Air Departure Tax Post-Brexit

“We haven’t commissioned to the best of my knowledge any independent research of our own. If committee wishes me to look at that, I will certainly consider that absolutely.” – Derek Mackay on the Government’s (lack of) analysis into the proposed ADT cut.

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The Scottish Government put out a call for evidence for their proposal to cut and eventually eliminate air passenger duty (or, as it’s now going to be known, Air Departure Tax).

Common Weal duly obliged and updated our previous work on the topic to account for the impact of Brexit. You can read the new report here or by clicking the image above.

It’s just as well that we’ve done this as it has since been reported that the Government itself has done precisely zero economic analysis of the impact of the tax cut and, as it turns out, our report is the only economically based submission which is against the tax cut (The RSPB have submitted an objection on the grounds of a very well founded environmental impact analysis). More than half of the other submissions and the bulk of those in favour of the cut are from companies and groups within the airport and airline industry. There is a great deal of concern that unless the government does pull its weight and do the maths itself then this policy could pass through simply on the say so of those who stand to benefit directly from the tax cut and at the expense of those who will lose out due to the impact on tourism and the lost revenue to public services.

Preface and Key Points below the fold.

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We Need To Talk About: Defending Currencies

“Whenever politicians and rulers, from Nero onwards, interfere with monetary arrangements for political ends, disaster follow.” – John Chown, A History of Monetary Unions.

Currency remains one of the great potential uncertainties surrounding the debates about Scottish economics and independence. Last year I published the various options facing an independent Scotland along with the merits and demerits of each. Having selected as the preferred option an independent £Scot initially pegged to the Pound Sterling, Common Weal subsequently published a detailed plan on how precisely to go about making this currency a reality. Rather pleasingly, the news this week coming from the Scottish Government’s Growth Commission hints that they are looking at things from very much the same point of view as we have and may well be coming to the same conclusion.

The main lesson of discussion about currency options is that all of them have their disadvantages along with their advantages and one of the primary disadvantages of this option lies in the peg to Sterling, particularly if it is to be maintained beyond the transition and launch period of the new currency. There could be the potential for the international speculative market to mount an attack on the currency in order to knock it out of the peg (as infamously happened to the Sterling in 1992 when it was knocked out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism). A discussion of the likelihood of this happening and how one can defend against it is therefore required.

As with many things of this nature, the detailed study of this kind of thing can run rather to the technical (the links there are made available for those who wish to study them) so I’ll attempt to break it down into something a little more accessible.

What Makes a Currency Vulnerable To Attack?

The entire purpose of a currency market is to allow that market to determine the most efficient price of the currency. This is generally only considered an attack when the currency is pegged to another. When the currency floats, a market driven price movement is considered the entire point of the exercise. This is part of the reason why “Black Wednesday” came close to bringing down the UK government whereas the 2016 Brexit devaluation was much less politically damaging despite being a larger depreciation in percentage terms.

So why attack a currency in the first place? There are multiple reasons but they essentially boil down to one. The peg is perceived as being “wrong” for the currency and the economy it supports. Either it is over or under valued. Usually it is the former as politicians tend to link a “strong” currency to national pride cases of undervaluation such as in China or Germany do exist (It should be noted that neither of these economies are under serious speculative attack at present).

Assuming an overvalued currency, the attack generally takes place by speculators “short selling”, or “shorting” the currency on the markets. To do this, they will borrow a great deal of the currency at the overvalued rate and sell it on the foreign exchange markets. This floods the markets with supply of the currency and depresses the price. The speculator can then buy back the currency he sold at the new lower price, pay off the loan and pocket the difference.

Before an attack happens though the speculators need to be sure of one of two things. Either A) The country under attack lacks the will to defend the currency peg or B) It lacks the tools to successfully defend against it. If the attack fails, then the speculators could be out of pocket to a very significant degree. Whilst George Soros infamously made off with £1bn in 1992, there are reports that he had to borrow some £6.5bn to do it. He was sure of his bet and it certainly paid off for him that time, but that’s still a big gamble to take and lose.

How to Defend a Currency

An attack can be defended in one of two ways (or a combination of both). First, the Central Bank can raise interest rates to discourage further borrowing of the currency (if interest payments on the loans exceed the expected gain, speculators will back off) and to encourage investors to start buying currency at the same rate as it’s being sold (so they can benefit from the increased returns on the interest). Or Secondly, the Central Bank can sell foreign reserves and buy their currency back themselves to limit supply and force the value back up. If they do this until the attackers themselves run out of the ability to borrow more of the target currency then the attackers give up and take the losses. (For an undervalued currency, the tools are used in the opposite direction as China is currently doing)

The third option is to consider both the economic and political situation and decide that if the currency really is mis-valued and that the political cost of unsuccessfully (or perhaps even successfully) defending the currency is too high then the defence simply isn’t viable. In this case the peg is dropped and the currency is intentionally allowed to revalue.

Herein lies the risk for Central Banks. The cost – which can take the form of higher interest rates, higher inflation, depleted national reserves, lower GDP and higher unemployment – of unsuccessfully defending the currency may be much higher than not defending it at all but not defending may carry a higher cost than a successful defence.

It is important to note that the failures to defend a currency are often higher profile than the successes which, by their nature, do not generate so many tabloid headlines or history books. At least one study has noted that of the 163 speculative attacks identified between 1960-2011, 42 were not defended against, 34 were defended unsuccessfully and 87 were successfully warded off.

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Charts from S. Rebelo, (2000)

To look at the 1992 Black Wednesday example caused when the GBP dropped out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The ERM (which was the precursor to the Euro) essentially pegged member currencies to the German Deutsche Mark. The value at which the GBP was pegged on entering – 2.9 DMK/GBP – was considered far too high and opened the road to the infamous speculative attack. The Bank of England responded by raising interest rates from 10% to 15% on the day of the attack and they sold £4bn worth of reserves (almost £8bn in 2017 pounds and about 1/3rd of what they had in reserve at the time). This turned out to be insufficient and the peg was eventually abandoned. The exchange rate fell to 2.413 DMK/GBP and the GBP fell out of the ERM. Papers released from within the BoE in the years since have mulled over the impacts and costs of their defence strategy, the causes of its failure and whether or not it was worth mounting in the first place.

Is Scotland Vulnerable?

