Opinion: Land is theft

landIn ‘Why Wealth can’t be Taxed’ it was alleged that a mansion tax is illiberal. However, as a liberal, I am concerned for the state of the property market in the UK. The average age of the first time buyer is now 35.

Housing is a policy that has been forgotten, with health and education becoming the areas of priority. However as liberals, we can address the state of housing through taxation, for I would say that ‘land is theft’. There is too much concentration of power in the hands of the few. Land Value Taxation is a key to addressing this.

The Liberal Democrats ALTER (Action for Land Taxation and Economic Reform) state that Land Value Tax:

“… [s]hould replace some existing taxes. It should not add to the overall tax burden, its purpose is to shift tax away from income taxes.”

Our 2010 General Election manifesto stated that our pre-election pledge to increase the income tax personal allowance threshold to £10,000 should be paid for via, among other things, a Mansion Tax. Now, I accept and am proud that the Liberal Democrats are the party of fairness, but my worry is this: is an increase in the income tax threshold enough to show that we really are the party of fair tax as we approach the 2015 General Election? Our tax policy not only needs to have a long-term goal, we also need a short-term strategic plan. If we are to be the party of fair tax, I suggest that we:

  • offer a more radical alternative to the accepted tax arrangements in this country;
  • offer an alternative that is acceptable to centre-left leaning voters (a lot of whom we have lost since 2010); and
  • to be practical – by offering a Land Value Tax, we have a Mansion Tax to fall back on.

I accept that we have made some progress with, for example, a rise in Stamp Duty. Stephen Williams MP, chairman of the Liberal Democrat backbench committee for Treasury matters, has also been calling for the implementation of a full Mansion Tax. Yet during the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne said he “won’t introduce a new tax on property.” The stumbling block has not been our ability to voice our concerns over the issue (there is even a campaign, which you can join here) but of our lack of overall vision for how our tax policy joins up. If we had started negotiations with what we really wanted, then we would always have a poker hand left to play.

A Land Value Tax offers our party a more coherent approach to our taxation policy, as well as an area where we can join with the Labour Party. Those in the Labour Party are already contemplating the tax and it could very well be a key plank of any Coalition talks with the centre-left. Of course, the Labour Party had 13 years to implement such a reform so we must be cautious. Nevertheless, I welcome this opportunity. In a time of austerity and when our campaigners will be met with questions of ‘what have we done for the poor?’, a Land Value Tax would be a credible answer, for it offers both tax fairness and social justice.

But we must go even further than proposals for a Mansion Tax in any future coalition negotiations and commit ourselves to a Land Value Tax.

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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  • The reason so much land is concentrated in the hands of a few is because of the current restrictions on building on that land. I’m not against a land-value tax but the government currently artificially lowers the value of people’s land by placing restrictions on what they can do with it. These restrictions are often centrally enforced (green belt, for example) and this is illiberal.

  • Nicola Prigg 18th Dec '12 - 11:28am

    What do you mean “Land is theft”?

    Who is one stealing from? Also isn’t land not a property of man’s but a property of the Earth and can therefore not be bought and sold.

  • True Liberal 18th Dec '12 - 11:36am

    Thomas – the reason so much land is controlled by so few is because of inheritance. We need to realise inheriting X amount is not just about A giving to B and having the right to do so but it is a decision which has social consequnces and so society has a right to intervene. Time to put a limit on how much someone can inherit.

  • A nonsence headline, though you are making a valid point (badly).

    A Mansion Tax is a terrible idea, if it were to be implemented it would discredit any LVT for the long term. Mansion Taxes distort the market in the same way stamp duty does and with the coresponding adverse complications of adding friction and generating perverse side effects.

    If an LVT were to be implemented it should be done as that not as a flawed half measure (just remember the AV vote).

  • Richard Shaw 18th Dec '12 - 12:45pm

    @ Thomas Long
    “The reason so much land is concentrated in the hands of a few is because of the current restrictions on building on that land.”

