Fyson on ... staking out the party lines on the thorny topic of thehousing market and inheritance taxes

Most politicians and public commentators, casting around for an explanation of the volatility in the opinion polls at the end of the party conference season, are reluctant to allow that it could be down to the influence of the Tory leader's closing speech.

Wandering around on stage like a business guru peddling the latest management gimmick or a missionary for a religious revival, David Cameron made a virtue of his vulnerability, displaying few notes and even fewer actual policies. The Conservatives closed ranks around such clear sincerity, faced down Labour's inept spin-doctoring and got the positive press that they needed to head off an election.

This would be shallow stuff on which to assess policies, careers and ideals, so there must also have been matters of substance influencing events. Shadow chancellor George Osborne had obviously struck a chord by announcing that estates of less than £1 million would be excused inheritance tax. Battle lines were drawn up in the media and the political parties.

A lot of people suddenly came out as long-standing doubters of inheritance tax, even though it is a virtually worldwide phenomenon and not even the Tories want it to be abolished. After all, it is a relatively pain-free source of government revenue. Cutting it could be funded, so Osborne claimed, by the sort of tax on resident foreigners that Labour has never dared impose.

Everyone knows that it is the rise in house prices that has put inheritance tax in the spotlight. Older people on modest incomes and with few savings can find themselves pushed into the inheritance tax bracket through no fault of their own just because of favourable market conditions for houses that they may have bought more cheaply a generation earlier.

The connection that chancellor Alistair Darling needs to make clear, preferably as soon as this week's pre-budget report, is that the success of the government approach to house building will eventually defuse the house price issue, if a much less desirable price crash does not intervene first. Increased house building in response to demand is vital for economic well-being.

Darling could go some way towards shooting the Tories' fox by acknowledging that present house price levels are an anomaly and excluding them from inheritance tax calculations, perhaps using a sliding scale in relation to size or price, to avoid investment being hidden in private homes. He could then retain the principle of taxing unearned windfall profit, of which inherited wealth must be an even more obvious example than the betterment arising from granting planning permission.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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