Four Walls and a Roof

“It seems obvious: the reason only a tiny percentage of new…buildings and retrofits aren’t green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques — architects and builders wed to the ‘same-old,’ lenders leery of anything unconventional.” – Sustainable Energy Africa

Housing – buildings in general, in fact – needs to be about more than just four walls and a roof. It also needs to be about more than vague promises of “more houses built” or about a volume-based industry which tries to extract as much profit per square metre as possible or being about more than the landlords who swoop in afterwards to do the same.

And with around 53% of all energy use in Scotland being used for heating and only a small fraction of it coming from renewable resources, it needs to be about more than throwing up any old building and passing the costs and consequences on to those who’ll have to live and work in them for decades to come.

Recently, I got the chance to experience a glimpse of what a better future might look like in the form of a tour around South Lanarkshire College’s ‘Aurora’ Low Carbon House.

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Grim Drama Parked

“Tomorrow’s GDP figures will confirm whether or not Scotland entered a second quarter of economic downturn in the first three months of 2017.” – Scottish Conservatives. 4th July 2017.

The quarterly Scottish GDP figures were released today after a long build up in a press anxious to see if Scotland was on, as the Express put it, the “BRINK OF RECESSION” (their emphasis).

The figures themselves rather put a misstep into their charge.

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The headline figures are that in Q1 2017, Scotland’s economy grew by 0.8% which is up substantially on the -0.2% contraction seen in Q4 2016. This positive growth also means that the two successive quarters of negative growth which define a technical recession were not met.

The UK’s GDP growth over Q1 2017 was 0.2% though in my last blog post I put substantial attention onto the point that we should treat such comparisons with a great deal of care given the large regional inequalities within the UK. I’d very much like to see the GDP of the UK broken down across its regions (especially London) before commenting too much on it.

And before we all start patting ourselves on the back at avoiding our “predicted” recession, it’s worth actually diving into the numbers and seeing what they do and do not tell us about the Scottish economy.

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We Need To Talk About: Social Housing

“Before you can start building [houses] on any scale, every single industry in society has got to be organised and stimulated into production.” – Aneurin Bevan, 1946.

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Credit: The Heilan Coo

The inferno at Grenfell Tower has claimed many lives (as I write, the official estimate for people dead or missing and presumed dead is 58.), has likely wiped out entire families and will have irrevocably changed an entire community forever.

It’s still too early to be fully deconstructing the causes and blames of this disaster but a few things have become widely reported and will likely play into the debate in the months and years to come.

However the blaze started (early reports suggest a power surge igniting a fridge on the 4th floor) it appears that the flames spread rapidly up the insulating cladding on the outside of the building, engulfing the entire structure in minutes and trapping many inside.

It has also emerged that the cladding involved was the cheaper of two options provided by the supplier and of a construction which would be illegal in several countries including the US and Germany. The fire resistant version of the cladding appears to have cost fractionally more – just £2 per square metre, or £5,000 for the entire block of flats. Further, it appears that at least part of the motivation for the choice of cladding was to improve the appearance of the flats for the benefit of nearby luxury high rises.

The Grenfell Action Group has been warning of a catalogue or failures of construction, maintenance and accountability for years. And the complete failure of leadership in the wake of the disaster, especially from PM May, has been appalling. This interview by MP David Lammy, who lost a friend in the blaze, does much to exemplify the sense of frustration and anger felt by a community which justifiably feels betrayed and it is no wonder at all that protests have occurred (so far peacefully).

Of course, the building contractors will all tell us that they are not to blame as they met all applicable regulations. And they’d almost certainly be correct. This is the nature of the relationship between capitalism and government regulations. It will always be the case that companies will meet regulations by the barest minimum that cost allows and will always lobby for those regulations to be decreased if the cost of lobbying is lower than the savings due to the regulation cut (for, in this case, politics can be reduced to just another form of investment).

I’ve been particularly appalled by one article in Bloomberg which takes on the extreme libertarian approach to this stating that all fire regulations should be scrapped because in the perfect world of the libertarian, any regulation which increases cost is unacceptable. Instead, the people who lived in the tower should have rationally weighed the risks of living in the tower with that cost and, if they wanted to, could have moved to some (presumably more expensive) tower nearby which DID include the safety features.

I shouldn’t need to fully dismantle this worldview. The residents of Grenfell did not have the choice of a hypothetical “safe” building next door into which they could move. Even if they did, humans simply are not the machine-like “rational actors” demanded of libertarianism nor do they always have the perfect information required to make such a choice (Could you identify a flammable cladding from a non-flammable one? If the libertarian landlord tells you, could you completely trust them? Could you tell if they were lying? Without any regulations, how would you hold them accountable if they were?)

