One of my photos

Ugly Buildings. Again.

January 8th, 2007 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · No Comments · Politics

There were two interesting articles in the papers today, which I will attempt to clumsily relate to each other.

The first was Ashley Seager in the Guardian, arguing that we need a land tax to replace council tax and possibly allow reductions in VAT as well, and the second was in the Argus: a story about the possible redevelopment of an office block in Brighton.

As far as land tax is concerned, I have a lot of sympathy for the concept. The writer made the point that a lack of any sort of land or property tax, based on value, has led to increasing inequalities. On the face of it there is an unfairness that the absolute cheapest property in the lowest council tax band attracts a third of the tax for the biggest house possible in the top band, even if the house is worth 100 times as much and presumably the income/wealth of the inhabitants is far more than 3 times that of the hovel-dweller. Have the richest ever only been 3 times richer than the poorest?

That much is pretty straightforward, and something which has bothered me for a while, but another arguments made was that the absence of any sort of annual property tax does absolutely nothing to encourage landowners to develop land. The example given was of Battersea Power Station, bought for £10 million and then sold for £400 million after doing nothing but crumble for eleven years. An appreciation of £35 million a year with a lot less than that spent on maintaining and securing the site. There was no incentive to do anything when that much could be made by doing nothing.

A further argument was about second homes and those tax avoiders who live here but manage to pay no income tax and contribute very little while owning much. Interesting, but I was a lot more interested in the empty property implications. There is great pressure to build housing and offices on green belt land, but a lot of land and property is vacant and allowed to stay that way, or is brownfield land held in the landbanks of supermarkets and other organisations. At the moment it costs them nothing to prevent development in the locations where it would be more suitable: in fact all the time the asset is appreciating for them.

The Argus story is about just such a property, a tower called Anston House on Preston Rd in Brighton. It is described as the ugliest building in Sussex, but lets not start that argument all over again, as we know every planning meeting in every council involves some building or other being described as the ugliest ever.

Anyway, this 9- or 10-storey block has been unoccupied since 1987. In the 19 years it has been empty it has obviously declined a bit, although I wouldn’t like to speculate on what has happened to the value of it, or the value of its land for development. I expect that the increase in value has far exceeded any costs in keeping it empty.

I don’t live in Brighton, but I do visit, and when I visit I go past this building, although I can’t say I have noticed it: the whole road is full of office blocks and tall apartment blocks so it is not out-of-place apart from the state of decay which is not immediately apparent when you are keeping your eye on the road, but I am sure it is a constant annoyance for anyone living there.

So the question is, would a land tax or property tax have made it a lot less likely that this huge chunk of property in a prime position would have stayed derelict for almost 20 years? I think so. Especially a tax which did not give huge exemptions for empty property, or even penalised wilful waste of land. The follow-up question has to be how many bits of land are there in a similar situation?

I can think of a few examples immediately just in areas which I know: the old office block by the ‘squareabout’ in Crawley is one and No. 1 Westminster Bridge Rd is the most obvious example. Both are in areas where there is a huge demand for housing and office space and both have been derelict for years. The suspicion has to be that every town or city has several such sites and that together they would meet the current demand but there is just no incentive for the owners to do anything.

I’m afraid that since reading Freakonomics, I have been quite taken with the concept of looking for the incentives in everything…

Getting back to Anston House, it must really irritate the locals because the local Green party councillor says he would “welcome getting that horrible building pulled down.” Surely it would be greener to just modernise it? There are a couple of apartment blocks in Lambeth which have been modernised inside and re-clad outside which look OK – not great, but no worse than a brand new building would have been since they have been clad to match the current vernacular for tower blocks. An office building in Crawley was completely gutted, stripped to the bare concrete floors and pillars, and then rebuilt with modern-looking exteriors.

At the time I thought the remodelling was so extreme that they might as well have pulled it down, but on reflection the amount of concrete used for the main structure and foundations was considerable, and isn’t the production of concrete a major source of either pollution or CO2 emissions? (I’m sure I read that somewhere)

We have a throwaway society, which extends to buildings themselves. The fact that an official Green party councillor is so ready to ignore that and see this building torn down at any cost to the wider environment gives some sort of indication of how unpopular it is locally.

If a land tax will encourage greater use of otherwise derelict land and reduce a few inequalities along the way then I’m all for it. If nothing else it will have an effect on those boring conversations about property prices with everyone inflating their own.

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