The Wiki Man

Why everywhere should be more like Essex

…and how we can change the tax system to make it happen

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Apart from the Wye Valley, where I grew up, there are only two places in Britain I’d consider living: Kent and Essex. Since Kent grabbed the ‘Garden of England’ moniker, it’s generally considered the posher of the two, but in reality the two counties are mirror images of each other: in the words of one travel writer, the Medway towns are ‘where you take your northern friends when they claim that southerners are soft’. In both places it is possible to drive through an idyllic medieval village and two miles later find yourself at a KFC drive-thru which is open until two in the morning (I like both).

I now live near Sevenoaks — a town so rich that you reach it by exiting the M25 from the fast lane — but in time I’d like to move east. This is partly because east Kent has some of the only sanely priced housing within reach of London, but also because of the huge gains you enjoy from having a large and massively able population of enterprising geezers, white van men and ‘blue-collar aristocrats’ around you. If you have a window that needs repairing or want a reconditioned fuel-pump for a 1988 Ford Mustang, you’ll find there are 20,000 people called Dave within a ten-mile radius who can sort you out at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Everybody is busy doing things.


The entrepreneurialism you find in Kent and Essex are widely derided, but they make the place an extraordinarily easy and agreeable place to live. Deal, which recently and deservedly won the Daily Telegraph’s ‘High Street of the Year’ award, has a business culture more like Brooklyn than Britain: there is a micropub (a Kent invention), a furniture shop which also serves tea, and a restaurant which charges £5 a year membership and which opens for only a few days a week — when it is usually packed.

This experimentation enriches not only the people who practise it but also the people who live around it. By contrast, visiting Scotland a few years ago during its 48-hour tourist season, we were turned away from a pizza restaurant at 7.30 p.m. because it had ‘run out of dough’. There the service culture seems not to have changed since Dr Johnson’s visit to a Scottish inn where ‘Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction.’ To be wealthy, it is not enough to have money; you also need people who are sufficiently eager to relieve you of it.

Therefore the basis of a good tax system seems very simple. As far as possible, it should not discourage ordinary people from doing useful things. It has always struck me as odd that we tax people for working for quite modest sums, and yet do not tax people at all for inheriting money or making a profit on a house. So the Conservative idea of increasing the personal income tax allowance to £12,500 seems a good start. But why not go further — why not increase the personal allowance to £20,000?

How would you fund this? Very simple. You get rid of all tax relief on pension contributions, which currently costs £54 billion a year. If this relief is intended to be a nudge to encourage saving, it is a very ineffectual and expensive one. The only moral justification for it is that people with large pensions will eventually end up paying tax when they withdraw their savings. But with a much higher tax allowance for pensioners (along with everyone else) this argument no longer holds. The best way to redistribute wealth is to stop redistributing it upwards.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • davidshort10

    And capital gains should be charged on the sale of one’s house.

    • Andrew Smith

      Why not tax breathing – after all, some people are born with a greater lung capacity, which is blatantly unfair.

  • Guest

    If you have a window that needs repairing or want a reconditioned fuel-pump for a 1988 Ford Mustang, you’ll find there are 20,000 people called Dave within a ten-mile radius who can sort you out at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Everybody is busy doing things.

    In that respect, totally unlike Cornwall, then. I don’t know how anyone copes in Cornwall without being a Renaissance man/Olympic DIYer/self-made millionaire. Instead, the phrase ‘dead-end county for dead-end people’ comes to mind. The people that aren’t dead-end are only visiting.

    • starfish

      I do just fine
      Plenty of sole traders who can fix/do anything and at reasonable prices

      • Fenton!

        Mmm. This side of Christmas?

        • starfish

          Yup

  • John Carins

    Taxing savings is indefensible.

    • rorysutherland

      But less indefensible than taxing earned income, no?

      I mean savings are just income earned by someone who lacks the need (or imagination) to spend it right now.

      • John Carins

        Your belief that money should be spent asap is the problem. Savings need to be encouraged so that people can afford the big ticket items: houses, cars etc. The less then that needs to be borrowed. Also, without the savers how can banks etc lend? The financial crash was in part due to too much credit.

      • Fenton!

        I disagree that they necessarily lack the need OR the imagination: there are many goods I would have LOVED to spend money on, but didn’t because I had to provide for my own future and that meant delaying gratification or just not indulging myself.

