There is a confetti of paper being produced on value capture. Think tanks are embracing it as a panacea to the housing crisis, infrastructure delivery and reducing inequality. Two parliamentary committees are considering the issue. Ministers are making regular reference to the subject.
The abundance of comment suggests we need to be careful. Part of the reason so many are embracing it is that it means very different things to different people. At one end of the scale there are the flat-earthers – those who believe that any increase in the value of land belongs to the community unless it is a direct consequence of personal blood, sweat and tears. At the other end of the spectrum are the apostles of the night watchman state – who deny the right of anyone even to regulate the use of land in a way which diminishes value.
Three separate value components need to be treated differently:
- If a development is asked to pay for the infrastructure needed to support it some people call that value capture. Land value increases and part of it is then “taken”. This is not really value capture. It is simply development paying the full cost of development. In the same way that landowners pay for bricks when they build, payment should be made to cover the cost of any necessary infrastructure. Any proper residual calculation of the value of land should reflect these costs. The exercise is more “right pricing” land, rather than value capture.
- Land increases in value as a function of many factors. If there is specific public investment that increases the value of land then that value can, potentially, be captured to pay for the cost of the infrastructure. This might be called a “repayment value capture“. Where land values increase, in total, by more than the cost of infrastructure there is a more interesting question about whether all of that value increase should be captured, a “pure value capture“.
- Finally, there are increases in the value of land that are not attributable to any particular cause or investment. The value might rise because of third party investment in the area – an investment as simple as a coffee shop or restaurant opening up. It might reflect changes in working patterns or simply changing demography, with greater demand for the land or property in that location. This is the most difficult tranche of value increase to address. Some of the historic discussions have called this the “unearned increment“. It underpins a large part of the house price increases. To date, that residential value increase has been left in the pockets of the lucky owners. In any honest debate about value capture, the value captured by these owners would be under consideration using fairer and less disruptive tools than SDLT and moving on from the sole focus of capture on developers and the point of development.
In broad terms it seems unarguable that land should be “right priced” to reflect the cost of the infrastructure needed to support it. Similarly, it is difficult to argue against cost recovery (repayment) value capture. Indeed, equitably, it is hard to argue against a pure value capture if the land value increase can genuinely be attributed to public infrastructure investment. There is a bigger question about what should happen to the unearned increment.
The next blog will cover some of the ways in which land could better be right priced, and value captured, using the planning system without abusing it. It being a relatively pragmatic world, we will leave the “unearned increment” to the tax system.