    I disagree – restricting what can be built doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer and fewer people will own land. Of the land suitable for development, how much of it is protected from development? The LGA has said that it isn’t planning that’s holding up development – it’s the cost of buying land and developing it plus some developers just sitting on land, speculating.

    A more likely cause of land concentration, as stated by LD ALTER in several pamphlets/publications, is that i) There is no on-going cost involved in buying and hoarding land without putting it to use, forcing land and development prices ever upwards and ii) Those who own land can mortgage against their existing assets to buy ever more land.

    An annual tax/levy on the annual rental value of land imposes a cost on those who hoard land or property, who will then have to either meet the cost by either selling the land or putting it to economic use through housing, industry, farming, tourism, etc. The result will be a lesser concentration of land ownership, cheaper land and house prices and more housing.

  • Paul Pettinger 18th Dec '12 - 1:18pm

    From the community Simon McGrath. God made the land for the people.

  • David Allen 18th Dec '12 - 1:43pm

    “Land is theft” is a great one-liner. It deserves to be remembered. It alludes to very important truths.

    Unfortunately, it also contains implicit gross overstatements and threats. It would suggest that government might validly send bailiffs in to confiscate 6 Acacia Cottages from the evil Muggins family, who have spent a lifetime paying off their mortgage. This is not something with which a political party that needs to retain its voters should want to be associated!

  • Alex,

    in the thread you reference ‘Why Wealth can’t be Taxed’, Geoff Crocker was making the general point that annual Wealth Taxes, do not take account of the timiing difference between unrealised and realisation of capital gains from assets, and may be considered ‘Illeberal’ if such taxation was to force the disposal of illiquid assets such as a personal residence prior to events such as downsizing or death.

    A Richard Shaw notes, a feature of Land Value tax is an annual tax/levy on the annual rental value of land imposes a cost on those who hoard land or property, who will then have to either meet the cost by either selling the land or putting it to economic use through housing, industry, farming, tourism, etc. I would point out though that a great deal of uncultivated/undeveloped land (so called marginal Land) has very little or no rental value and as such would not generate LVT.

    PSi is right to note that “If an LVT were to be implemented it should be done as that not as a flawed half measure” (referring to The Mansion tax proposals that are a sort of half-way house to LVT as AV was to proportional representation).

    The basic economic arguments for LVT are set-out in this 35 minute Australian documentary Real Estate 4 Ransom

    Whether or not Labour advocates of LVT are successful in getting the mearure include in Labour’s manifesto, LVT can be a key ‘differentiator’ between Libdems and Conservatives for the 2015 election, .

    For me, I agree with theFinancial Times Economic commentator Martin Wolf on this issue – ” Land value taxation is a “no-brainer”…It is both fair and efficient. It should be adopted.”

  • Alex Matthews 18th Dec '12 - 2:15pm

    While I agree that the emotionally charged title does this articles otherwise valid point no justice; I implore others to look past that and accept that there is a very real debate to be had here. Now first, for land value tax to work it has to be implemented carefully because unlike a property tax or income tax you are basing the tax on something which has very high variables in its value.

    IE, If I own a small farm, and another owns a small amount of large with a mansion, even if the size of the land is the same, the value of the land is going to be wildly different because we are using the land for different purposes and have conducted different forms of development. Now, you may ask why this is problematic, it becomes problematic because you can have someone with a small shop in central London being taxed more than someone with a large supermarket out in Wales, which seems unfair. Now, I am not saying this means land value tax is a bad idea, I actually do support the premise of land value tax and believe if it is implemented correctly and applied to the right kinds of land, then it will be a far more effective and fair form of tax, it is just worth considering its draw backs.

    Now, what is the advantage of land value tax, well in my opinion it holds two main advantages:

    1=It is much harder to avoid land value tax.
    2=It is generally quite a progressive tax.