        I’m not unusual. Other people save for the reason I always have — that at the end of years of work, they want to have something to show for it, and they want to invest their savings so as not to be old and living in poverty. They don’t trust the gov’t to give them the standard of living they would need when and if they’re unable to work. They save because saving is a basic life skill which makes you readier to meet an emergency — whether your own or someone else’s. They save because they’re trying to build wealth. All of which ought to be encouraged, not discouraged, by gov’t policy.

      • Terry Field

        Execute people with soft palms, eh???

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Damn right. Thieving bastards. Keep in mind that donating funds to a terrorist organisation is illegal under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. And HMG more than qualifies.

  • Fenton!

    ‘yet do not tax people at all for inheriting money’

    1. Are you right about that? No ‘death taxes’?
    2. How do you think that a lot of the money inherited came into being in the first place? Perhaps somebody earned it and paid tax on it already — as will be the case with my inheritance. Why is the gov’t, aka my fellow citizens, my neighbours on the street, more entitled to that money than I am? They get plenty enough tax money out of me as it is, from all the other sources (property, salary, purchases).

    • rorysutherland

      There are a variety of things you can tax. Consumption, wealth, capital gains, inheritance, energy consumption, property, fags, booze, corporate profits, income: etc.

      I am happy to debate the relative merits of any of these. However all I am arguing is this: if there is one thing you should tax *last* it is money earned by honest and useful labour in order to support yourself and your family. (So if there is one thing the government should be given more credit for (and, bizarrely, it was a Lib Dem idea) it is the business of removing large groups of working people from income tax. It just hasn’t gone far enough.

      I am not proposing wealth redistribution here: but the £56 billion on tax rebates on pensions is simply ridiculous. I have contemporaries (some quite wealthy, some less so) who simply do not trust the pensions and financial services sector, and prefer to save via other means (property, etc) or who simply plan to buy health insurance and keep working until they are older. These people seem no less virtuous to me than anyone else, yet they see no benefit from that £56 billion at all.

      Not directly related, but this is interesting…….

      http://www.libertarianism.org/columns/why-did-hayek-support-basic-income

      • Fenton!

        Thanks for that, Rory. I see your point. I would add that VAT is now so high that it makes service-providers difficult for a lot of people to afford. 20% added to any expense can easily make the difference between being able to afford a desired service and having to say ‘sorry, we can’t do business’. This puts both the customer and the provider in the position of having to decide whether to be legal and not have the transaction, or illegally ignore VAT and have the transaction anyway, to the benefit of them both. The gov’t has got so greedy (and desperate) that it is actively interfering with economic well-being this way. I would really like to see a politician address this.

        I’ve bookmarked the link, thank you.

  • Vinnie

    essex and kent are the best examples of modern Britiain where class doesn’t play a role,sure there are parts of essex where people are insecure and pretentious but on the whole, the aristocrats mix well with the working class and look beyond that

    You go up north you’re judged on how southern you are you go elsewhere in the south you are judged in essex and kent you just are equal

    • rorysutherland

      I completely agree with this.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I haven’t come across any aristocrats in Kent, unless you count Alan Clark, a charming man who showed us over his estate out of pure good fellowship, But his father was something jumped-up, was he not? The rest of your argument holds. I believe people are pretty posh at the Sussex end of things. It LOOKS posh, vineyards nd so forth.

      • Fenton!

        You mean the Weald. Yes, I love the area around Tunbridge Wells: Frant (which is just inside the border of Sussex and not far from that Winnie-the-Pooh ‘forest’ of which an estate agent told me ‘I don’t rate it’), Goudhurst, Penshurst, Horsmonden, Brenchley….

        • Fergus Pickering

          Yes, that’s the spot. And tiny primary schools.

    • carpetburn

      Your last sentence makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  • post_x_it

    Enterprising Dave can usually sort you out for the weekend as well.

    • Freedom

      Oh yes? Marrieds, too? Where do I leave my number ; )

  • GraveDave

    That’s a lovely set of roofs up there. Or are they mosque battlements.
    Tee-hee.

    • Fergus Pickering

      No mozzies to speak of in Kent except Dover which is a bit of a sink of iniquity. Not many people of colour at all except students and some doctors. I woudn’t vouch dor the dusky doctors, mind you. Though the ones that fixed my eyesight ere all right. In Kent we speak as we find.

      • carpetburn

        Isn’t gravesend in kent?