So would this apply to Scotland in the event of our independence? There’s never a certainty with these things and the state of the international money markets are that size of one’s economy is probably no sure defence against all possible attacks (short of erecting massive capital controls and isolating Scotland from the global trade market, but this too carries its own consequences). However, I do believe that Scotland would be less vulnerable to a speculative attack than some may suppose for the following reasons.

First (and possibly most importantly): If we peg to Sterling then it’ll be on a 1:1 basis therefore will be at the same value that it is currently. To believe that the £Scot is over or under valued is to believe that the GBP is currently, right now, unsuitable for the Scottish economy which begs the question of why we’re even in a currency union with rUK. This may change post-independence as our economies diverge but in that case the question of whether or not to continue that 1:1 peg opens up. I personally think we’ll either float the £Scot or move to some kind of basket peg shortly after the three year transition and launch period but this is ultimately a political decision as well as an economic one and it may be that the option to move away from the Sterling peg is one debated and decided by the second independent Scottish Parliamentary elections. If a party wishes to hold to the Sterling peg (or any other) then it’ll be for them to determine if that’s a viable option and to convince voters of the same.

Second: We’re proposing to hold rather substantially more foreign reserves than the UK holds as a proportion of GDP. We’re looking initially at somewhere between £15bn-£40bn (Common Weal is currently working on a formal paper looking at how precisely we’d generate these reserves though I have spoken about it somewhat here) with options to use the normal tools available to normal, independent countries to adjust this amount as required. Combined with the lower available trading volume of being a smaller currency (one can only even potentially borrow as many £Scots as exist, especially if it is issued solely by the Central Bank) then this should be sufficient to hold off an attack or even just to display that we’d be willing to do so. Combined with tighter regulation and legislation on the financial industry Scotland should present itself to the world as a country upheld by its strong and reliable approach to fiscal and monetary policy.

Third: Interest rates are at an all time low which gives a fair bit more scope to raise them in the event of an attack than was the case in 1992. One has to be a bit cautious with this though as our private debt levels (particularly mortgages) are leveraged to the hilt so there will be severe consequences if this lever is pulled too hard. This said, the low interest rates are also crippling savers, investors and pension holders. They could well benefit from a raised rate such that an “attack” by the market may well come to be seen as a signal to change political and economic policy rather than a simple profiteering exercise by the speculators. As with life, balance in all things is best.

Conclusion

In short, Scotland is probably less likely than feared to suffer a speculative attack on the currency in the short term following independence and more than able to defend against more should it happen, particularly if we keep the heid and approach the separation rationally and in a well planned manner. Beyond this, it shall be a matter of analysing both the economics and the politics of the situation and never becoming too attached to any particular choice so that if a successful defence of the currency can be mounted, it should, if not, it shouldn’t and if a peg should be modified, changed or abandoned then it must.

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The White Paper Project

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” – Alasdair Gray

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Today I get to announce the launch of a very long awaited project I and the rest of Common Weal have been working on for quite some time now. We announced back in September that we have been working on renewing the case for Scottish independence by publishing a successor to the Scottish Government’s “Scotland’s Future” document.

Version 1.0 of the Common Weal White Paper can be download here or by clicking the image above.

This is a leaner document than Scotland’s Future was. That document was as much a party political campaign device as it was a blueprint for independence. It not only sought to describe the powers which would come to Scotland independence but also sought to convince voters of the SNP’s own vision for independence. There was nothing inherently wrong with this latter task per se and other parties too sought to promote their own distinct visions as well – as they will all do so again throughout the next independence campaign but this is not the task of an independence White Paper. This paper shall, as far as possible, not seek to propose a list of policy ideas which an independent Scotland could do nor shall it attempt to convince you of the merits of those policies. It merely lays out the technical and structural requirements which must be in place for Scotland to become an independent country once we, the voters, decide that it should become so.

It is a “consolidated business plan for the establishment of a new nation state”.

To this end, the White Paper is split into several broad sections. Part 1, Process and Structures, covers the foundation of a National Commission – a cross party and cross administration body which will be tasked with designing and implementing the institutions and systems which need to be set up in the time between the independence referendum and the formal independence day. It is one thing to state, for instance, “There shall be a Scottish Central Bank”. It is quite another to decide how large it needs to be, where it needs to be based and who needs to be hired to run it. The National Commission shall also be given interim borrowing powers so that it is able to issue bonds, raise capital and fund the construction of the vital infrastructure Scotland would need to either move from rUK or build from fresh.

Part 2, Key Institutions of an Independent Scotland, covers all those things we kept being asked questions about during the last referendum. Would we have a constitution? A currency? What would we do about borders? Defence? All these and more. Of course it’s not yet possible to answer every question in this regard. Some of it will be up for negotiation with rUK, some of it will be dependent on the shape of the Brexit deal between the UK and the EU and Scotland’s relationship with both in the run up to independence but we’re making a stab at as much as we can and this is the section which will perhaps be most expanded upon as the Project is iterated in future versions.

Speaking of negotiations, Part 3 covers the prospective shape of some of these – chiefly the allocation of debt and assets and what rUK’s response to our leaving shall mean for our claim on them. Also covered to some degree is how Scotland will interact with various international and supranational organisations although it should be stated once again that no case shall be strongly made for Scotland’s joining or refusal to join any of these organisations. That shall be left to the party or parties which seek to form the first independent Scottish parliament.

Finally, Part 4 outlines the position of Scotland as far as finance and borrowing goes as well as outlining as best we can the default fiscal budget for year one of independence. It is, of course, almost impossible to place any kind of actual certainty or promise on such a budget as it is based on several key assumptions such as the desire to keep both public spending and the various tax revenue streams broadly similar to their position at present. If a party decided to scrap the entire tax system and replace it with one of their own devising then it would have to be up to them to explain how that worked and project the revenue to be gained from it and how it would be spent. Other assumptions include Scotland spending the money assigned to it in GERS for various “UK projects” on projects of similar value and in similar accounting lines (so that, to pick an arbitrary example, our “share” of UK economic development funding spent outside Scotland but from which Scotland “benefits” would instead be spent on economic development within Scotland). Again, whether or not this happens will be a case for the individual parties to make and will depend entirely on accurately and precisely how the current fiscal projections for a devolved Scotland within the UK map onto the fiscal situation of an independent Scotland.

