Nicola Sturgeon today announced the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for the remainder of this Parliament. It contains a proposal for a new Land Reform Bill as well as a Succession Bill and a review of the Council Tax. Announcements of further proposals are expected in the consultation paper to be published next week.

After a decade of absence, it’s great to see the land question back on the political agenda. This is an important, substantial and meaningful set of proposals. Taken as a whole, they will hopefully shift the baseline of the debate – that is to say the set of assumptions and norms that have too often been taken for granted and in which politicians have too often been reluctant to tackle.

In the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, Scottish Ministers argue that,

The relationship between the people living in Scotland and the land of Scotland is of fundamental importance. Our aim is to move the debate on land reform from one focused on historic injustices to a modern debate about the current balance of land rights in Scotland and how this can be managed to best deliver for the people of Scotland.”

Amen to that.

Scotland comprises its territory and its people.

How land is owned, used and governed is vitally important to the wellbeing and prosperity of all who live in this country – in particular to those who, because of inflated land values, cannot afford the basic human right of a home. For far too long, the ownership and control of Scotland’s natural resources have been in the hands of a small elite. Their political influence has been such that reforms that would, in any other European country, be regarded as normal, have been dismissed as extreme or an unjustifiable attack on property rights.

As for the proposals themselves, they represent a suite of important reforms.

Topics to be included in the Land Reform Bill include:-

Withdrawing the non-domestic rates exemptions for sporting estates

Sporting rates were abolished by the Conservative Government in 1994 and the non-domestic rates (NDR) on over 90% of Scotland were abolished back in the 1950s. It is clearly inequitable that, whilst the corner shop, the pub and the hairdresser all pay NDR, the multi-million pound assets outside the villages and towns of Scotland pay virtually none with all “agricultural” land (including sporting estates and woodland) removed from the valuation roll altogether.

One of the bizarre consequences of this is that there are Danish landowners who own large areas of land in Scotland who pay land taxes to their home municipalities in Denmark to pay for nice kindergartens for their children. They are asked to contribute no such levies to Scottish local authorities for equivalent services for their employee’s children here.

Powers for Scottish Ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership and land management decisions are a barrier to local sustainable development

With such a concentrated pattern of private landownership (432 landowners own half of the privately-owned rural land in Scotland) and such an open and unregulated market, it is inevitable that there will be situations where the public interest should intervene. This can be because of local monopolies (where one owner owns most or all of the land in or around a settlement) or where there is a history of neglect and bad practice affecting tenants and others in the community.

A new duty on charity trustees to consult with local communities where decisions on the management and use of land may affect a local community

There are large estates in Scotland that are currently owned through charitable companies (such as Mount Stuart Trust on Bute and the Applecross Trust in Wester Ross) that were set up decades ago to avoid tax. Often they are run by the same family that once owned them and who appoint their friends as Trustees. The local community has no right to join as members and has no legal right to have any stake in the governance or management of the land despite receiving substantial tax benefits through charitable status and non-domestic rates exemptions.

A new Land Reform Commission to develop the the evidence base for future reform, to support public debate and to hold this and future Governments to account

Land reform is a topic that has been neglected for some time. It is also a topic that cuts across many areas of public policy such as housing, fiscal policy, regeneration, community development, agriculture, forestry etc. it is to be welcomed that the Scottish Government is willing to appoint a Commission to “hold this and future governments to account”!

A land information system to provide transparent, comprehensive and freely available data and information on the ownership, occupation, value and use of land

Scotland has a wealth of data on many aspects of land but they are disparate, costly to get hold of and difficult to interpret. Explore the Cadastral portal for the state of Montana to see what a modern land information system should look like.

Other reforms include:-

A review of the land and property tax that affects most people – the highly regressive council tax

The announcement of the long awaited reform of the council tax is welcome. To many people this might seem a totally separate topic but houses sit on land and how that land and property is taxed has a significant impact on perhaps the most important land market to most people – the housing market.

