It won't just be the super rich hit by a mansion tax

How will a government assess whether a house has tipped into the £2m bracket?

John Walsh
Wednesday 05 March 2014 20:50

According to the Evening Standard, thousands more home-owning Londoners than we thought will find themselves caught in the net of the mansion tax. That’s the one-per-cent levy on homes worth more than £2m that both Labour and the Lib Dems propose to introduce if they win the next election. But if the price of houses goes on rising faster than the national average, the Standard suggests, the tax will hit not just the bankers or bond dealers or the foreign princelings who currently own half of Knightsbridge, but the people who’ve simply had the bad luck to own a house in a certain area for several years.

If you had the good fortune to buy a place in an OK-ish London suburb for a six-figure sum in the 1990s, the chances are that, whatever you’re earning or whatever your pension is bringing you 20 years later, the house you’ve so enjoyed living in will soon become a huge white elephant, costing you an extra £5,000 or £10,000 a year while you live in it.

Questions about the mansion tax pile up. Such as: why the stupid name? A mansion is, or used to be, a grand building that houses someone of consequence like the lord of a manor. It is not a semi-detached house in Richmond or Wimbledon where many homes will be worth £2m by the end of the next prime minister’s tenure in Downing Street. Calling it a mansion tax suggests it’s aimed at Manderley or Brideshead; its target is more likely to be number 36a, Acacia Drive.

What will the tax do to the property market? I know people in west London who’ve lived in their house for 15 or 20 years, and have seen its value rise by amazing amounts. But that doesn’t make them high earners or mean they have access to huge sums to pay new annual taxes. And, if the tax becomes law, will they ever be able to sell their house, without dropping the price?

How will a government assess whether a house has tipped over into the £2m bracket? Will gangs of stolid, clipboard-wielding value assessment officers demand access to any dwelling which has a BMW 7 Series parked outside, or has conspicuous double glazing and what looks suspiciously like a conservatory? Or will the tax office leave it to estate agents to advise them how much properties are worth? Won’t that put pressure on estate agents to assess every house on their books at, coincidentally, £1.98m? (“But of course you’re allowed to give the owners a little personal something extra, as a gift, in a plain brown envelope, when they hand over the keys…”) Spare a thought, if you can, for the poor agents at the top end of the market, who will earn nothing as buying and selling stagnate for a couple of years.

Imagine the disarray into which house-owners would be thrown if they thought their home was about to become a taxable item.

Picture the lengths to which they’d go to bring down the value: dismantling the hi-tech, multimedia garden shed, concreting over the Koi carp pond, turning the “wet room” back into a guest bedroom. As for the £20,000 they were planning to spend on repairing the roof – well, why bother improving the saleability of the house if improving it means pricing it out of the market? The building trade will suffer if homeowners stop doing up their properties. The bottom will fall out of the swimming-pool market. The landscape gardening trade will nosedive.

Who will want to buy a house with a guaranteed umpteen-thousand-quid levy on it? Only the billionaire classes, who couldn’t give a flying toss about a few hundred grand here or there. So how many owners, unable to sell, will busy themselves converting their house into three flats, to evade the tax and make some cash?

A Lib Dem document tries to justify a mansion tax thus: “The tax system is unfair. A wealthy person with a property worth £3m pays the same council tax as a family in a home worth a quarter of the price. Our mansion tax will ensure the rich pay their fair share.”

But how much is council tax on the average London house? Somewhere around £1,000 and £1,500? By all means ask owners of pricey homes to pay four times their poorer neighbour’s – £4,000, £5,000. But pay £10,000? Is that a “fair share”?

Cheese and sex go together: you better Brielieve it

I went to the Bath Literary Festival on Monday, under its new editorial director, the sparky Viv Groskop. I was there to interview Jonathan Grimwood (nom de plume of the celebrated cyberpunk writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood) about his mainstream novel The Last Banquet.

We talked about pre-revolutionary France, condoms, Versailles, how the book was written in 12 weeks after gestating for 15 years – we talked about a million things, but the most memorable (for the audience and me) was his contention that “cheese provokes extreme writing”.

In his case it certainly did: a rapturous description of his hero popping a lump of Brie in his mouth while sucking the nipple of a former wet nurse called Manon saw him shortlisted for the Bad Sex Award.

He also brought up Zola’s “cheese symphony” (notably Camembert and Livarot) in The Belly of Paris, and Beckett’s hero Belacqua ordering stinking Gorgonzola in More Pricks Than Kicks, and I mentioned Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime Gorgonzola sandwich in Ulysses, and mentioned Brillat-Savarin’s shocking dictum, “A dinner that ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

But I still thought Mr Grimwood’s contention was a bit extreme. Bang on cue arrived news of the Swiss Cheese Pervert, a fat bloke called Christopher Pagano from Philadelphia who has been arrested for driving up to strange women and offering them money to watch him putting cheese on his genitalia.

Honestly. There goes life, imitating literature again.

Hopper’s frozen moments

Nice to see the great Dennis Hopper’s 1960s photographs will be on display at the Royal Academy in the summer. The 400 monochrome pictures were collectively called The Lost Album because they disappeared in 1970 and weren’t found until Hopper’s death in 2010.

When looked at today, they seem to freeze moments of cultural history – like the moment when David Hockney and Andy Warhol were snapped in a doorway in 1963. They look so young and so studiedly cool.

But it’s Hockney who looks the guy in charge, surly, rebellious, uncompromising; Warhol, by comparison, looks tentative, shy, uncertain behind his shades.

You’d almost swear he was thinking: “You know what I must get? I must get me a blond wig, so I can look just like David.” Is this the moment when the famous Andy-at-the-Factory look got under way?

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