Once again, this is not the completion of the White Paper. This is the beginning. You will see that there are several sections which need to be expanded and built upon and items like costs and figures will be updated as time goes on (the default budget, for instance, is based on 2015-16 figures but – as we’ve probably noticed by now – Scotland didn’t become independent in 2015-16 so these precise figures will be revised as and when they should be). Some areas require the attention of people with specific experience and expertise in them to be able to complete so we are openly calling for those experts who are able and willing to contribute. Please contact us if you want to be involved. Let’s work to build the early days of our better nation.

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Beyond GERS

Today has seen the publication of my latest contribution to Common Weal’s White Paper Project. Click here to take you to the launch page or on the image below to take your directly to the paper. Further coverage can be found here and here in The National.

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Preface

GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) 2015/16 reported Scotland’s fiscal deficit to be in the region of £14 billion per year, portraying Scotland as the country experiencing some of the most challenging financial circumstances in Europe.

However, this study must be viewed firmly in the light of Scotland being a member nation of the United Kingdom and, as such, any attempt to use them to project the finances of an independent Scotland must be treated with caution and qualification.

The very act of independence will result in significant redistributions and reallocations of government resources which will likely result in economic benefits accruing to Scotland. Additionally, decisions on how to establish and govern new Scottish state institutions will also improve Scotland’s budget at the point of set-up, further strengthening the fiscal position vis-à-vis that presented in GERS and that of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Key Points

• The act of independence brings with it many structural changes which will significantly benefit Scotland’s fiscal position to the effect of several billion pounds equivalent per year.

• By shifting the focus of defence from one of outward projection and nuclear deterrent to one more in line with modern European nations, savings of approximately £1.1 billion per year can be realised. Even in the event of Scotland committing to NATO member defence spending targets of 2% of GDP, the increased spending within Scotland can be expected to have additional economic benefits resulting in tax revenue increases of around £300 million per year compared to the status quo.

• A reasonable case for the debt and asset negotiations due to independence will result in Scotland saving up to £1.7 billion per year in debt interest repayments.

• The legal requirement of the UK Government to provide the UK State Pension for all those who have met the criteria would likely have to be the subject of negotiation post-independence, but the expectation would be that this would lead to billion-pound savings for the Scottish Government in at least the first year.

• A substantial fraction of unidentifiable spending accounted to Scotland is, in all likelihood, spending to cover UK wide government functions which Scotland may or may not choose to replicate or reproduce in some form post independence. Whilst savings will be made by reason of lower running costs and wages in Scotland compared to London, the additional economic benefits of spending in Scotland instead of elsewhere in the UK could result in additional tax revenues of approximately £719 million per year.

• The opportunity for an independent Scotland to redesign the tax code from the ground up, eliminating built in inefficiencies, loopholes and exceptions will help reduce the “tax gap” by approximately one-third, increasing revenue by about £3.5 billion per year.

• Whilst the UK’s tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is around the OECD average, many countries neighbouring it successfully maintain higher rates of tax revenues which, if replicated in Key Points: Scotland, could further improve the financial situation by several billions per year.

• Even without increasing tax revenue as a percentage of GDP, an independent Scotland could be placed in a position of relative “deficit parity” with the current UK budget.


Regular readers will know now that Common Weal has been very hard at work looking at the issues surrounding the independence debate, especially those arguments which just simply didn’t convince a certain segment of voters. We were all hoping that ‘someone else’ would come along and do this right after the last referendum but, for various reasons, it hasn’t happened. So Common Weal has decided to just roll up our collective sleeves and do it.

We’ve already published a paper reopening the currency debate, debt and assets, a proposal for a National Investment Bank and others. We want to produce further papers on pensions, defence, customs and excise, a detailed paper on the role of the Central Bank of Scotland, and others. All working up to a paper not just showing the limitations of accounting exercises like GERS but doing away with it entirely and building a case for an independent Scottish budget built from the ground up to suit our needs, rather than just being a tweaked version of what the UK does.

We are incredibly under resourced for this work but we think it’s work worth doing.

If you do too, perhaps you’d like to consider a donation to Common Weal to help us on our way: www.allofusfirst.org/donate
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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2015-16 Edition)

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! – To a Louse, Robert Burns

It’s that time again. The annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report is out. Click the link or the image below to read it for yourself.

GERS 2015-16

Actually it seems like only March that the last edition was out. What’s happening here?

Well, there was a consultation that almost no-one knew about which discussed a few methodological changes to GERS in line with the ‘new powers’ we’re getting and it also asked if the next report should be brought forward. I’m completely convinced that the fact that this means that we’re getting the report well before the Council election campaign next year is absolutely just a convenient side effect(!)…but no matter. We’ve got the data.

Tomorrow’s Headline Today

Scotland’s budget deficit remains at a little under £15 billion. As with last year, don’t expect a single news outlet to go one single step further with the story than that. Except maybe to say that oil revenue has dropped from £1.802 billion last year to just £60 million this year.

So what’s happened? Why hasn’t Scotland, which is “totally dependent on oil”, completely collapsed now that oil revenues have basically dropped to zero?

Last year, total revenues dropped by  around £500 million on 2013-14. This year, total revenues have INCREASED by £181 million. In fact, total revenue is higher than it was in 2012-13 when we received some £5.3 billion in oil revenue.

It’s also worth noting that if you only look at GERS 2015-16 then it looks like our deficit has increased by a couple of hundred million in the past year but if you look a bit deeper, and compare the numbers to previous GERS reports then something interesting happens.

In GERS 2014-15 our deficit was recorded as £14.8 billion but in GERS 2015-16 the 2014-15 deficit has somehow dropped by £622 million to £14.3 billion. Essentially, this shows one of the limits of GERS in that it is based on sometimes highly speculative estimates which get revised over time. It may be five years before we finally know the “true” accounts figures for this year. This accounting adjustment is extremely significant compared to, say, our “budget underspends” but unless you’ve read it here I expect it to pass entirely unnoticed.

Now, what about our all hallowed GDP? It’s down by 0.45% from £157.502 billion in 2014-15 to £156.784 billion in 2015-16 (with non-oil GDP having increased by over £2.2 billion, the highest it’s ever been).

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You know, perhaps it’s time we started measuring our economy in terms other than just GDP. We know it’s flawed. We know it throws up extremely strange results like Ireland’s “economy” growing by 25% because a few American companies moved their nameplates around. We know it doesn’t even particularly correlate to things like tax and ability to service debt very well.