I have written before, in less tragic terms, on the need for regulations to go well above and beyond the bare minimum. It will be essential if we wish to meet our targets to reduce energy consumption (which will be good for the environment and save a lot of people a lot of money in heating costs). I now believe it’s time to go much further than this. The private sector will always be an anchor against attempts to increase decent housing stock (especially for the poor) and to get the UK’s housing price inflation under control. It’s time for the government to start intervening and build social housing again.

Unconstrained by the needs to seek profit, the government can apply its own regulations, well above the “legal minimum” if need be, and can do some proper planning to ensure that it’s not just housing that’s being built (this has long been the failure of many projects in the past such as the high rises and the out-of-town blocks such as Easterhouse in Glasgow). We need to think about the amenities and the jobs and all the other functions of a town which enables communities to thrive. Common Weal has recently published some proposals on how local areas can control their own land and ensure that their specific needs are addressed on their terms. We can’t keep treating housing as a commodity for the rich, constantly pushing folk to “climb the property ladder”, treating those who can’t to the slums and the land-baggers and simply abandoning them. We can’t keep segregating people and reinforcing the class and wealth divides  and then blaming those on the bottom end for “just not striving hard enough“.

This isn’t to say that high-rises don’t have their place – endless suburban sprawls constantly bite into farmland and wild spaces and often fail to engender any sense of community at all, not to mention the health and climate effects caused by having to drive to reach anything other than your own house and the extra costs of delivering services to low density populations. Smart Cities, well designed with these factors in mind, may be a major factor towards a sustainable future (and I say this as someone who lives in a rural area).

And these cities need a lot of work to build. From brickies and plumbers, through planners and designers, past educators and mentors, to the computer experts who’ll get the smart systems going and keep them running, there is vast potential to employ a lot of people in this enterprise and to inject a huge amount economic activity into the country (in a far more productive manner than the zero-hours “gig” jobs that we’re being fed currently). If Austerity is to be ended, this could be one way to do it. And we know it works because the UK has been through exactly this before. An economy shattered by war from without (rather than Austerity from within) was reconstructed in the 1940’s and 1950’s and is still looked back on fondly as one of the UK’s golden ages. Here’s Nye Bevan talking in 1946 about his plans and how he got them started.

 

“That’s all great”, you say. “But how much will it cost and how do you pay for it?”

Government debt.

Did that put a shiver up your spine? Then you’ve been indoctrinated by the most dangerous ideas of the 21st century. The idea that government debt is a terrible thing.

We’re living in an age where the UK government can borrow on a 30 year bond for 1.7%. Inflation is currently 2.9%. There has never been a better time to invest as right now the debt is (in real terms) cheaper than free!

Applied to the housing market, this could be a major game changer. Not withstanding the ability to directly target areas which badly need investment (preferably by allowing these areas to borrow themselves through a National Investment Bank), the advantages in cost to the occupier are significant.

Right now, a £90,000, 25 year mortgage on a 4% compound rate would cost you about £475 per month and you’d pay back £142,500 over the term. A mortgage based on a government bond at our 1.7% (simple interest, rather than compound) would pay back over the 25 years for a little over £425 per month and, as a particular advantage to the renter, that monthly rate could be fixed for the entire mortgage period (it needn’t even be uprated for inflation as the bond isn’t). Try asking your bank for a mortgage rate fixed beyond five years. Try asking them to predict what the interest rate will be on year six.

BoE Interest Rate Predictions

(The Bank of England can’t do it, and they’re the ones who SET the rates!)

One the debt is paid off, it could be up to the government to decide whether the house remains as a social house and the occupier continues to pay rent (thus subsidising other housing), continues to live in their home rent free for the remainder of their occupation (thus preserving communities long term), or allows them to purchase the house (which would require the government to replace stock in a way that wasn’t done under Right-To-Buy)

And, of course, you can adjust the numbers as required to ensure that everyone can afford a house, built to far higher standards than the private sector will supply, without the need to make obscene levels of profits while doing so and in a location and surrounded by the services required to make that house a home embedded in a community built by and for all of us.

We didn’t need the Grenfell tragedy to have this conversation. People have been speaking about it for years now. The systemic problems in the UK’s housing industry have been apparent and have been either ignored or actively encouraged for too long. Maybe it’s time we started listening and reassessing.

