Crossed wires on paying for infrastructure

In giving the green light to the next stage of planning for Crossrail 2 in the 2016 Spring budget, the Chancellor has taken the right decision for London and the UK. Transport for a WorldCity, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report published a few days before the budget, powerfully made the case that Crossrail 2 is vital for sustaining economic vitality. The NIC estimates that the capital could pay for more than half of the £33 billion cost. But the detail of how London pays its share goes to the heart of our antiquated and hopelessly dysfunctional local government finance regime.
Ever since the Jubilee Line extension was built in the late 1990s, boosting land values so much that these could have paid for the project three times over, governments have wrestled with dilemma of big infrastructure: the costs fall on the public purse, but many of the benefits (and in particular property value uplifts) accrue to the people and businesses who are most directly affected.  Property owners who pick the right numbers in the infrastructure lottery get a windfall at others’ expense.
As public spending has tightened in recent years, the search for clever ways of funding big projects has become more and more intense.  Money borrowed for the Northern Line extension to Battersea will be repaid through developer contributions and ringfenced business rates, and commentators have suggested that Crossrail 1 was only spared the axe in 2010 because 60 per cent of its costs were met by Londoners and London businesses.
The Crossrail 2 package proposed by Transport for London follows the Crossrail 1 pattern by loading most costs onto London’s businesses and property developers. 18 per cent of the costs would be met from future fares and property deals; 20 per cent would come from a supplement on business rates (about a five per cent increase in the tax bill for most larger businesses); and 17 per cent would come from a Mayoral community infrastructure levy on new development. 
But householders get off very lightly.  Only 1.4 per cent of the cost of the project would come from council tax, specifically from rolling forward the Olympic precept that Ken Livingstone introduced in 2006 (memorably comparing it to the cost of a Walnut Whip for the average household every week).  The precept currently adds £20 per year to the average ‘Band D’ household, around 1.5 per cent of the annual bill.
So where’s the problem?  London’s booming businesses and rapacious developers get hit with the tax bills, lightening the load on ordinary citizens.  This may look like good news, but given the state of London’s property market, this funding package would do almost all the wrong things.  Charging an additional community infrastructure levy will threaten developers’ bottom line, which could just as easily result in delayed development, raised sale prices, or reductions in other social benefits like affordable housing, rather than in reduced profits.  And higher business rates may be reflected in higher prices or slower wage growth, or may even push businesses away from London.
Modest London-wide council tax increases, on the other hand, will do nothing to capture the increased desirability and value accruing to homeowners, particularly those nearest the new rail lines, who will get the mother of all free rides (one possible exception being Chelsea, where affluent residents are protesting against a new station).  In fact, Crossrail 2 may make matters worse for Londoners struggling to get on the housing ladder, pushing prices even higher in the districts that it opens up.
So the Crossrail funding package proposed for London could increase the costs of doing business in London, and hike the value of property, creating an unearned and largely untaxed bonanza for those living nearest stations, and pushing prices further our of reach for everyone else.
As the NIC report points out, the package proposed is constrained by the scope and structure of taxes raised locally.  TfL are working with what they’ve got. As the London Finance Commission pointed out in 2013, London’s council tax bands have not been revalued since 1993, when £320,000 defined the top tier of property values, rather than representing a bargain, £200,000 below the average house price. 
Regular (perhaps annual) revaluation would be fairer, allowing tax rates to be better tailored to the real values of homes and to capture some of the benefits that new infrastructure brings to home-owners in the shape of rising house prices.  If new infrastructure dramatically increased values, council tax would reflect this, and a proportion of the new tax revenues could be top-sliced to repay money borrowed to pay for the investment in the first place.
The obstacles to council tax revaluation have been seen as practical as well as political.  Practically, the exercise would be complex and call for careful callibration, but we shouldn’t make too much of this.  The technology we use to track property values has changed out of all recognition since 1993.  When anyone can check the value of their property against the local market with a few clicks of a mouse, a revaluation would not require a new Domesday Book.
There would be winners and losers, and political controversy, but these problems aren’t insuperable.  Transitional reliefs would be needed, as might measures to allow tax to be deferred so that cash-poor owner-occupiers were not forced to move by sudden tax hikes.  And Labour’s proposed ‘mansion tax’, a far blunter instrument than recalibrated council tax, did not do the party too much damage last year in London, the city that would have been hardest hit.
Other taxes could help to fund infrastructure too.  Stamp duty and capital gains tax do actually reflect rising property values, though they only kick in when property changes hands, and in the case of capital gains tax they do not apply to people’s main residence.  Nor are these currently available to the Mayor or the London boroughs, though the Government could at the very least extend the principle it applied to the Northern Line extension by allowing the Mayor to repay borrowing using tax revenues that would normally go directly to Whitehall.
In times of continuing austerity, booming London will have the devil of a job convincing the rest of the UK, let alone the Treasury, that it deserves massive public subsidy for infrastructure, however much other regions actually benefit from its growth.  London is booming, and should pay its fair share.  But without more comprehensive devolution and more control over its taxes, the capital will struggle to secure its future prosperity.

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