    Yet, despite this Land value tax is considered quite undesirable as a policy by most, if not, all parties, so why? I think it suffers from the same problem as say, inheritance tax. Most people do not look at tax in a very logical or positive manner, instead viewing it in a very emotionally negative light which leads them to conclude that any change to tax is a bad thing because they only see more of their personal wealth being taken. It does not matter that taxes like this will have far little to no negative impact upon them unless they are exceedingly wealthy, tax is bad and ‘logically’ change to it is only going to be worse. They are happy with the devil they know so to speak.
    This problem is compounded by the fact that the people who this will have a negative impact upon are generally the wealthiest and most influential so they will fight to stop it with all their might even if they know that their claims are only for personal gain.

  • Alex Matthews,

    The IFS review of UK taxation proposes the conversion of business rates to a site value only base and reform of council tax. Sir James Mirrlees, who led the review, said that his findings showed that the current tax system imposes “unnecessary costs” on the economy.” There is no getting away from the political difficulty associated with some of the proposed changes. But there is also no getting away from the enduring costs of failure to reform,” he said.

    Following the review the IFS has thrown its weight behind the OECD proposals for Land Value Taxation IFS backs land value tax

    You state “Land value tax is considered quite undesirable as a policy by most, if not, all parties,” However, as the aricle above notes there is significant level of support within the Labour party for the concept.

    Andy Burnham based his campaign for leadership of the Labour Party on the back of introducing LVT, describing it as “an idea so ‘old Labour’ it can be traced all the way back to Thomas Paine.”

    Nick Bowles, founder of the conservative think tank ‘Policy Exchange’ is on board. Progressive conservatives should support a Land Value Tax. He concludes “This is very much a policy that ought to be part of any modern, progressive Conservative agenda.”

    Tory Bow Group adviser Mark Wadsworth says, “LVT is an entirely voluntary tax: you decide how much you are willing to pay and you choose a house or flat within that price range. Only, instead of handing over all the rent or purchase price to the owner, the location value would go to the government.”

    The tax justice network (TJN) sets out the case quite well in A tax that can curb corruption and quotes Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times “the case for a land tax is one of the oldest and least disputed propositions in economic thought.”

    The TJN concludes “there is no intellectual argument against this tax that can withstand any scrutiny. What is preventing it being put in place is the pure political power of those who don’t want to be taxed – (combined with the ignorance of voters and politicians).

    The elements are there to build cross-party support. It just needs a leadership bold enough to commit to a determined campaign of public education, particularly among the peer group of the author of this article, who stand to benefit the most from getting our collective houses in order.

  • Alex Smethurst 18th Dec '12 - 3:40pm

    I think a lot of people are getting a bit too hung up on the title. It was a play on words (taken from the libertarian slogan ‘taxation is theft’ and the socialist slogan ‘property is theft’.

    Never judge a book by its cover. It’s just a title…

  • Alex Matthews – “you can have someone with a small shop in central London being taxed more than someone with a large supermarket out in Wales, which seems unfair. ”

    Au contraire. It seems highly fair. Imagine the stimulus it would provide to places with cheaper land values (i.e. less wealthy areas) if the tax system systematically made it cheaper to set up business there. We talk about rebalancing the economy away from London and the South East – by far the best way to do this is through land value tax.

    The only place that any unfairness creeps in is if the proceeds of LVT are entirely retained locally. LVT revenue from richer areas needs to be spent in poorer areas. The tax should either be collected nationally or (my preference) spread around via a nationally-set redistribution formula.

  • Alex Matthews 18th Dec '12 - 7:40pm

    @Joe, you do not need to convince me of its value, and I know many ‘think tanks…etc’ like it, but maybe I should have made myself clearer, many MP’s/party leaderships consider it to be too risky and ‘not a vote winner.’

    @Duncan, that would indeed be the aim, but you must remember London still needs it shops and businesses, and if you implement this tax badly, it could completely displace them. It is easy for activists to say lets move the businesses away from London, but many businesses would not be able to make such a move, meaning this tax could bankrupt them. Like I said, I whole heartily support the idea of LVT, but I just do not wish to be blind to its pitfalls.

