate as it has done even with this tiny step towards it of the “mansion tax”, while those, the bulk of the population, who would benefit from it remain silent because there is no-one to put their point of view or even to educate them into seeing how beneficial it would be for them.

  • Matthew,

    Housing is both a consumption good and an investment good. The consumption value of housing to its occupier is relatively static even as the investment increases in value.

    A case can be made for taxing capital gains on a principal private residence over and above a normal rate of return, such as the ROI from a medium term government bond. Such a reform would certainly reduce the relative attractiveness of residential housing as an investment versus other types of saving and the propensity for housing bubbles in the UK.

    However, to impose a tax before a gain is realised or inheritance tax is levied on an estate, would, I feel, be difficult to justify unless the tax is related to income level and replaces other taxes on income.

    The incidence of taxation is only part of the solution to over-priced housing in the south-east and south-west. Liberalising planning regulations to the extent that housing supply can be matched to the growth in households is just as important in dealing with this serious ongoing problem.

  • Alex Sabine 19th Apr '12 - 8:43pm

    Henry Law: Indeed. That is why I’m attracted by a land value tax but not a ‘wealth tax’. However the bottom line is that tax is a necessary evil, and so we have to find the least damaging and most equitable ways of raising a given amount of revenue.

    The Georgist idea that all existing taxes can be replaced by a land value tax is, I’m afraid, utopian while we continue with anything like the current size and scope of government activity.

    Nonetheless we can make some quite radical changes that would rebalance the tax burden as between labour and capital on the one hand and land and resource use on the other. My point was that the Lib Dem enthusiasm for heavy taxation of capital ignores the vital role of saving and investment in economic prosperity.

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