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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

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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.

Reformers Reforming Reforms

“The present Council Tax system must end.” – The Commission on Local Tax Reform’s Final Report

Whilst we’re still just a bit too far away from the elections to get to see the actual manifestos, something resembling policy is now starting to trickle out from the parties.

Given the currently still limited nature of tax raising policy within Scotland it’s natural to focus on those areas where control is possible and since the publication and acceptance of the Commission on Local Tax Reform’s report on the need for an overhaul in local taxation in Scotland. So far, both the SNP and Labour have released their detailed plans and, so far, both have been somewhat lacking in ambition.

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This Could Be Home

“It seems obvious: the reason only a tiny percentage of new…buildings and retrofits aren’t green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques — architects and builders wed to the ‘same-old,’ lenders leery of anything unconventional.” – Sustainable Energy Africa

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Sign the petition or get involved here.

The Scottish Greens have launched our new #ThisCouldBeHome campaign aimed at greatly strengthening the current movements towards better land reform.

There are currently around 11,000 hectares of land in Scotland current derelict or un- or underused which, through the application of a Land Value Tax, could be freed up to build a new generation of affordable housing. Here is Andy Wightman introducing the campaign.

As the campaign points out, the current UK housing bubble is pushing rents up beyond the affordability of far too many people and those increasingly fortunate few who can scrape together a deposit and have secure enough employment to sustain a mortgage are looking with trepidation towards the day that the Bank of England starts pushing interest rates back up towards pre-2008 levels. For hard pressed people who can barely afford to pay the bills as it is, moves like this could result in yet another crash in the housing market and more families facing default, foreclosure and eviction.

We also live in a country with the second highest level of excess winter mortality of any European country north of the Alps, driven in large part by our lax building standards and fuel poverty.

For this reason, we should take this opportunity to ensure that those new houses which are built adhere to strict building regulations which push the limits of our technological abilities to ensure that energy bills and the other ongoing costs of running a building are kept at an absolute minimum. Of course, buildings are themselves often constructed to meet only the very minimum standards set by law as to do otherwise would eat into the private construction industry’s precious profit margin.

Of course, as the headline quote states, cost isn’t nearly the greatest obstacle to greener housing development and, as I have written previously, the Scottish government will soon be handed the power to borrow money far cheaper than can any bank or private company (As an alternative, the Common Weal has also pointed out that the Government has the power, today, to set up Scottish Housing Company to perform the same function) and could use that money, paid back through rents, to undercut the private industry and ensure that the highest green standards are adhered to. The precedent for this already exists in Scotland where, according to official government figures, the social rented housing stock are generally more energy efficient than private builds and contain a higher percentage of B and C grade housing (where the overall Scottish average is merely grade D). If we are willing to push things as far as we need to to reach a zero-carbon economy then a greater pool of cheap, efficient housing will force the private sector to either step up its game or step aside.

Passivhaus

A Thermal image of an energy efficient “Passive House” compared to a more traditional, less well insulated dwelling behind it. Source: Passivhaus Institut

But how do we get everyone to A grade? One pathway can be found in the Passivhaus Standard which employs a strict understanding and approach to engineering and techniques such as solar thermal panels on roofs, underfloor ground source heat pumps, insulation throughout the house and architectural elements designed in from the start to minimise heat loss and maximise the amount of energy which can be harvested from the environment. Properly employed, these standards reduce a house’s heating requirements to below 15 kWh per square metre per year. By comparison the average Scottish house requires approximately 140 kWh per square metre per year to keep it warm. It’s no wonder so many of us struggle in winter. (Fun fact about Passivhaus, they have built a compliant dwelling now on every continent on Earth. Including Antarctica!)

With heating making up 55% of Scotland’s overall annual energy demand and only 10% of that heating coming from renewable sources (including renewable electricity) then it is clear that this is the area which, if targeted, will have the most potential to reduce our requirement to run a carbon based economy. This needs to be stressed. Whilst the Scottish Government has made great strides in pushing renewables (and despite the UK government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards them) if we only focus on meeting of our current electrical demands then we’ll still be reliant on fossil fuels for over three quarters of our energy and this doesn’t factor in the doubling of electrical demand which will come if we translate our transport system over to electric vehicles (assuming we don’t also reduce demand there too).

To achieve this may seem to require brave choices. But we can’t sustain the “same old” attitude for much longer. Pretty soon, doing nothing will be even “braver” (in the Yes Minister sense). I believe that a strong Green voice in the Scottish Parliament from May will help the government make those brave choices and your vote for the Greens in May will help that happen. As noted earlier, it’s not a problem of money or power holding us back here. Merely the will to roll up our sleeves and do it. We’ll be glad for it once we have. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.

