Bedroom Tax…. Remember the Window Tax?

Posted: 25th October 2014

Bedroom Tax…. Remember the Window Tax?

Taking an historical view is an excellent way to gain fresh insight into perpetually relevant concerns.

As politicians debate the Mansion Tax, and landlords and tenants live with the consequences of the so-called Bedroom Tax, we look back to 1696, to a measure which endured for over 150 years.

The Window Tax was ostensibly a measure to recover losses incurred by the widespread ‘clipping’ of metal from coins. It had several great advantages: the number of windows could be readily assessed and revenue collected locally; the tax was progressive – people with large houses, presumed to be wealthy, paid more; the duty would be claimed from easily identifiable occupants rather than landlords; and tariffs could be quickly adjusted to reflect the government’s economic requirements. Furthermore, with most houses being in public view (and appropriately for a duty on windows), the taxation would be transparent.

When first introduced there was a basic charge of 2/- (10p) upon all dwellings. On top of this houses with ten to twenty windows were to pay 4/- (20p). Houses with more than twenty windows were charged 8/- (40p). From the outset there were a number of exemptions, the most significant exempted householders not wealthy enough to contribute to Church and Poor Rates.

The new tax was to be assessed, initially, by land tax commissioners, then by local JPs. The Act required, for the first time, the employment of external surveyors to examine all dutiable buildings. The surveyors were expected to support the government’s case should a householder make an appeal against their dwelling’s assessment.

Avoidance was a major concern and over the years the scope, tariffs and arrangements for collection of the tax were revised many times to increase revenue. Changes in 1747 under Henry Pelham were fiercely resisted in Scotland, where a modified system of assessment and collection was introduced.

In 1766, when only dwellings with seven windows or more were taxed, the number of houses having precisely seven windows reduced by almost two-thirds. Clearly householders on the margin of eligibility were seeking to avoid payment through blocking off windows, and the design of new buildings was also taking account of prevailing legislation. The legacy of blocked windows in some older properties remains visible to this day.

Campaigning to repeal the tax gathered weight as the nineteenth century progressed. The opposition was mainly on medical grounds – the link between poor housing and illness. The tax finally ended in 1851.

The Window Tax raised issues of ease of assessment and collection, fairness, public toleration, unintended consequences, flexibility, transparency and avoidance. These are concerns which nowadays continue to exercise policy makers and practitioners. Proponents of the Bedroom tax beware.

(This is summarised from a more detailed research project).

Altair provides research and policy advice to clients. Nick Willmott is an Altair associate and can be contacted on a or 029 2037 7268.

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