With house prices soaring and councils still strapped for cash, Cllr Neil Baker asks if the current system is fit for purpose.
I know more of my libertarian-minded friends would argue the same could be said for all forms of tax but that’s another debate entirely.
My chief reason for thinking this isn’t just the student exemption, which results in about £500,000 lost revenue per year for Canterbury City Council and £5million-a-year due to the student houses in the city.
That discussion comes up time and again on social media and I accept there is an argument that having a vibrant student community brings non-council tax advantages to the city and wider district.
Although I’m not sure anyone can reasonably claim the average student house of five people produces less rubbish and recycling each week than the average house occupied by a couple. The former pays zero in council tax each year, the latter a four-figure sum.
Government through the years has a habit of turning what, in any logical world, would be a short-term stop gap into something more permanent.
Given when Council Tax replaced the much-maligned and contentious community charge (or, as everybody knows it, the poll tax) in 1993 it would be fair to assume it was rushed in out of political necessity, to be replaced with something “better” once things had settle down.
Yet here we are, 25 years and many governments later, and we still have the same method of revenue raising for local authorities.
In England and Scotland (re-evaluations have taken place in Wales), properties are placed into a band based on the assumed capital value in 1991. This may be fine in a world where house prices all increase at the same rate, wherever they may be, but we don’t live in such a world.
Consider a real-world example of what this can mean. Back in 1991 parts of Whitstable town centre were not particularly popular. People in the town had long memories and the devastation caused by the flood in 1953, combined with a vague hunch that Whitstable gets a big flood every 50 years, arguably kept house prices low.
Within a few years, Whitstable gained national attention as being the place to get away from London, for a short visit that may become a second home, that then may become the primary residence, of relatively well-heeled folk. Property prices surged and this group seemingly had less worries about floods in days gone by as they rushed to snap up properties as close to the sea and town centre as possible.
Now we have a situation where mid-terrace buildings, which were quickly built as fairly simple houses for dredgermen during an oyster glut in the 1800s, can sell for £500,000. Yet, due to council tax valuations being based on 1991 prices, may only be liable for Band B payments. At the same time as those living in modest social housing elsewhere in the town may be liable for Band C or more.
If anyone thinks I’m making this up, feel free to use the Government’s online council tax band checker.
All else aside, it seems apparent that any link between ability to pay, usage of services and amount taxed seems to be incredibly tenuous at best, and non-existent at worst.
It is understandable, from a political viewpoint, why no Government has conducted a re-evaluation. When the city council, county council, police and fire services increase their share of the council tax each year there is disquiet from many. But compared to the potential hike under a re-evaluation, these complaints are almost nothing.
In 2017/18, people living in a Band B house in a non-parished area of the district would pay around £1,250 in total. If the house was shifted into Band D, that would increase to a little more than £1,600 – a percentage increase of around 28%.
So something has to change. It isn’t something that can be done locally, although lobbying is essential, it is for central government to fix. A full and frank debate is needed to ensure local authorities, at a time when funding from central government is decreasing to zero, can raise funds to provide the services local people want and deserve in a fair manner.
I don’t have the answer but there is a debate to be had. What I do know is that, even with new approaches to create new revenue streams to help balance the books, without a fair, sustainable and appropriate funding system local government will cease to exist. Such a world may be my libertarian-minded friends’ version of utopia but is really would not be a good thing for anybody, apart from a handful of hardcore ideologues.
Neil Baker is a member of the Conservative Party and Canterbury City Council councillor for Tankerton Ward.