  • “However, as a liberal, I am concerned for the state of the property market in the UK. The average age of the first time buyer is now 35.
    Housing is a policy that has been forgotten, with health and education becoming the areas of priority. ”

    I don’t see any policy outlined in the rest of the article that addresses in any sensible way either of these two opening points.

    Firstly, is it really a problem that the average age of the first time buyer is now 35?
    Remember for this to be a problem, you need to assume that people should own their own homes and secondly that they should be able to do so at some age other than 35. You also need to assume that houses are a commodity that just roll off a production line without any other consequences.

    This leads naturally to consideration of the second point about housing policy. If our expectation is for people to own their own home then what does this mean both for the long term, ie. what do these people get in return for owning a property and how do we enable these people to gain the benefits of property ownership whilst also ensuring that property remains affordable to new entrants to the market? When we have a convincing narrative around housing policy and ownership then it becomes meaningful to discuss differing forms of taxation.

  • I thought “land is theft” made more sense than “property is theft” as you can make your own property but you cannot make your own land. Just by declaring you own it you’re taking it from everyone else.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '12 - 12:29am

    Simon Oliver

    Good article in the Guardian today explaining that most land is still in the hands of the Norman aristocracy following William I’s elimination of the pre-feudal system

    Yes, the Tories claim we should not tax wealth because to do so is to act as a brake on enterprise, we should instead leave wealth untaxed as a reward for the enterprise that created it.

    So here we are, STILL rewarding the enterprise of those Norman robber barons who came across with William in 1066.

  • “London still needs it shops and businesses,”

    If there were no shops and businesses in London surely the value of its land would plummet, and with it any value based tax?

  • Matthew,

    “If there were no shops and businesses in London surely the value of its land would plummet, and with it any value based tax”?

    I spent several years working as a finance director for a retail group with stores and offices in london’s West End and the City and so have hands on experience of managing commercial property costs.

    A very significant proportion of the increased profitability from the higher turnover of retail operations in Central London over regional operations, is absorbed by higher rental costs and business rates.

    In the recent brouhaha over Starbucks tax payments in the UK, little notice has been taken off the fact that a grest deal of the trading and tax losses incurred by Starbucks has been related to the relatively high rental and associated property costs incurred by company owned stores in premium rent areas.

    With an LVT in place, Starbucks could have argued that they paid little in Corporation tax, as so much of their trading income was paid out in rent and the exchequer benefited from the land value taxes it collected on these rents.

    Land value is derived from its potential productive use and location. The imposition of LVT does not change the rental value to the tenant or owner and this ultimately is what determines the Land valuation. LVT is based on rental value. The resale or collateral value of land to the Landowner is affected, However, if land carries LVT, there is a strong incentive on Landholders, who in many cases are also the owners of any improvements on the Land, to ensure that Land is put to good use in their business or rented out as quickly as possible. This enables business owners or Landlords to derive income both to meet any LVT obligations and earn a return on their investment in improvements built on the site.

  • William,

    “I am not keen on the phase “Land is theft” it all sounds a bit too radical for we Brits”

    I would argue that the phrase “taxation of earned income is theft” is equally too radical,

    These phrases get used blandly. Most of us expect to pay for public services through giving up part of what we earn through the ‘sweat of our brows’ and we see it as unfair if others do not contribute proportionally from their income, earned or unearned.

    A fair society is often measured by the level of equality and the statistical measure of equality is the Gini coefficient. You note that “capitalism does not even need land ownership as Hong Kong proves, as all the land there is leased from the government and property and land taxes make up 1/3 of government revenue”

    Yet Hong Kong is the most unequal society in the world with a Gini coefficient of 5.35 (Singapore, New York, Israel, Portugal, Italy and Britain come in from 2nd to 7th in world inequality tables, with Australia, Ireland and Greece making up the rest of the top ten). Hong Kong also has the distinction of being the most expensive property market in the world, while also having one of the largest public housing sectors in the world, with about half the population living in government-supported or -subsidized housing estates.

    Scandinavian countries, Japan, and the Czech Republic have the least amount of inequality. These are countries that have relatively high levels of taxation on income.