This regressive tax should be replaced by a far more progressive and equitable framework based on the findings of the Mirrlees Review Chapter 16 chaired by Sir James Mirrlees – one of the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers. Whilst no legislation is envisaged this session – a cross-party review will examine alternatives and report by Autumn by 2015.

The modernisation of succession law so that all children are treated equally when it comes to inheriting land

This reform has been resisted by the landed class throughout the whole of the 20th century. Read Chapter 28 in my book, The Poor Had No Lawyers and today’s blog by Lallands Peat Worrier In 1964, when Scotland finally got rid of primogeniture, Lord Haddington and other railed against reform arguing in the House of Lords that

By assimilating heritable property, which from time immemorial has passed under the law of primogeniture, with moveable property and dividing it equally among the intestate’s next of kin, you are striking at the very roots of Scottish traditions and undermining the whole fabric of Scottish family life.”

Of course it only undermined the traditions of the lives of the aristocracy – particularly by discriminating against women. That Scotland should only now be catching up with the reforms that swept Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution over 200 years ago says much about why we need such reform!

A Harbours Bill to provide a revised legislative framework from one of Scotland’s oldest forms of social enterprise – Trust Ports

Increasing the Scottish Land Fund to £10 million from 2016-20 to meet demand

Implementation of the recommendations of the Agricultural Holdings Review Group which is due to publish it’s final report in January 2015

A full consultation will be published next week and it is expected to propose additional reforms that require further work before they can be framed as legislation.

This is a very substantial package of measures. A lot of work lies ahead to bring them all to fruition and they will be opposed every bit of the way by powerful vested interests

Much more information will be published next week when the Scottish Government publishes its full consultation together with an important statement on Land Rights Policy.

Meanwhile everyone who believes that the land of Scotland should be owned and used in the public interest and for the common good should take the time to understand the issues at stake, participate in the consultation and make Scotland a country where land is owned and used for the many and not the few.

The comedian and TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones is reported today to be ready to quit the UK in protest at plans by the Labour Party to introduce a mansion tax if it wins the 2015 General Election. As the Telegraph reports,

He himself lives in a “gigantic” house in a part of central London that was, when he bought it 15 years ago, a “slum”. He has a track record of buying large, run-down properties and turning them into homes for himself and his wife, Jo. His Fitzrovia house has appreciated so significantly that he is contemplating moving overseas if Labour win the election and introduce a mansion tax.

“It would mean I’d be paying the most colossal tax, which is obviously aimed at foreigners who have apparently come in and bought up all the property in London,” he says. “That sounds about as fatuous an idea as that immigrants are stealing all the jobs. I’d probably go and live abroad because I could get some massive palace which I could restore there.”

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the mansion tax. This, from the Chief Executive of Legal & General, is typical.

“People who choose to prioritise buying a home have typically made sacrifices to do so: fewer foreign holidays, meals out or other luxuries. Through no fault of their own, their prudence would be punished by a Mansion Tax.” (Telegraph 27 October 2014).

The idea that folk who own houses worth in the millions have made sacrifices, saved hard or been prudent may well be true (at least for some). But that sacrifice, saving and prudence is not what has been responsible for their homes being worth so much money. The inflated price of houses in many parts of the UK is a consequence of scarcity and a lax fiscal regime. The financial gains made by homeowners are only in very small part due to their own efforts (for example, insulating or other improvements). The vast majority of the gains are as a consequence of rising land values.

Labour has yet to spell out the details of its plans but they involve a levy on properties worth over £2 million. Ed Balls announced the policy in an article in the Evening Standard on 20 October 2014. The Financial Times calculated that on average, the owners of properties worth over £3 million would pay an average of £19,000 per year.

Griff Rhys Jones and his partner Joanna own 2 Fitzroy Square (shaded red above) in the London borough of Camden. They bought the property for £1,450,000 in 1998 after Camden Council granted planning consent for a change of use from offices to a residential home (see Land register title). The couple then undertook the renovations and the property is now a domestic dwelling with 7 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and 4 reception rooms.

Image: Extract from Title Plan for 2 Fitzroy Square.