Maybe it’s time we started measuring (and taxing) our country based on the things which actually matter.

But back to GERS.

Dutch Disease with Scottish Characteristics

So what’s going on here? Essentially it’s the same pattern first picked up last year. As oil prices drop, so do fuel costs. Which means everything from the costs of transporting goods to the heating and lighting costs for your home drops. This means you have more money to spend in the economy and companies have fewer overheads leading to either greater profits (thus, ideally, more tax revenue) or more room to invest in expansion.

This is a clear demonstration of the so-called “Dutch Disease” where high oil prices choke off the non-oil based economy in the form of the aforementioned fuel costs (it also tends to harden one’s currency but this is less of a factor in the Scottish case given that we don’t yet have one).

At the time of the last report I was criticised for pointing this out on the grounds that the oil price collapse “hadn’t fully fed through” hence I was jumping the gun on the observation. It shall be interesting to see if anyone says the same thing now. Could revenues drop any lower?

This should serve as somewhat of a warning to those itching for the return of high oil prices and certainly for those desperate to “replace” offshore oil with onshore fracking. It’s maybe time to have a good hard rethink about what kind of resources we want to develop in Scotland. Now, to be sure, I’ve nothing against our offshore industry and for those folk out there it’s been a pretty dreadful time. It’s just that, certainly as a Green, I think our offshore industry is on the wrong side of the country and should be based on wind/wave and tide rather than oil. You can be sure that  if the wind and tide stops flowing we’ll be dealing with problems a little bit larger than the state of our finances.

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Scotland’s offshore Wind Power Density map

Sweet Fiscal Autonomy

As mentioned earlier, part of the methodological changes discussed in the GERS consultation was to do with looking at the taxes to be devolved to Scotland under the series of “vast, new powers” we’ve been generously granted.

In terms of actual revenue, chief amongst these is income tax (excluding interest and dividends, the ability to move the Personal Allowance or to adjust the definition of “income”) and VAT (excluding any actual control at all. We’re getting the VAT added to Scottish coffers and then an equivalent amount removed from the block grant. Yay.) along with comparatively minor taxes like landfill tax, aggregate levy and air passenger duty.

In total, the Scottish government will directly receive 40.5% of Scottish revenue (£21.8 billion this year) and, given the limitations on VAT and income tax, have actual, practical control over perhaps half of that. Devolved expenditure, however, will soon sit at 63.1% of total (£43.3 billion). Basically the Scottish government can only directly control enough income to fund perhaps about a quarter of what it’s directly responsible for delivering.

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There’s a side issue in all of this related to that old topic of the budget underspends. Tucked away on page 47 of GERS there’s an interesting line which looks at the confidence intervals for some of the tax revenues used. Remember that the revenues given are estimates and are subject both to revision over time and change due to circumstances that the government cannot control. For example, if you move job half way through the tax year your income, therefore income tax, can change. If your job moves you to England, your entire income tax contribution moves from the Scotland side of the budget to the rUK one. Hence, the total income tax revenue estimate is subject to a margin of error, in this case of 1.0%.

The same goes for other taxes to greater or lesser degree to the effect that the margin of error over all of the taxes measured there is 1.6% or ±£570 million.

Remember that the Scottish Government has extremely limited borrowing powers. It can only “overspend” on the current budget by £200 million in a single year and cannot exceed a total current debt of £500 million. And yet income revenue, on which expenditure must be planned, has a margin of error of ±£570 million.

In the event, this year Scotland’s “underspend” was only £150 million. If you think you can plan a budget better than this then please, send it in. If not, might be a good idea to stop reporting and moaning about underspends.

Paying For It

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Another little line that seems to have been added to GERS this year (on page 37) is a breakdown of the annual costs of financing Labour’s PFI and the SNP’s replacement NPD loans. There’s been a bit of a milestone reached there with the availability costs of PFI now exceeding £1 billion per year or over 15% of Scotland’s total capital budget and slated to increase even further over the next decade unless something is done about it. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a major issue for the council elections next year.

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Of course and once again you wouldn’t know this if all you did was watch our Great British Broadcaster, the BBC. Their recent “investigation” into PFI couldn’t even bring itself to mention the name of the party which lumped this crippling financial burden on us.

Finally

I could go on. We could nip-pick at details like the mysterious addition to the expenditure budget of net EU contributions (there’s always been an annex discussing this but this is first year it has explicitly been counted in a separate line in Total Expenditure) or notice that for the first time in at least five years our debt interest paid has increased as our UK debt increases have started to outweigh the effect of falling bond yields.

It’s all a shell game though. We know that GERS isn’t nearly as important as people hold it to be nor is it nearly as informative as it should be. It’s not going to change many minds on its own nor does it tell us one single thing about the finances of an independent Scotland. If we want to do that, we’re going to need to build a national budget from scratch, taking into account all of the taxes (existing and new) that an independent Scotland might choose to levy. We also need to have a look again at what Scotland actually needs to spend its money on. Could we use Citizen’s Income to create from scratch a welfare system worthy of the name? Would a Scottish Government able to issue its own bonds on its own debt be able to get a better deal than the one we have right now?

Quite simply can Scotland as a nation see ourselves as better than others would prefer us to be seen?

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A Sovereign Currency for an Independent Scotland

As promised, I can finally reveal my work examining Scotland’s currency options going forward into the next independence campaign.

My report has been published through Common Weal and can be read here or by clicking the image below.

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In it I first examine the macroeconomic considerations which go into selecting a currency option, chiefly looking at the interaction between movement of capital, interest rates and exchange rates. It turns out that it is impossible to have full control over all three at any one time so all currency options entail therefore some degree of risk or management requirements including the founding of infrastructure such as a Central Bank. All options have their advantages and disadvantages, their risks and rewards.

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We Need To Talk About: A Negative Income Tax

First up, my apologies for going a little dark on the blog recently. Last month, I promised my thoughts on Scotland’s currency options going into the next independence campaign. That promise has turned into something a little bit larger than expected and will be coming soon. I think you’ll like it.

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Scotland’s Income Distribution 2013-14

In the meantime, I’ve been pondering on some possible options regarding how we could reform Scotland’s welfare system, especially in the light that the UK has been explicitly called out by the United Nations for breaching human rights obligations due to the suffering caused by Austerity, inequality and the unfair and miserly welfare system in which too many find themselves trapped. The use of sanctions has been singled out as particularly cruel with countless cases of hardship and even deaths being directly linked to their use.

