Tuesday, 27 November 2018

GET REAL IF YOU EXPECT LVT TO HAPPEN A salutary tale from Ireland

There could never have been a better time than 2012 in Ireland for the introduction of LVT or Site Value Tax as they prefer to call it. Back in 1978 there had been the hurried decision to abolish domestic rates following a rash promise at an election (!). It was soon realized that this was a mistake and a form of property tax needed to be re-introduced. The result of the 2007 Irish General Election was a coalition, with the Green Party as one of the junior partners. 
All agreed that there should be a property tax, but it was the Greens who specifically advocated Site Value Taxation (SVT). By 2009 a Commission on Tax had reported which saw merit in SVT, but opted for Property Market Value as the basis for the new tax. 
In early 2010 a new coalition government made its proposal in its Renewed Programme for Government. This time, under pressure from all parties, SVT was the preferred option. 
Then in late 2010 the Great Financial Crash exploded on Ireland. The economy shrank by 8%, revenue from property taxes, mostly Stamp Duty on sales, collapsed. Government finances looked dire. 
This is the classic Shock Doctrine territory made famous by Naomi Klein. This is when, in the wake of the crash, the neo-cons move in to pick over the stricken economy, advising governments to privatise utilities, reduce taxes on the rich, crush the power of the trade unions. 
When, in post-crash Ireland a high powered outside group (which became known as The Troika) started issuing edicts, they included the ill-fated introduction of water charging through a privatized company. More promising was the Troika’s requirement to introduce a property tax.
Conditions in 2011 then, could not have been more promising for SVT/LVT. There was a crisis, and more tax revenue was desperately needed. The two previous coalition governments had plumped for a property tax based on SVT. A big bad external group (The Troika) was pressing the government to introduce some form of property tax, so could be blamed if anything went wrong. So what happened next?
In July 2013 the ‘Local Property Tax’ was introduced at 0.18% of the property’s value, payable to central government. But what had happened to the coalition government’s enthusiasm for SVT.  The design practicalities of the new tax were handed to an ad-hoc Inter-Departmental Group of Civil Servants. They produced a Report Design of a local property taxfor the Irish Government 2012. They were well aware of the political impetus behind SVT, yet in their wisdom and experience they produced the following rebuttal of SVT. I reproduce here in full, because I think every land-taxed and Georgist should know what hurdles must be overcome before SVT/LVT is implemented. 
If we cannot overcome these objections at such a propitious time then the project that we hold dear — Land Value Taxation — is a Dead Duck.

So why did Ireland flunk the introduction of LVT/SVT and bring in a property-value(price)-based tax instead? Read on..

Here verbatim and in full is the case against SVT (and in favour of a market value/price tax). Read it and maybe weep; how do we overcome these perfectly rational arguments?

3.3 Site value versus market value
3.3.1 Both residential market value and SVT meet a number of important policy criteria. The arguments for SVT are outweighed by the likely difficulties in ensuring acceptance by taxpayers, i.e., arriving at values that are evidence based, understandable and acceptable to the public in addition to complexities and uncertainties in the valuation effort necessary to put an SVT in place. 

3.3.2 In contrast, under a market value approach applied to housing, the market value of a residential property is related to the characteristics of the building itself, the site on which it is located and the characteristics and amenities of the neighbourhood. There will be a relationship between the market value of a house and benefits to the owners in terms of enjoyment of the amenity value of the properties. The question – “what is the value of my or our house or apartment?” - is a relatively simple and well understood concept.

3.3.3 The 2009 Commission on Taxation considered both approaches. They concluded that “while seeing the economic rationale for land value tax...” that “it may not be a pragmatic approach to the restructuring of our property tax system”. The Commission recommended in favour of market value of residential properties (housing unit and site) as the basis of assessment.

Simplicity and transparency
3.3.4 Any tax needs to be kept as simple as possible for both the taxpayer and the tax administration. Full market value is a tried and tested basis of assessment that is internationally accepted, and by implication, readily understood by taxpayers all over the world. At any point in time, most home owners will have a reasonable sense of the market value of the home in which they live by reference to recent sales and to officially and privately published data on house price movements. Where there is doubt in individual cases, estimates can be obtained from professional auctioneers or valuers.