        • Fergus Pickering

          It is. A ghastly place for years, before mozzies were even thought of.

  • E Hart

    Sounds sensible to me. The highest levels of taxation should be reserved for rentier functions i.e. doing bugger all and sitting back ready to scoop the loot. This isn’t entrepreneurial but inflationary parasitism based on skewing or ring-fencing supply.

    The lowest levels of tax should be levied on those who provide well-paid employment, long-term productive investments or who add value (by the former or through the provision of services or ancillary functions – i.e. supply-chain-related). One man’s credit is another man’s debt or should be. Instead, we’ve ended up with blessed are the carpetbaggers for they do useth fiat money for speculation on houses or vanity projects for which demand is non-existent, insufficient or insolvent (e.g. the US, Spain, Ireland…).

    That old chestnut about lower progressive taxation providing more incentives is not borne out by the facts [see: Saens, Diamond and the rest of ’em]. When the US and UK had progressive taxation in excess of 70% on higher earners, their economies were much more productive and GM actually made cars rather than sold the finance for them. The overall economy benefits more from productive enterprise than inflationary casino banking, financial service strip-mining aka consultancy (of the kind that did for ICI and GEC/Marconi/Cable & Wireless), because unlike the former it isn’t cannibalistic.

    There are many reasons for choosing Kent and Essex. There’s Shepherd Neame Masterbrew…, ergh… The Sportsman (at Seasalter), the Thames, the old market towns of East Essex and the varied countryside of both. Mind you the Thames isn’t what it used to be, when the liners tied up at Tilbury, the river was full of barges, lighters, tugs and both banks were lined with cranes, mills and factories. It was atmospheric, none more so than on a foggy autumn night or on New Year’s Eve, when hidden monsters sounded their horns.

    Sevenoaks? The most interesting thing to happen in Sevenoaks in living memory was during WWII, when Military Police were sent in to stop scores of drunken Canadian soldiers from lynching the mutinous publican of the Captain Bligh. These days only a sale at Russell & Bromley or the arrival of Mary Berry could promote such excitement.

    In the Sixties, where else could you go for a drink to a lonely country pub (the Ringlestone Arms) and be greeted by two elderly spinster sisters tooled up with 12 bore shotguns? Similarly, where else could you now find an auction which runs from ponies to monkeys before being sorted? Both places still retain a lot of their idiosyncrasies and charm.

    • Fenton!

      when the US and UK had progressive taxation in excess of 70% on higher earners,

      You’re living in a dream world. I didn’t bother to read the rest.

  • Anousheh

    good article, becasue we were beginning to HATE Essex. How about a photo credit please? Where and by whom?

  • David Tremain

    Essex was mentioned twice in this article, both times as “Kent and Essex”. His only examples were Sevenoaks and Deal (for which I’m not sure I can think of Essex equivalents – maybe Brentwood?), and his example of the rest of Britain was a non-specific pizza restaurant in “Scotland.” As well as having very little relevance to the question of taxation, I suspect from his descriptions that he might not actually have been to Essex, or seen very much of Kent, at all. If the best example he can muster of entrepeneurial spirit (supposedly admirable enough to be the basis for a major, and rightly unpopular, tax reform), is a poncy restaurant in a clearly already affluent area, I would suggest that the Spectator might consider getting a new journalist. Embarrassingly bad writing.

    • carpetburn

      Yeah lets write an article with the heading referring to essex but actually the content all about kent.

  • carpetburn

    I couldn’t think of any worse existence in modern british society than living in a dead soulless essex / kent 1960’s new town and having to do the daily commute into and out of London on a daily basis.

  • Tom

    I’ve always been stunned at how in the UK we end up taxing “value” that results from labor and production, but that derived from the fortune of owning an inflating asset and thus creating no value is deemed worthy of no taxation.

  • Terry Field

    “I now live near Sevenoaks — a town so rich that you reach it by exiting the M25 from the fast lane — but in time I’d like to move east. This is partly because east Kent has some of the only sanely priced housing within reach of London, but also because of the huge gains you enjoy from having a large and massively able population of enterprising geezers, white van men and ‘blue-collar aristocrats’ around you. If you have a window that needs repairing or want a reconditioned fuel-pump for a 1988 Ford Mustang, you’ll find there are 20,000 people called Dave within a ten-mile radius who can sort you out at 8 a.m. tomorrow. Everybody is busy doing things.”

    Sounds like Hell on Earth.

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