Both the Greens and Common Weal have been steadfast supporters of the policy of Citizen’s Income (or Universal Basic Income), a policy which is rapidly gaining traction around the world and is starting to look as if its time has come.

Under this policy the entire welfare system – with all its inequalities, complicated means-tested targeting, exceptions, exemptions, loopholes, paperwork, cheats, dodges, admin errors, fraudsters, bureaucracy and people simply missing out entirely because they don’t know they’re owed money or do but don’t, can’t or won’t claim – is done away with and replaced with a simple, regular payment to every citizen. You can’t claim money you’re not owed (except possibly by claiming for a dead relative or for kids you don’t have) and you can’t be missing out on money you don’t think you’re due. By the way, unclaimed money in the UK welfare system outweighs fraudulently claimed money by more than a factor of 10 and is dwarfed by tax avoidance by up to a factor of 100!

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A Universal Basic Income also gives everyone a stake in the system and a guaranteed safety net if and when it is needed (in much the same way that the NHS is open and free at the point of use even if you can afford private care).

One of the downsides of Basic Income is that it does involve a large amount of money transfers. If we wanted to give all 5.3 million citizens of Scotland a Basic Income of, say, £73.10 per week (~£3,800 per year, the same as the current Jobseekers Allowance) then it would involve a monetary transfer of £20.1 billion per year which is only a couple of billion less than the entire social protection program for Scotland (which, of course, pays out a rather larger sum than £73.10 per week to many people such as pensioners and those with disabilities). Now, of course, this doesn’t imply that Basic Income would cost £20 billion per year. The idea would be that some threshold income would be set above which the income would be taxed back off you until the costs balanced and then onwards till you were a net contributor and helped to fund others (or, as an alternate POV, you were paying into the system to cover yourself for the times when you needed to withdraw). Regardless, the scale of the monetary transfers may be a significant bureaucratic barrier but so is the current piece-meal system that it would be replacing.

I fully support Citizen’s Income as a policy for an independent Scotland but we can’t do it now as we don’t have powers over welfare. I’m not keen on putting grand plans on hold till that day though so I’ve been giving thought to how Scotland could achieve a similar goal of a universal safety net using powers that we have right now. We don’t have power over welfare but do, finally and after great trials and tribulations, have powers over most of income tax.

This led me to thinking about a project advocated in 1968 by the economist Milton Friedman. The Negative Income Tax.

The concept is this. Instead of just having a low earnings threshold below which you pay zero tax (The UK Personal Allowance fulfills this purpose here) why not a threshold below which you receive a tax refund?

In this scheme Scotland could set an income threshold, say £16,500 – the equivalent of a full time job on the Living Wage. If you earn less than that in a year, the difference between what you earn and the threshold could be taxed at NEGATIVE 23%. If you only earned, say, £10,000. You would receive as a stipend 23% of £6,500 which is £1,495. If you earned nothing in the year, you’d receive 23% of £16,500 which is around £3,800 – The same as the current Jobseekers Allowance. The tax rate of -23% was chosen specifically to create that latter situation. One could easily imagine different rates or even a progressive system to cover people who fall seriously below the threshold proportionately more than those who only fall slightly under.

This system wouldn’t be a perfect substitution for Citizen’s Income for a few reasons. Most significantly, it is a lot easier to abuse or cheat the system by under-reporting one’s income, for example. If rates and thresholds are set inappropriately it may also lead to disincentives to work at around the threshold where someone converts from a recipient to a contributor though in the simple scheme proposed here this is less of an issue.

Negative income tax does have an advantage over Citizen’s Income by reducing the volume of monetary transfer though as only those who are earning below the threshold receive the stipend rather than everyone.

So how much would this cost? To find out, I’ve done some modelling using available income statistics, in particular the breakdown of income percentiles for the UK (percentile resolution income data for Scotland doesn’t seem to be easily available. If anyone out there knows of someone who does have it then please contact me, I’d be very interested in seeing it) .

Income Percentiles

One shocking thing about the UK is that the threshold we set, of £16,500 per year (which is, remember, the amount that said to be required to maintain a decent standard of living) is not reached until the 32nd percentile. Almost one in three workers in the UK are not earning enough to live on.

If we now add our negative income tax to this model to see how much a median person within each percentile would receive it looks something like the following.

Change in Income - No UR Tax

Something to bear in mind it this income percentile data only includes people who have at least some kind of earned income. It does not include the unemployed or those who are unable to or are not seeking work, the “economically inactive”. The ONS estimates that these two groups together make up around 21.6% of the UK working age population. If we factor that group into the figures modeled here (and assuming that Scotland’s figures are roughly in line with the UK’s which will be good enough for this back-of-envelope calculation) we can estimate that the negative income tax would cost Scotland around £2.4 billion per year.

This is where things get a little tricky for the policy idea. The obvious answer to meet the costs is by adjusting the upper rates of income tax to render the scheme revenue neutral. The problem is that the UK (and Scotland) are predominantly low wage, high inequality countries. We’ve already stated that if you’re on the absolute basic wage you’re already earning more than almost a third of other workers (and this doesn’t include those earning nothing). If you pay the 40% Higher Rate, you’re in at least the 86th percentile – the top 15% of earners – and if you pay the 45% Additional Rate (assuming you are even taking those earnings as “income” and aren’t transferring money into dividends or using more arcane accounting wizardry to minimise one’s tax bill) then you are in at the very least the top 2% of earners. This doesn’t leave a very large tax base from which to levy the required funds (This was one of the reasons that the policy advocated by the Greens for the return of the 50% rate was based on reasons of income and wealth equality rather than revenue raising and did not make any spending predictions or promises based on additional revenue from this band).

If one DID want to raise income taxes to find the £2.4bn then doing it solely through the Additional Rate simply would not be possible. Even raising it to 95% (and assuming that everyone pays it) would only cover half of that bill. In order to do it with the Higher Rate, both Higher and Additional Rates would need to be raised to a minimum of 58%.

