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Comment: Bob Mowat

Why Burt’s local tax plan needs to be implemented

Bob MowatThe Scottish government is currently seeking views to be put forward to the Commission on Local Tax Reform, established earlier this year. Co-chairman Marco Biagi, MSP, has stated that: “The Scottish Government believes the current council tax system is unfair and we are acting . . . to look at alternative approaches to local taxation.”

I can’t believe that anyone would argue seriously that a property tax based on valuation figures – which are almost 25 years out of date – could in any way be described as “fair”, or that it should be retained in its present format.

Council tax is recognised as being regressive in nature, with Band A taxpayers paying one-third of the Band H payment level, despite the threshold being about an eighth.

What, then, to do?

In 2006, a committee chaired by Sir Peter Burt prepared a report for the Scottish Government entitled A Fairer Way. This examined the whole range of local taxation options open to the government of the day, with clear recommendations.

In the words of Kenneth McKay, who acted as a specialist adviser to the Burt Committee,  “they did a very, very good piece of work and it was rubbished the day before it was published”.

What was this piece of work, and why was it ditched? The answer to the second question is that no-one seems to know. The first bit is easier.

Having looked at the possibilities, the committee took the view that a tax based on domestic property remained the appropriate one for local tax purposes. Burt proposed a replacement for the council tax based on the capital value of a property, on a straightforward percentage of value.

If 1% was to be the percentage then, in a straightforward fashion, if a house is worth £100,000 the tax is £1,000 and at £250,000 then it’s £2,500. Simple, really.

This is not a “progressive” tax basis, as this would mean increasing the percentage levels as values went higher, but it is proportionate, in that everybody pays the same tax level on their housing “wealth”.

Burt examined simply re-jigging the council tax, but found that, to get anywhere near an equitable position, the number of Bands would have to be at least 42, and the alphabet just can’t cope.

This style has the benefit of being easy to understand and, as with council tax, relatively easy to collect – as, while people move, property doesn’t.

My only real concern is that, with “exact” values, there may be some daft ideas about billing. If a house is sold for £199,995, does a bill get sent out for £1999.99? And, if so, what about the instalments? I’d suggest some form of minimal “rounding” down to the nearest £25/£50/£100, depending on at what level the tax was being levied.

At the time, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy effectively endorsed the findings of Burt and, only last month, Centre Forum, in a paper entitled Moving Beyond Mansion Tax; a fair and efficient property tax regime, reached much the same conclusions, albeit based more on an economic argument than straightforward property valuation.

It would seem sensible for the Commission to take a good hard look at the work undertaken in the past and, from a valuation perspective, there is no good reason why the Burt findings should not be put in place. There will, of course be winners and losers – there always are. But are the losers actually those who have been winners since 1993?

The Scottish Government has taken the first stage decision. It then has to show the political will and determination to put a new system in place. Finally, and this is not the least of the issues to be confronted, it has to decide exactly how “local” they want local taxation to be.

If it’s to be a truly local tax, then each local authority should be entitled to set its own level of tax. The public also needs to be aware that “local” tax funds only 20% of expenditure, with the vast majority coming from external funding sources.

It seems sensible to have a proposal in place before next year’s Scottish elections which would, at the very least, give voters an option.

Bob Mowat is a consultant specialising in rating in the Edinburgh office of DM Hall chartered surveyors.

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