Welsh Labour to hike council tax by spying on homeowners with satellites

The Welsh Government is using satellites to spy on homeowners with big gardens, as it seeks to overhaul council tax, The Telegraph can disclose.

Families who live in areas with good schools or lower crime rates are among those who will be hit with higher council tax bills, under plans being drawn up by the Senedd.

The Labour-run Welsh Government says it will introduce higher council tax bands and higher tax band rates to address “property wealth” and “rebalance” the current system.

Sir Keir Starmer has insisted that a Labour government will not raise taxes. But he has also said that the Welsh Government is a “blueprint” for “what Labour can do across the UK”.

A wider UK council tax revaluation, which has previously been advocated by Jim McMahon, now Sir Keir’s shadow local government minister, would be likely to result in tax increases for millions of households.

Asked if the party would revaluate council tax, a Labour spokesman said that it has “no plans” to do so, but declined to categorically rule out such a move.

Vaughan Gething speaking in the Senedd in Cardiff earlier this yearVaughan Gething speaking in the Senedd in Cardiff earlier this year

The Senedd: Labour has dubbed Wales a ‘blueprint’ for the UK – Matthew Horwood/PA

So far, the Welsh Government has not publicised how it plans to reform the system. It has commissioned the Valuation Office, an agency of HMRC, to use the “latest technology” to value homes in Wales.

The Telegraph can now reveal the data that are currently being gathered by the Valuation Office, where officials are building an “automated valuation model” to prepare up-to-date values for all of the 1.5 million homes in Wales.

As part of this model, they are using “aerial and street view photography” in order to verify the size of houses and gardens.

They are also looking at Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs), meaning the more energy efficient homes – for example, those with double glazing – could potentially be charged higher taxes.

They are examining local authority planning websites, meaning homeowners with extensions or outhouses could also be charged higher council tax.

Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, said: “Sir Keir Starmer is using his ‘blueprint’ Labour government in Wales to road test his plans to hike up council taxes on people’s homes.

A view of a village and river in Wales, with woods, from the airA view of a village and river in Wales, with woods, from the air

Revaluating council tax will increase charges for larger properties – Michael Roberts/Moment RF

“Straight from the same old Labour playbook, these Big Brother tactics will punish families with higher bills simply for having good schools or lower crime.”

He added that while the Conservatives will keep council tax down, a Labour government will “take us back to square one with higher borrowing and higher taxes”.

The Valuation Office is also looking at how good the transport links, crime rates and schools are in any one area, to feed into its model on council tax revaluation.

In addition to information from the Land Registry – which records the prices that houses are bought and sold for – the valuation model will include “plot size”. using data from the Ordnance Survey National Geographic Database.

The detailed information about how the Welsh Government will carry out its revaluation of council tax emerged in answers to parliamentary questions, tabled by Paul Howell, the Tory MP.

A revaluation of council tax bands across England, which would involve valuing every home in the country, could prove hugely controversial.

Jim McMahon wearing a suit and tie and standing on a suburban streetJim McMahon wearing a suit and tie and standing on a suburban street

Mr McMahon, of Sir Keir’s shadow cabinet, has advocated revaluation – Ian Forsyth/Getty

Similar plans were postponed by Tony Blair in 2005 after a 2003 revaluation in Wales led to tax rises for many households. The backlash prompted Labour to pledge in its 2010 manifesto not to hold a council tax revaluation in the next parliament.

David Cameron dropped the plan altogether after coming to power in 2010, following estimates that it would have left more than seven million families in England paying an extra £320 a year, or more.

However, a national revaluation has been regularly presented to Conservative chancellors by Treasury officials since then, as a way to ease the tax burden on those in lower-value homes. The plan has been rejected on the basis that it would lead to increases for millions.

Currently, council tax bands in England are based on the price for which each property would have sold in 1991.

In Feb 2020, Mr McMahon said: “We should look back and recognise that there has been a collective failure on council tax revaluation and the need to modernise. Governments duck this because it is not popular, but we now have a system that is very unfair.”

The Valuation Office Agency denied that “Big Brother” tactics are being employed, with a spokesperson saying: “We are simply accessing freely available information so that any new valuations are based on the most up to date information.

A composite satellite view of WalesA composite satellite view of Wales

The Welsh Government is using satellite images to revaluate council tax – Alamy

“The valuation methods we are using are internationally recognised as best practice.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We are listening to communities while considering options for reform of council tax in Wales.

“We are acutely aware of the financial pressures people are facing due to the cost-of-living crisis and the UK Government’s mismanagement of the economy, and this will be at the forefront of our considerations.”

Darren Jones, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the treasury, said: “The next Labour government will get council finances back on an even keel with multi-year financial settlements so they can plan for the long term and make savings.

“All our decisions are taken to get more money back into the pockets of working people. Only Labour can provide the chance our country needs.”

Leave a Reply