Now, a normal, independent country would not face this problem because it would be able to tailor the other half of the balance sheet as well. If a negative income tax is replacing welfare spending then the welfare budget would decrease and the balance sheet would..well..balance. But in Scotland’s case, welfare is reserved so what becomes a simple exercise in government policy which would pay for itself and hugely benefit the poorest in our society becomes a constitutional question and a financial bung of £2.4 billion per year to Westminster. Whilst we have the “powers” to adjust our tax rates, Scotland just simply does not have the ability to use them in any kind of effective manner. Those who demand that “we use the powers we have” whilst blocking the levers which would otherwise allow us to do so should reflect on their actions and words. I’m thinking particularly of our Secretary of State “for” Scotland, the “Right Honourable” David Mundell who, as we remember, has not only taunted the Scottish Government towards “using our powers” but has also threatened to tax any welfare top-ups the Scottish Government might be willing to grant. I hold no great hope of Westminster’s generosity extending to them returning saved welfare money in order to pay for a negative income tax.

I’m open to suggestions at this point. If anyone can square this circle, please…please tell me. I think I’ve found a policy which, on paper, would be within Scotland’s current powers to implement but I can’t find a way to make it work within the pitiful financial constraints of our devolution. I don’t want to have to “wait till indy” to get some of this vital work started nor am I content knowing that people could be helped but cannot be because of Westminster’s refusal to either do it or to hand over the reigns to someone who will.

This shouldn’t be such a difficult process. Only in Scotland, within the United Kingdom, in the 21st century, where we’re told we’re incapable of governing ourselves, whilst those who say that they can govern stand by and either do nothing or actively work against us, does it become one.

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Paying For It

“I would say is that every public-private partnership in Scotland has delivered new hospitals or new schools in Scotland on time and within budget and that’s the sort of success I want to see in every building.” – Jack McConnell, 2002

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Oxgangs Primary School, 2016. Built by PFI in 2005

The dramatic news from Edinburgh in the past couple of weeks has put into sharp focus the failures of some of the finance models used by our regional councils to build schools, hospitals and other public buildings in recent years. Public/Private Partnerships (PPP), Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) and, less well known, Lender Option, Buyer Option (LOBO) Loans have burdened our councils with near-crippling financial obligations and, as we now know, have too often failed to deliver on even the basic standards of results required. Just what these deals are and why they have been used is a topic which requires a bit of discussion.

PPP/PFI

Public Private Partnerships, of which Private Finance Initiatives are a specific type, are a form of capital investment introduced to the UK in the early 1990’s by Major’s Conservative government as an alternative to tradition procurement methods of the time. In traditional public investment models a local authority might decide to build an asset such as a school itself in a purely publicly funded model or it might contract a private source to build the school and then take over the full running costs of the project afterwards. The Tories were driven by an ideological pledge to reduce the budget deficit (then known by the catchy title of “public sector borrowing requirement“) and identified the use of PFI as a means to do this.

Instead of paying for a project out of the capital budget either up-front or over the span of the construction phase, PFI would spread the costs over a medium or long term contract, often more than 20 years. This reduced the single year outlay and hence massaged the budget figures.

It was under the Labour government though that PFI really took off as it had the advantage of taking capital debts “off-book” and allowed Gordon Brown to simply stop counting them towards the deficit entirely. This gave the illusion of the fiscal prudence on which he banked much of his reputation. This was doubled down in Scotland by Jack McConnell’s Labour/Lib Dem government which led to Scotland, with 8.5% of the UK population, ending up with some 40% of the UK’s PFI funded schools.

The lie to the illusion can be found in the realisation that the private sector doesn’t work for free. These contracts almost certainly mean that the total cost to the council over the lifetime of the council is significantly larger than the up-front capital costs.

PFI

To take a recent example concerning some of the schools in Edinburgh, the private company involved will be paid £12 million per year for 30 years for a project valued at £68 million in up-front costs and an additional £84 million in management costs. Subtracting the running costs, this represents an annualised return on capital investment for the company of 10% per year. For contrast, David Cameron’s offshore tax haven shares “only” earned him about 6.75% per year.

And this doesn’t even represent the worst example of increased costs due to PFI. Contracts worth three or four times the capital investment are common. Some have been found to be worth a staggering ten or even twelve times the total outlay.

It is these ongoing payments which are particularly affecting our own regional councils and the problem is only going to get worse with the peak of the outgoing payments not expected to hit till the mid 2020’s.

PFI

Whilst one of the advantages of PPP’s often touted is the obligation for the private company to maintain the asset over the lifetime of the contract this can be a double-edged sword. One of the other “advantages”, mentioned in the UN ESCAP video above, is the “realisation of private sector efficiency savings”. That can mean “cutting-corners” to you and me. If the company is required to maintain a school for only 30 years but is then free from that obligation on year 31 then the inducement to build to the minimum possible standards to see out that contract is strong. Indeed, there is some anecdotal eyewitness evidence that exactly this has taken place. Schools which, by today’s standards are insufficient but which nonetheless stood for more than 100 years are being replaced with buildings designed to last less than a quarter of that and, has been seen, sometimes don’t even make it that far. This is not “long term planning”. It is certainly not helped by the generally low standards of our building regulations. A private company will rarely build at anything other than barely above the minimum legal standards so if we’re going to continue involving “the market” in our infrastructure projects then we’re going to need to have a discussion about increasing those standards to something more suitable for the 21st century. Whilst PFI specifically may have been abandoned in Scotland, this discussion over standards remains.

LOBO Loans

Lender Option, Buyer Option loans make up a far smaller proportion of council borrowing than PPP/PFI and have hit fewer headlines but they are still a symptom of the chronic dysfunction of our public borrowing system.

These loans were launched in 2000 as an alternative to the National Loans Fund which, whilst cheap and stable due to being funded by UK gilts, are sometimes quite limited in scope and therefore not always avaliable when required. Instead, the public body can approach a commercial bank for a long term, often more than 40 years, loan which is offered at an initially low “teaser rate” but which includes a clause which allows the lender to change the interest rate, usually upwards, are regular, often annual, intervals.

Sometimes these rate adjustments carry with them a contract exit clause but one can imagine the conversation in that case.

Bank: “So, we’re planning on increasing your interest rate from 2% to 5%. Under Section 4 of our contract, you can exit the loan by paying back the outstanding primary plus our exit fee.”
Council: “If we had that kind of money, we wouldn’t have needed the loan.”
Bank: “Ok. 5% it is. See you next year!”