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We Need To Talk About: Local Taxation

 

Council

Source: Flickr

Next year brings in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and with it comes the proposals from each of the parties on how best to use the limited powers that the Scottish Government will have at its disposal. No doubt, much of the news and comment will be around whether or not the (marginally) expanded powers over income tax coming in under the Scotland Bill 2012 will be used and by how much.

Our approach towards local taxation, however, will perhaps lead to a far more fundamental change to the fabric of our society. There is also far greater scope within the devolution powers to do something a bit more radical that simply raising or lowering the rate of tax by a penny or so (or repeatedly defending one’s reasons for not doing so). It is therefore important, before the campaigning season begins in earnest, to understand what our options are and the potential impacts of them.

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How to Make Housing Affordable

Tenementhouse(Image: Tenement House, Glasgow. Source: Wikipedia)

Housing is always a touchstone issue during election campaigns and this one is most certainly no different. Two of the most oft-quoted in the manifestos this time round are: “How can we build “Affordable Housing”?” and “How can we afford to build them at all?” It seems strange that we are quite content to allow banks to borrow, or even flat out create, the funds it requires to supply us with a mortgage for a house but it is almost anathema for a government to do something very similar. I am going to make the very simple case that we need to dispense with this illogical paradigm and start looking at how to build a stable, long term housing policy fit for purpose.

For the purposes of this exercise I looked at a couple of example mortgages available from the commercial banks today. One typical one offered me a £90,000 mortgage with an initial interest rate of 4.2% fixed for 2 years. Assuming that that rate didn’t change over the 25 year term of the mortgage I would be faced with paying £485 per month for those 25 years until the loan was paid off. The total amount repaid (discounting inflation) would be just over £145,000. Given that we are currently experiencing historic lows in our interest rates and that they are unlikely to drop further this gives us the lowest bound to the repayment. Add in, on top of that, the profit margin demanded by a private landlord and the costs soon mount up rather staggeringly. It really is no wonder that many of the UK’s richest people are in the property market.

But what would happen if the Government borrowed that money instead and invested it in a social house for me? Today, May 4th 2015, a 25 year UK bond attracts an interest rate of 2.515% (Source: http://uk.investing.com/rates-bonds/uk-25-year-bond-yield). The first thing to note is that this interest rate is guaranteed to be fixed for the entire 25 year term. There could be no uncertainty over the possibility of unaffordable interest rate rises of the kind which led to so much chaos during the 2008 crash. This opens the way to a long term government housing policy rather than the election-by-election tinkering we see now.

At this lower interest rate we could charge the same £485 per month and expect to have the loan paid off in full almost five and a half years early at a total cost of only £114,500, a saving of £31,000 or 21%. By having the government borrow for us, we can afford five houses for the price of four! Alternatively, the monthly rent could be cut by £80 per month and the 25 year term maintained whilst still undercutting any private landlords (even if they pass on their bank mortgage at cost).

What happens after the loan is paid off could be a matter for government policy. The rent could be maintained, providing the government with a ready and reliable revenue stream. Or the house could be granted at a discounted rate or entirely rent free to the tenant for the remainder of their occupation (with the house returning to the social stock once it is no longer required), or the rent could be reinvested into more housing stock to keep up with demands from population growth and (dare I mention that dreaded word?) immigration. The UK’s population is growing at less than 1% per year meaning that we’d need just one new house built every year for every one hundred in the stock. The rents from those hundred could easily accommodate for that level of demand. Our hypothetical £405 per month rent for 25 years is now just £410 per month, still greatly cheaper than our private landlord and we no longer need to worry about the costs of housing the next generation (wherever they come from).

Of course, many other questions still remain underneath this housing policy such as: where do we build these houses? (the old green belt versus inner city regeneration question), how do we manage (or tax) the land on which they are built?, what infrastructure do we build around them?, or how can we encourage business development in or near these areas to provide jobs for the residents. These are most certainly vital questions to be answered as part of a holistic and complete housing policy but one thing is certain. Neither your bank nor your private landlord concerns themselves with these questions. Even if none of them are answered within this article I believe that I have demonstrated that allowing a government to borrow to invest in our society need not be the terrible thing that some politicians would have you believe it would be. Surely, lining the pockets of the banks and landlords the way we currently are is the least effective, most costly way we could possibly be doing it? TCG logo