3.3.5 In the case of SVT, property owners would have great difficulty in dealing with a valuation exercise which conceptually separates the buildings on the site from the site (for tax purposes) in circumstances where their predominant understanding and interest lies in the market (or resale) value of their residence. Similar challenges would arise for auctioneers and valuers. The SVT system would not be as transparent or meaningful to taxpayers as market value.

3.3.6 It has been suggested to the Group that one approach to determining site value might be to use information on transactions in residential property (market value) and, by applying econometric techniques, identify the implicit value of sites. This approach would fail the  simplicity and transparency test. Site values would be opaque to taxpayers, leading to high volumes of contested valuations and appeals. This would undermine significantly the acceptability of the tax. It would also be somewhat paradoxical to use a basis of assessment (site value) that is mathematically derived from the alternative basis of assessment (residential property value).

3.3.7 In terms of administrative simplicity, both SVT and market value present similar challenges as well as requirements for comprehensive registers of market/site values. A comprehensive mapped register of all properties, including details of ownership, precise location, and value would be required for both. SVT would have the added mapping requirement of site size. The practical challenges in establishing and populating such a land register for either SVT or market value purposes would be substantial. However, it would be much easier and transparent to put in place and update a register of market values based on the ongoing flows of real time data derived from house (market value) sales.

3.3.8 As regards the equity challenges, it is very clear that the owners of more valuable properties would pay more under a market value based assessment scheme for either site values or residential properties. Taxable values based on market valuations based on either sites or residences would generally be higher in urban as compared to rural areas. This is equitable to the extent that market value provides a measure of the value of a residential property to the owner, particularly in terms of its proximity to places of work and local amenities and facilities.

3.3.9 SVT does not meet the equity challenge nearly as well. Taxpayers are likely to have profound difficulty accepting taxation outcomes where, in directly comparable and neighbouring site situations, tax liabilities would be identical even though one housing unit was larger and could have a higher market value than the other.

3.3.10 There would be considerable difficulties in communicating to home-owners and land-holders that such a situation was fair. It would undermine the standing of the tax. 

3.3.11 An efficient tax system encourages the allocation of resources so that optimal economic output is achieved. Recurrent taxes on immovable property are the most “growth friendly” of taxes. As both bases of assessment deliver this outcome, they are both economically efficient.

3.3.12 According to its proponents, SVT offers many additional potential economic benefits over and above that of a traditional market value approach. These include:
• Encouraging the optimal productive use of land and preventing dereliction;
• Providing for a stable revenue base (housing prices are more volatile than land prices and land values
tend to lag economic activity);
• Reducing the incentive for premature and excessive zoning of land, and would in effect be a tax on land hoarding and speculation, which it is argued by its proponents, would reduce the incentives for
• Encouraging the efficient use of existing properties, including imposing a tax penalty on vacant zoned
sites or derelict properties; and 
• Providing a means whereby communities, local authorities and government can tax the benefits
received by private landowners as a result of local or community investments which enhance the
value of their lands.

3.3.13 While these additional benefits arguably shade the efficiency argument in favour of SVT as a resource tax, the 2009 Commission on Taxation recommended against it on the basis that in their view it would be very difficult to gain public acceptance. Despite the economic arguments advanced by its proponents, SVT systems are not used extensively internationally. 

From Design of a local property tax Report of the Inter-Departmental Group  Irish Government 2012

T. Callan, C. Keane, M. Savage, J.R. Walsh, April 2012, Analysis of Property Tax Options A report to the Interdepartmental Expert Group on Property TaxDublin; Economic and Social Research Institute https://www.esri.ie/pubs/BKMNEXT229.pdf

Jim O’LearySeptember 2018 How (Not) To Do Public Policy: Water Charges and Local Property Tax
. Galway, NUI; Whitaker Institute for Innovation & Societal Change

Ronan Lyons(Identify Consulting For Smart Taxes Network), December 2011,  Residential Site Value Tax in Ireland An Analysis of Valuation, Implementation & Fiscal Outcomes

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