Prospects for Land Value Taxation in Britain

Tony Vickers, January 1, 2003

It is not surprising that proposals for land value taxation (LVT) should elicit strong reactions in public debate. Land, taxes and information are a combustible combination, but they are critical to our political system. Without land we cannot live; without taxes we cannot be governed; without information about land and taxes we are powerless to change the way we are governed. Although Britain has not confronted basic land or tax reform in recent years, there are several signs, outlined below, that this is changing, and such changes can open the way for renewed attention to LVT initiatives.

Increasing Awareness of the Tax Burden

There is now widespread acceptance that Britain taxes jobs and enterprise far too much. In 1997 the European Commission (now known as the European Union) asked its 15 member states to produce employment action plans, including proposals to relieve the burden of taxes on employment. In 1999 British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder issued a joint statement that said, “. . . overall, the taxation of hard work and enterprise should be reduced.” Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party manifesto in 1998 called for a “major tax shift off people and on to pollution and resources.” Across the political spectrum consensus is building for a shift in the tax burden.

Devolution and Constitutional Reform

The United Kingdom is in the midst of far-reaching constitutional changes involving elections by proportional representation, which almost guarantee coalitions and make continuity of policy more likely. The number of voting hereditary peers in the House of (Land) Lords has been reduced from 400 to fewer than 100. Unlike a century ago, the Lords can no longer block an elected government with a mandate to introduce LVT or other land reforms. Although Britain still has one of the most centralized governments in Europe, Scotland and Wales now have considerable autonomy through their elected Parliament and Assembly.

Northern Ireland also has an elected Assembly, and land policy there is arguably more forward-thinking than on mainland Britain, with integrated ministerial responsibility for maps, land registers and property valuation. By 2007 there will be a fully electronic, map-based comprehensive land register and up-to-date property assessment. Uniquely in the UK, residential areas will be assessed through computer-aided mass assessment (CAMA) techniques imported from the U.S.

Scotland can vary income tax by up to 3 percent and can choose the tax base for its 28 local authorities. There is a much better understanding of LVT in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, and the Scottish Executive has promised to initiate a thorough study of the economic implications of LVT before the next elections in 2004.

London now has its own devolved regional government, the Greater London Assembly, with an elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, who has become keenly interested in the potential of land values to fund transport infrastructure. The mayor’s transport commissioner, American Bob Kiley, is even more interested and has gone on record saying LVT might have a role, and not just in transport funding. There is currently a lively political battle concerning the London Underground, addressing who pays for investment and who benefits from it, which may provide a context for considering the role of LVT.

In most of the UK, however, local government is still a creature of the central state. Seventy percent of local government revenue comes directly from central grants, and over 90 percent of local expenditure is constrained by directives from the central government.

Advances in Geographic Information Technology

There have been amazing changes in information technology since the last thorough review of local government finance in Britain, in 1975. Then, base map information was held on a quarter of a million glass plates that were only revised on a 10- to 25-year cycle, using manual cartography, steel tapes and parchment paper. Now the entire national mapping system is computerized, using satellites, hand-held field data recorders and Internet map access. The Ordnance Survey MasterMap data structure recognizes land and building parcels and can hold attributes as diverse as height, material of construction, value and ownership. It is updated on a continuous basis and can incorporate pre-build and historic information. In 1975 the map archive occupied a large four-story building; now it fits on just eight CD-ROMs, covering every building and land parcel occupied by 60 million people.

All of these advances could assist the introduction of a tax based on land value, although there are serious institutional problems in getting all agencies that would be involved in LVT to apply the technology fast enough. However, the government has a target of enabling all information-based functions to be delivered electronically by 2005.

Unpopularity of the Uniform Business Rate

The uniformity of taxation in Britain is reflected in the name of the nonresidential property tax: Uniform Business Rate (UBR). At the end of the 1980s, local councils lost the power to fix the rate of the tax, and with it any direct financial connection with their local business communities. The central government at Whitehall decides what each council will collect from its business ratepayers, and how much each council retains, which can be substantially more or less than is collected locally. All that remains is some discretion over businesses exemptions, at the expense of local residents. No wonder that a recent government study showed a deep disdain for local councils among business owners and huge ignorance by both business and councils about their respective roles and problems.