These loans were often offered to and accepted by councils without the council quite appreciating the potential volatility and uncertainty that these changes would represent, which is quite understandable as these contracts have been criticised as being some of the most complex in the financial world and as our locally elected representatives aren’t necessarily chartered accountants it’s perhaps understandable that some would have simply been sucked in by those teaser rates which, at the time, undercut even those bonds offered by the NLF.

What Next?

I’m not going to pretend I have a magic solution to all of this. Some have discussed simply canceling and renationalising PFI funded assets but whilst I have some sympathy for this I have concerns also. Right now, we simply don’t know how far the record of substandard workmanship within the works built runs and, in fairness to the companies behind this disaster, they are upholding their obligation to pay the costs of repair and, if required, rebuild of these schools. If the contracts were canceled before we know the extend of the repair bill then we might simply be bailing out a huge debt. I can see some kind of scope for some kind of renegotiation over the annual payments or contract terms, perhaps with some kind of profit cap. Perhaps the companies could be offered an exit but made to put up a bond in case future issues arise although as we’ve seen from the coal and, more recently, the steel industry those bonds themselves need to be planned carefully lest they prove insufficient or evadable.

In future, a more sustainable method of public borrowing and investment needs to be examined. The Common Weal has a proposal to use a mutual limited company to leverage funds backed by Scottish issued bonds to invest in our public infrastructure which is perhaps one of the better ways to go about this issue although it is acknowledged that Scotland’s very limited borrowing powers even under the “new powers” of the Scotland Act 2015 will likely cap the viability of such a scheme. Obviously, an independent Scotland wouldn’t have that problem but until that’s sorted, we may need to think of something else.

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Greening Tax

“Unless Scotland has the boldness and the courage of its convictions to use the abilities that the Scottish Parliament is going to have in the next session to have a fairer, more progressive approach to taxation…many more communities are going to find that the public services they rely on will continue to be under threat.” – Patrick Harvie

Yesterday, the Scottish Greens published our proposals for reform of both the national income tax and a replacement for the local council tax. The proposals themselves can be read by clicking on the image below but I’ll spend a bit of time here explaining how they work and what might have been missed in some of the media coverage about them.

Green Tax

 

First though we need to remember just what the purpose of tax is for. It’s so easy to get caught up in the arguments over how much more or less a particular tax or tax change would raise without considering the deeper impacts of what a particular tax is supposed to do.

The Principles of Taxation

Why do we tax people in the first place? It’s a substantial chunk out of your paycheck every month and there’s not one of us who has, at some point, wondered what they could have done with that money instead.

The reasons for taxation are broadly covered by three principles:

Revenue Generation:- There are many services, such as roads, emergency services, healthcare, education etc, which we, as a society, have decided are best funded collectively. We may argue over just how much is paid for in this way and how much is funded ad hoc or privately but there are vanishingly few full blown anarcho-libertarians, especially in Scotland, who believe that absolutely everything should be in private hands and that Government shouldn’t exist at any level. For everything else, taxes are collected to fund the State and its operations.

Redistribution:- Societies are rarely entirely equal at every level. Some people end up earning or accumulating more than others, some people end up not earning enough money to meet their basic needs. Some regions end up with a greater concentration of wealth than others. Some, due to size or geographical constraints (such as the Highlands and Islands) simply require more funds to deliver the same level of services than others. It is well known that more equal societies experience greater levels of wellbeing and lower levels of ill health and other negative effects. Most societies, therefore, employ tax, alongside policies such as social security and welfare, in a progressive manner such that the richer pay more according to their abilities and the poorer gain more according to their needs.

inequality

Reshaping:- This is the carrot-and-stick approach of taxation. Governments often develop policies designed to encourage their citizens towards certain activities or discourage them from others. One prominent example at the national level would be the levies on tobacco and alcohol which are, at least partly, there to try to encourage us to smoke and drink less (obviously, taxes can fall into multiple categories and the Revenue Generation aspects of these taxes cannot be discounted, especially when used improperly).

In addition to these principles on the purpose of a tax, we must consider how it is structured so that it works in an effective manner. In 2013, local council body COSLA published a report into the effectiveness of current local taxes and in it laid out six principles outlined below.

LT Prin

Essentially, these principles boil down to taxes being fair, easy to manage and employing a sense of subsidiarity whereby local powers should, wherever possible, be used to effect local solutions. Whenever discussing a potential tax, local or national, all of these principles must be upheld or accounted for.

Income Tax

SGP Tax Bands.png

The Green proposal for the use of the income tax powers due to come with the implementation of the Scotland Act 2015 includes not just a tweaking of the rates nor the use of clumsy rebates as Labour (briefly) seem to have  considered but the full use of what powers we shall have to create new bands appropriate to Scottish income distribution.

The headlining feature of these proposals, as one may have suspected, was the inclusion of a 60% rate on earnings over £150,000.

This certainly did grab the headlines coming so soon after the SNP announced that they would not be raising the top rate past it’s current 45%. Their decision was based on this document which suggests that the “tax induced elasticity” (TIE) of the richest 1% in Scotland may be substantially higher than in the UK as a whole. Simply put, they fear that Scottish millionaires may flee elsewhere if we tax them at a higher rate than their southron counterparts. Their claim is that in the worst case scenario, enough high earners would leave that the actual revenue collected could be up to £30 million less than would be if tax rate remained as it is (one has to remember that if a top rate tax payer leaves, you also lose what they’ve paid in lower bands too).

Now, I have a couple of reasons to doubt this will impact as badly as they fear. In particular, having had a read through the book on which the UK TIE figures are based and having back-calculated their suggested maximum top-rate income tax for those UK figures, the implication appears that if the high end TIE rate the SNP suggests (0.75 compared to 0.46 for the UK) were to come to pass the maximum allowable income tax rate would be something on the order of just 30%. I would suggest therefore that the conviction attached to that worst case scenario is somewhat low as not even the Scottish Tories have went into this election on a platform of cutting the top rate of income tax.

My other reason for skepticism over this fear of tax flight in relation to internal tax boundaries is the case actually seen in the United States (In particular, as found by this paper by Young et al in their study of tax migration and border effects) where each state has far more control over many taxes than Scotland has and consequently sees quite sharp tax boundaries between states. Now this is not to say that that tax induced migration does not occur but in the words of the paper linked to above it seems to occur “only at the margins of statistical and socio-economic significance”. This appears to be true even at easily commutable borders so don’t be readily expecting a cluster of Scottish millionaires moving to Carlisle or Newcastle.
[Edit: Alternate link to the Young paper here.]