According to Zoopla, the property is currently worth £7,012.156 and has risen in value by £3,015,251 over the past 5 years. The rental value is estimated at £16,167 per month (£194,004 per year). Rhys Jones currently pays £2640.96 in Council Tax to Camden Council.

Assuming that £1 million was spent undertaking renovations, the Rhys Joneses have seen their property rise in value by around £4.5 million. That sum is unearned increment (economic rent in economic theory) and, since principal residential properties are exempt from capital gains tax, the gain is entirely tax-free. This tax relief is worth an estimated £10.4 billion per year to homeowners according to the National Audit Office.(1)

Successive governments have put in place a fiscal regime for domestic property that allows Rhys Jones to make a £4.5 million tax-free capital gain without any effort on his part.

A sensible system of recurrent taxation would be designed to curtail such asset inflation by socialising this rent rather than allowing it to be appropriated tax-free by private interests. The mansion tax is a badly designed tax. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies commented in February 2013,

Rather than adding a mansion tax on top of an unreformed and deficient council tax, it would be better to reform council tax itself to make it proportional to current property values.”

If property taxation was properly proportional and the Rhys Joneses paid the percentage rate (1.85%) that a mid-point English Band D property is liable for, then they would be paying £129,724 per year. The Mansion tax is liable to be about a tenth of that.

That kind of liability would deter most buyers who, as a consequence would offer less for the property so as to pay less in annual holding costs – which is precisely what a well-designed system of recurrent property taxation would do. Lower property prices means less indebtedness and more resources invested in the productive economy. But that is not the kind of economy that either Labour or the Tories appear to be interested in.

In the meantime perhaps Rhys Jones should be grateful.

NOTES

(1) See Figure 6 in Tax Reliefs.

 

SInce 2010, I have been ( like a couple of my self-employed writer/activist colleagues George Monbiot and Alastair McIntosh) making an annual declaration of interests, income and tax. Previous declarations can be found at the foot of the About page.

Commentators, campaigners and advocacy groups should be open about their interests and income (this story from earlier in 2014 is a good example of why I believe this to be so). I also believe that we have too much secrecy in the UK on matters of income and wealth and that if everyone’s income was openly declared, there would be much less inequality. This is not an especially radical idea. In Norway, details of every citizen’s income, assets and the tax they pay are available to the public and published on this website.

As a member of the Scottish Green Party, I also feel obliged to comply with the policy resolution passed at the 2011 Conference on Tax Evasion and Avoidance which encourages corporations and individuals to not use tax havens and to publish their accounts on a country by country basis.

2013 INCOME

I ear my living from writing, research, consultancy, public speaking, investigation, and subscriptions from the whoownsscotland website. For 2013, my income was as follows.

GROSS INCOME (1)     £ 32,485

LESS COSTS (2)           £ 8,228

TAXABLE INCOME (3)  £ 24,257

My total taxable income was £25,021 on which I am due to pay tax of £2,963.40 and Class 4 NI contributions of £1,485,18 = total of £4448.58 (see tax HMRC calculation here)

During 2013 all of my income was generated from within the UK. My main clients were NGOs, renewable energy companies, civic bodies, one political party (the Scottish Green Party), print & broadcast media and royalty payments on my books.

DECLARATION OF INTERESTS 2 NOVEMBER 2014

I own no land or property.

I have 483 shares in Standard Life.

I am on the Board of Directors of the Caledonia Centre for Social Development (Company No. 192099 & Scottish Charity No. SC 028485).

I am currently advising the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.

I am a member of the Scottish Green Party and a number of charitable bodies.

I currently provide ad-hoc unpaid advice to three political parties – the Scottish Green Party, the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party.

I do not make use of any tax havens or artificial accounting structures to conceal my income.

NOTES

(1) Gross Income is the total of all income received. This includes re-imbursment for travel costs etc.

(2) Costs are all expenses such as computers, travel, stationery, telephone, research fees (for example, search fees paid to Registers of Scotland) and other expenses of employment.

(3) Taxable income is Gross Income minus expenses and is the profit figure on which tax is calculated.