Because this tax is based on occupancy and not on ownership, vacant and underused land largely or wholly escapes taxation. The UBR is regarded as a most regressive tax, accounting for up to one-third of the turnover of the smallest independent traders but only 3 percent of turnover of large multiple stores. My research has found UBR to be extremely unpopular: it penalizes success and fails to compensate for harm done by irresponsible neighbors. So this is another factor in the return of interest in LVT. As others have noted in recent years, the replacement of UBR, in part or totally, with a site-value-based tax would most likely be an extremely effective policy for urban renewal.

Business Improvement Districts

BIDs are coming to Britain after years of use in the U.S. These special districts allow commercial and office sectors to raise funds through property assessments for maintenance and improvement of their neighborhoods. But the only tax currently proposed for BIDs is a supplement to the occupier-based UBR. The business community does not like this idea, and LVT campaigners are now working with others to persuade prospective BID partnerships to consider assessments on owners and also to press for the creation of new tax powers.

LVT supporters propose that if a large majority within the BID support such measures, the BID should be able to compel all owners in the district to pay them; free-riders should not be allowed. The idea, known as “Smart BIDs,” is to support the BIDs with taxes on owners rather than business rates, and perhaps even to reduce the UBR rate within Smart BIDs.

Environmental Concerns

Current interest in LVT in Britain was boosted by an Urban Task Force report and formal support for LVT pilot projects by Friends of the Earth (which has more members in the UK than the Liberal Democrat Party) and the Town & Country Planning Association. These environmental organizations are interested in taxation as a tool for sustainable development, and such concern will only grow in the future. People in Britain will recycle even if it costs them time and money to do so. The same concern for the environment will increase acceptance of LVT when it is understood as a means of keeping towns and cities viable and protecting the countryside.

Practical Administrative Considerations

Two surveys of the town of Whitstable by Hector Wilks in 1963 and 1973 support the view that LVT presents fewer assessment difficulties than do traditional rating systems. Recent advances in computerized assessment systems make LVT more feasible than ever before. My own preliminary studies of other countries that use computerized assessments, especially Denmark and Australia, show that the overall cost of property tax administration is far lower there.

Denmark’s property tax, with annual revaluations, costs 20 percent less per property than Britain’s. When I visited Denmark last year, I found an extremely efficient property tax system tapping into land values in a modest way. Tax administrators told me that, aside from the environmental benefits of the tax, the greatest interest came from Treasury officials concerned about the growth of offshore tax havens. They are attracted to LVT because it costs very little to administer and there is virtually no possibility of avoidance or evasion.

If a British government were inclined to switch to LVT, it would not find any insuperable problems within our highly intelligent and incorruptible valuation profession. We have a professional, politically independent agency for conducting property tax assessments and the best national mapping agency in the world. It is simply a matter of exercising political leadership.

The Way Forward

In addition to supporting Smart BID pilot projects, my personal list for projects to help realize the potential of LVT includes:

  • updating basic economics courses and making them available on the Web;
  • implementing exchange programs between relevant tax professionals in Britain and countries with LVT;
  • developing easy-to-use value mapping tools;
  • studying the links between planning and LVT;
  • comparing compliance costs of LVT and other taxes;
  • developing indicators of the economic impact of LVT;
  • monitoring public perceptions of land and tax issues over time and across countries; and
  • providing more accessible nontechnical publications about LVT. These are.

The subject of tax reform is one of the most important issues of our age and political environment, and after years of neglect LVT is being considered in Britain again. The Lincoln Institute’s sponsorship of work by many LVT thinkers, writers and researchers in Britain and elsewhere has been instrumental in advancing public awareness of and professional appreciation for the potential benefits of LVT.

Tony Vickers recently completed a David C. Lincoln Fellowship in Land Value Taxation at the Lincoln Institute, and this article summarizes his Founder’s Day lecture on the topic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 2002. Vickers is the former CEO of the Henry George Foundation in London, and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the School of Surveying, Kingston University, London.