    To advance LVT as a basis for taxation we should focus on a shift of exising property taxes (business rates, council tax, stamp duty) to LVT and the equalisation of tax on unearned income and capital gains tax with income tax and national insurance on earnings and profits. I would support a replacement of higher rate income tax with LVT as part of a package of reforms that combined a flat rate income and corporation tax, LVT and consumption taxes as the principal sources of government tax receipts and as a means to reducing inequality.

  • Richard Dean 20th Dec '12 - 11:07pm

    Land Value Tax is Theft.

    Thank you for the nice slogan idea for the future.

    Not that any party that believes land is theft actually has a future. At least not electorally, Millions of people in this country own land. Mostly it’s the land their houses are built on. So you’re telling them they’re all thieves.

    Clever stuff this politics, eh? The party that insults voters the most gets the most votes? I’ll try to remember next time I want to get defeated.

  • I came across this US municipality that has made the switch from property tax to Land Tax only over the course of 8 yearsAltoona property tax bills . Doesn’t seem to have caused any serious hiccups one way or the other.

  • Richard Dean 21st Dec '12 - 10:49am

    That’s an interesting and illuminating article, Joe, thanks. People should read it. It looks like LVT doesn’t do much, has some unintended consequences and has some unintended lack of consequences. Probably the article is not too comprehensive, and perhaps some of the confusion is in the writer rather than in the written about.

    But there’s a bigger difference between here and Altoona. In Altoona, it looks like the tax has been introduced in an open, fair, sensible and non-destructive way. In the UK, LVT is a vehicle for hate, as can be seen from some of the comments on LDV and elsewhere. Hate that looks like it’s fuelled by envy or even greed. One cannot ever support that.

  • I would broadly agree with your comments, Richard.

    Land Value Tax has to be approached from the point of view of what economic benefits it can bring to a modern society.

    The economic theory of the Law of Rents and the agrarian philosophy of the Physiocrats is of great interest to deep thinkers and social reformers, but probably won’t cut much mustard with a harassed general public.

    In a world where governments can drop 10 points in the polls as a result of a ‘Pasty Tax’ or ‘Granny Tax’, presentation is all.

    Some form of Mansion Tax proposal would seem to have popoular support. This is why I think that the introduction of LVT should be limited to two areas

    1. Replacing council tax, business rates and SDLT as Altoona has done.
    2. Considered as a potential alternative to higher rate income tax (i.e. additional LVT only levied on higher earmers and excluding asset rich, income poor households).

    We would need concrete evidence of significant benefits to go any further than this. The experience of Altoona shows as you note “some unintended consequences and some unintended lack of consequences.” Simarly, other jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong, have a relatively high share of taxes raised from property and relatively low share from income. We can learn from the experiences of these places.

    LVT has emough support to make it politically credible for the Liberal Democrats. The OECD is in favour, the IMF is in favour. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is in favour. A report for the Treasury on tax reform, the Mirrlees report, said it couldn’t see any fundamental problems, and that the benefits of the reform would justify significant adjustment costs, and therefore that “the case for a thorough official effort to design a workable system seems to us to be overwhelming”.

    We should do the work required for intoduction in an open, fair, sensible and non-destructive way, as Altoona has done and drop any rhetoric about Land ownership or taxation of earned income being theft.

  • Glad to see this discussion being had in Britain. It is true that some localities here in the U.S. have made the Georgian switch, but they are few and far between. Many state constitutions here actually prohibit LVT and its split-roll likenesses with tax uniformity clauses that call for equal treatment of land and improvements. It will be quite some time before LVT becomes common practice in this country.

  • Is it not inconsistent to complain on the one hand that people cannot buy a house until they are 35, whilst on the other state that “land is theft”? After all, your lamenting the failure of people to own property, yet you fail to see that a tax on property is only going to be counter productive by discouraging land ownership. People invest in property both for emotive reasons and because they see it as a way of ensuring a stable return. If you start to tax property values, house prices are less likely to rise and therefore people are less likely to want to buy a house in the first place, figuring that it would be better to rent than spend thousands extra for no return or a return that is going to be taxed. This will only benefit the landlords who buy to let as it will ensure a nice pool of permanent tenants.

