A Water Tax

Written 15 June 2022

Dominic Frisby wrote a really good and thought provoking piece here on water as real estate, the housing crisis and tax. Like him I am a bit of a Georgist in these matters and I thought he outlined a really positive vision for how we can use our available resources to make our towns and cities nicer as well as build housing. Alright, the houses are floating, but they’re still houses in my book! It’s well worth a read.

I worked for about five years for Sutton Harbour Holdings in Plymouth, which owns Sutton Harbour (including the fundus or sea bed, which is very unusual) and was involved in the periphery of various waterside and marine development and construction projects. I’ve sent a couple of points to Dominic with I hope a bit of useful information.

It’s a great idea, I think homes and communities could be built that people would enjoy living in and would make our towns and cities more interesting. Government won’t adopt it soon, at least not nationally, but a good way forward might be local pilot schemes. I know this sounds like a bit of a cop out, but slow progress is better than total stop. Could it be tacked onto one of the new freeports (of which Plymouth is one)? It could be a triple win: houses built, water made more useful and a trial for a Georgist tax.

The bigger picture of course is that the main threat to the proposal is from NIMBYism, probably dressed up in environmental concern, safety fears about people drowning, shark attacks, undesirable crusties bringing down property prices, well you get the idea. Our issue as a country is that we have forgotten how to make progress. In my lifetime we’ve gone from a country that can do things to one that can merely bring law, finance, administration and a large slice of negativism to bear on all difficult questions. It has delivered stagnation and decline. For every good idea there are dozens who will devote energy to explaining why it can’t be done or campaigning to make sure nothing happens. The water tax is nice idea, but until our politics and politicians can take on the forces of comfortable stagnation then it’s difficult to see it succeeding. And if that nut can be cracked, the impediments to housebuilding will have been removed and there might well be easier ways to address the housing problem. But reinvigorating our waterways and a tax trial are worthwhile goals in themselves.

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