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Debating a possible mansion tax

There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.

But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?

The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?

One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.

Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.

With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.

The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.

The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!

Articles
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)

Data
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)

Questions

  1. Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
  2. What forms can a tax on wealth take?
  3. How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
  4. Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
  5. Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
  6. What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
  7. What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
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