  • Libertine,

    If you look around and see what happens in practice you will see a different picture. As noted earlier in this thread, by William Davison, in Hong Kong all the land is leased from the government and property and land taxes make up 1/3 of government revenue. Yet, Hong Kong is the most expensive property market in the world, while also having one of the largest public housing sectors in the world, with about half the population living in government-supported or -subsidized housing estates.

    That highlighs a Key issue – the distributional impact of property ownership and taxes. Wealth in Hong Kong is concentrated in the hands of the property owning section of society. It is they who generate the land lease rents and taxes that pay for the public housing and subsidized housing estates. More than half of the total income of Hong Kong goes to one-fifth of the households in Hong Kong while the remaining income is shared by the other four-fifth of the households.The wealthy pay most of the tax in Hong Kong. The bottom 60 percent pay no income tax while the richest 100,000 taxpayers (the top 8 percent) pay 57 percent of the total tax burden.

    While Hong Kong’s gross domestic product per head is high at $32,000, the disparity between rich and poor is wide and has become a political flashpoint. More than half of the population earn less than HK$11,000 a month and household incomes have barely increased over the past 10 years, despite a booming economy.

    Many people in Hong Kong would like to buy their own property (even though it all leasehold and will bear property tax) but simply cannot earn sufficient income to do so. In October 2011, Hong Kong’s leader announced it would provide more subsidised homes amid widespread discontent over sky-high property prices.

    The causes of income and wealth inequality in Hong Kong are mult-faceted but include:

    i. The migration of factories from HK to mainland China resulting in a large redundant labour
    force with a low educational level.
    ii. Aging population;
    iii. Unskilled Labour Emigration from mainland China.
    iv. Low taxation and the passive role of government in the economy
    v. Property Speculation; and
    vi. Monopolisation.

    We can see that the tax system in Hong kong, a mixture of relatively high property taxes and low flat rate taxes in income is conducive to wealth creation and a dynamic economy, and does not inhibit property development and investment (as distinct from pure land speculation).

    While there is a certain element of income redistribution by way of subsidised housing, inequality can only be effectively mitigated by investment in educatiion and skills training and a breakdown of monopolies.

    In the UK, the most severe effects of high housing costs are felt at the lowest income deciles. Hence, the ever expanding demand for social housing and growing housing benefit bills. With the exception of – Low taxation and the passive role of government in the economy – we share many of the causes of inequality with Hong Kong.

    One means of mitigation within our control in the UK is the collection of groundrents on commercial and high value residential property by way of LVT, even if we collect only enough to meet the costs of local government services to include developing social housing and local housing benefit payments. The costs of developing social housing and meeting housing benefit payments are highest in the areas where Land values are highest and hence where the greatest level of LVT can be collected.

  • I gave my spiel on Land Value Tax yesterday to the in-laws at our annual Christmas dinner get-together. All tories to a man and most of them have done pretty well out of the housing boom. Surprisingly, I wasn’t forcibly ejected from the restauarant and when it dawned on everyone that their income taxes (especially higher rate) might reduce they began to engage earnesty with the logic of the argument. Admittley, this was after several bottles of wine had been consumed, so I am not sure if my powers of persuasion would be quite so effective on the sober or outside of this little circle of high rate tax payers. It is however illuminating how people will engage when it becomes clear that for the great majority of median income taxpayers there is nothing to fear and much in the way of economic efficiency to be potentially gained from LVT.

  • Northern Scot 22nd Jan '13 - 11:27am

    Will all the party’s MPs be supporting the Second Reading of Caroline Lucas’ private member’s bill on 25th January 2013? She is seeking to have Parliament introduce Land Value Tax, and was supported by Adrian Sanders and Martin Horwood when she introduced the Bill last June http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm120625/debtext/120625-0002.htm#12062515000008

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