My contribution to yesterday’s Budget Debate:

It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and his excellent speech. In the time that I have, I wonder if I might focus on one specific issue —council tax and its failings. I was very interested in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), when he spoke about the advantages of a wealth tax for those with more than £10 million in assets. It should not be discounted—I think there is a lot of merit in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) has also advocated such a policy.

We heard a lot from the Chancellor yesterday. There were a lot of Es flying around. There are a couple of Es in levelling up, but unfortunately Easington did not get any levelling-up money. That is meant to be the Government’s priority.

It would be worthwhile for the Government to address the fundamental unfairness of council tax. I want to explore why replacing council tax with a proportional property tax should command the support of those on the Opposition and Government Benches. It is advocated by the Fairer Share campaign, which I recommend the Minister and other Members have a look at. Fair taxation is the foundation on which Labour can build a better Britain and help to secure the missions recently set out by the Leader of the Opposition. For the Conservatives, abolishing council tax in favour of a proportional property tax would demonstrate a long-term and systematic commitment to levelling up. It would help to alleviate and mitigate the cost of living crisis and deliver a tax cut—a council tax cut—to more than 75% of households in the country, and 100% of households in Easington.

The problem with council tax is very simple. In the days ahead, the majority of people will receive a council tax bill. At Prime Minister’s questions, a lot of political capital was made about Conservative councils being better than Labour councils, but the truth is that almost all councils, irrespective of their political colour, are facing huge pressures. Most people will face a council tax increase of about 5%. The County Councils Network reported in February that three in four councils will increase council tax by the maximum amount permitted. This is an issue that cuts across all parties. My county council, Durham County Council, is led by a Conservative-led coalition. It faces a £10.2 million deficit, despite raising council tax by the maximum—5%—and proposing cuts of £12.4 million.

The truth is that the system is broken. It is the poorest households that pay more and get less, while councils remain unable to fund vital services. Currently, households are taxed based not on their ability to pay, but on the 1991 valuation of their home and the area in which they live. That means that local authorities must impose tax levels on their residents to cover the costs of essential statutory services such as caring for looked-after children and adult social care regardless of the wealth, or lack of it, in those communities. For that reason, an £8 million townhouse in Westminster bizarrely, or perversely, ends up paying less council tax each year than somebody living in a £150,000 home in my constituency. The most affluent areas have other advantages, with Westminster City Council better placed to raise revenues through business rates, fees and charges such as car parking charges compared to poorer local authorities like mine.

This is the opposite of levelling up. It is widening the economic gap between London and the regions, as well as between the richest and poorest in society. The theme of the Budget yesterday was boosting employment, and the key to that aim is strengthening regional economies to sustain additional employment. A proportional property tax strengthens local economies and supports employment by cutting taxes in the regions by £6.5 billion. A huge annual economic stimulus of £6.5 billion would empower people to participate in their local economy. For the poorest communities such as mine, the average household saving could be as high as £900 a year.

The Government’s refusal to invest in our poorest communities will hold back regeneration, growth and employment. Rather than the Government’s tax and spend investment policy, a proportional property tax is much more efficient at allowing the poorest communities to keep more of their own money to spend and invest in their own local economy as they see fit. That might be a philosophy that the Conservatives could agree with.

The success of the levelling-up fund should be judged on the extent to which it narrows the economic divisions in our country. In fact, those divisions are widening and inequality is growing. The north-east region as a whole received just £108.5 million, compared with £210.5 million and £151.3 million allocated to the south-east and London respectively.

I am disappointed that the Chancellor said nothing in the Budget about the regressive council tax. I am proud that the Durham County Council Labour group is the first in the country to call for the introduction of a proportional property tax to replace the iniquitous council tax. It is a simple and fair tax applied equally, no matter whether someone lives in Peterlee, Pimlico, Belgravia, Blackhall, Horden, Hartlepool or Hounslow. The Government can deliver a tax cut to more than 18 million households, support regional economies and help levelling up. A proportional property tax is a levelling- up tax. I hope that both the Government and the Opposition will support it.

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