The reason for this is quite profound. As it turns out we can broadly place the richest echelons of society into to one of two groups. The “transitory millionaires” who really are just seeking somewhere to park as much of their wealth as possible without contributing much to society in general and the “embedded elites” who more closely fit that classic-to-the-point-of-cliché term of “job-creator”. These folk are the ones who have built a business in their locale and, as it turns out, it is not a simple case to uproot it and move it wholesale elsewhere (especially when higher property prices may make the operation of that business significantly more expensive). Perhaps, we in politics have been too quick to conflate these two distinct attitudes among the most well off in society. Perhaps we should instead be asking which of the two groups we would prefer to have influence our policy decisions?

On the Greens’ part, we are not making any prediction of revenue based on our 60% rate. We’re operating on the basis that our changes to the top rate of income tax will not attract any additional revenue (although the changes overall could bring in some £331 million per year) and this managed to attract some attention during the recent STV Leader’s Debate with the Tories asking what the point was if revenue didn’t change and asking how that would improve the economy. Well, we’ve seen the answer to that in the principles section above. The Green tax plan would significantly reduce inequality within Scotland. From a social standpoint, this should significantly improve general wellbeing within Scottish society and from an economic standpoint there will be benefits due to what’s known as the Marginal Propensity to Consume. Essentially, if you increase a multi-billionaire’s income by £100 then it means next to nothing to them or their lifestyle but if you increase the income or decrease the tax burden of a minimum wage worker by £100 then it will give them the ability to pay down debts or spend more on goods and services on which they would not otherwise have been able to do so. By this means, a revenue neutral tax change which decreases inequality most certainly can have a positive economic benefit. It reflects poorly on Ruth Davidson that during that debate she either didn’t know or didn’t want others to understand that fairly fundamental point.

Property Tax

Incidentally, the Young paper linked to in the previous section points out that a far more significant cause of high-earner migration than income tax is a draw towards expensive housing which is a famously immobile asset and which leads us neatly on to the second half of the Greens’ proposals.

Given how limited the set of devolved national taxes actually are and given how long overdue we have been for doing something, anything, about the Council Tax, it’s perhaps no surprise that a large proportion of the campaigning has been dedicated to those taxes over which Holyrood does have near unfettered control.

Faced with the increasingly loud rhetoric over the need for change from many parties and the cross-party consensus on the need for radical change laid down by the Commission on Local Tax Reform’s final report it’s therefore been a deep disappointment that it has been left to the Greens to be the only party to lay down a system of local residential property tax which is meaningfully different from the Council Tax. The Lib Dems have dropped their long standing aspiration towards a local income tax. RISE have stuck to the plan for an income based service tax inherited from the SSP but have appear to have opted to set rates nationally thus remove the advantages of local control. The SNP have decided to keep the present system, including the quarter century old, out of date valuations, but will increase the rate multiplier, nationally, on the top couple of bands. Labour have come up with a system of a per household flat rate poll tax with the addition of value based percentile tax (In my previous article I mischaracterised this as a banded tax due to a misunderstanding of their press statements on the topic. I was in error.) which, on the face of it, is an interesting change but their actual calculations will leave us again with a tax which is deeply regressive with respect to house value.

The Greens, however, have opted to levy a local property tax based entirely as a percentage of the property’s value. This Residential Property Tax would be nominally set to 1% of the property’s value but it will be entirely within the local council’s power to set that rate at whichever value they wish and will be coupled with a scheme of reliefs for low earners similar to the system currently in place.

Of course, such a large step change in the tax system requires careful management and people will need time to adjust their financial affairs to reflect the change so we also propose phasing in the new RPT over the course of the next five year Parliament by stepping over to the new system in 20% increments until Council Tax is fully abolished.

The graph below shows this transition as well as a comparison of the tax regimes proposed by the SNP and Labour as a percentage of a house’s value (RISE’s SST, being income rather than property based, isn’t directly comparable in this way).

Green RPT Both

The contrast is quite profound. Incidentally, the large change in nominally band “C” and above properties may look alarming but one must remember that the lack of revaluations since 1992 has led to many houses, some 57% of the total stock, sit now in the wrong council tax band. The house I’m currently in is a fairly graphic example of this being a band “D” house with a present market valuation of approximately £100,000. Converting from the present Council Tax to a 1% RPT would actually cut the bill here by some 10%.

Also of specific note within these plans is a system of redistribution across councils. Essentially, there are some council areas containing a lot of very expensive houses (Edinburgh, say) and some where property prices are comparatively cheap. It couldn’t be fair that one of the higher priced areas takes the decision that they could cut property taxes to a bare minimum and still fund local services, as happens in places like Westminster, whereas lower priced areas must pull those tax levers harder. Therefore, the block grant given to councils will be calculated on the assumption that they will charge the 1% RPT which will remove much of the temptation from those councils with higher property values from perpetuating the cycle of inequality. They still would have the power to reduce those rates, but they’d have to be accountable to their voters for doing so.

But what of land? Isn’t that a core tenant of Green policy? Well, herein lies an aspect of property tax which has been almost entirely missed by the media and yet lays the path towards possibly the greatest change within them. The RPT includes a slider which will allow a council to weight the RPT between taxing property and taxing land. If a council decided to, say, weight 100% towards property and 0% on land then the system would look most like the present council tax (albeit, as said, greatly more progressive) whereas if another council weighted 0% on property and 100% on land then the system would be functionally equivalent to a Land Value Tax and those who owned not just a large house but also a large estate would have to account for those holdings. In practice, many councils will seek some compromise between the two and the Green proposal lays out an example as currently used in Denmark where a typical weighting is something like 70% on property and 30% on land. Once again, localism is the key here. Council regions which are largely urban will likely wish to weight towards property whereas more rural areas, particularly those with patterns of unequal land ownership, may wish to weight towards land. Simply setting a national rate is unlikely to be sufficient or effective in every region of the country.

Conclusion

I  hope this then lays out our proposals for income and property taxation. I know. It’s a complicated issue which doesn’t soundbite very easily but we’re entering an interesting phase of Scottish politics whereby our Parliament will be getting more power than ever before and the need to use those powers effectively will become more important than ever before. Scotland Can be bolder if we want it to be.

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My thanks to Andy Wightman for technical advice provided for this post. His blog Land Matters can be read here.