Exclusive new polling: climate taxes still a hard sell

“Think globally act locally” is a nice slogan, but a new Deltapoll survey finds town halls may struggle to raise council tax to tackle climate change

May 07, 2020
Photo:  John Giles/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: John Giles/PA Wire/PA Images

Along with the largely forgotten local elections that were supposed to be held today, this was also supposed to be a day for any local referendums that town halls are required to hold when they wish to jack up council tax above a national threshold. But the polling stations are every bit as locked shut as the rest of us are locked down. For anyone with an interest in environmental politics, this is a frustration, because one intriguing council tax referendum was due to take place on the Warwick District Council “Climate Emergency Action Programme.” This plan was for a ring-fenced “Climate Action Fund” financed by a £1 a week rise in the (Band D) council tax rate.

Increases in council taxes are rarely popular. The large annual bill makes it a particularly stark levy, and compared to income tax, National Insurance or even VAT it is designed in a way that imposes a relatively heavy burden on people on modest incomes. The only previous council tax referendum under the current legislation saw a big defeat, while another planned vote was subsequently cancelled. Whether the Warwick plan will now ever be put to a vote is unclear. A meeting to cancel the referendum had itself to be cancelled because of the lockdown.

To find out whether the Warwick scheme would achieve widespread support in Britain as a whole, Deltapoll, between 13th and 16th March (before the lockdown), asked a representative sample of 1,545 adults to “Imagine a referendum was held on increasing council tax for everyone in Britain by £1 a week in order to fund a greater reduction in climate change.

Just 43 per cent said they would vote in favour. But since 13 per cent said they did not know and 7 per cent said they would not vote, only 37 per cent said they would vote against. On this basis, a nationwide referendum on a £1 a week increase in council tax for climate action would be expected to be won by around 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

For green tax enthusiasts, this margin is far too close for comfort. Voters don’t actually need to worry about paying such a tax when they answer a pollster’s question, in the way that they do when they approach a ballot box. After the last year or two of sharply rising climate consciousness and the high-profile spread of campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion, the absence of a solid lead for the idea is striking. Polls this time last year were finding record levels of concern about climate change, with 80 per cent “fairly” or “very” concerned.

Perhaps people just don’t think council tax and local government are the right means to tackle climate change. Maybe carbon taxes, where the tax itself should help solve the problem, would be more popular. But in 2016/17, which is not so long ago, the European Social Survey (ESS) found that just 36 per cent of Britons were in favour of more taxation of fossil fuels.

Support for a green council tax is inevitably limited among climate change sceptics of different varieties—among the 24 per cent who think “the planet is getting warmer but this is mostly due to natural forces rather than the actions of humans,” the 9 per cent who aren’t sure how much humans play a role, and especially the 4 per cent who think that the planet is not getting warmer, there is precious little support. They are a minority, but—taken together—a large enough one to bear on the political arithmetic. For as long as a total of only 62 per cent believe that “climate change is happening and this is mostly due to actions of humans,” one might think it is always going to be tough to build a big overall majority for more environmental taxes.

However, perhaps environmentalists need not despair, since voters are not always as predictable (or consistent) as it is easy to assume from individual questions. Some people appear to be in favour of action on climate change even when they’re not fully convinced that humans are mainly responsible for global warming. Last year Deltapoll found that 13 per cent of the public approved of the then proposed net-zero emissions target for 2050 while also not believing climate change was mostly human caused. This year support for the net-zero 2050 law is, at 65 per cent, slightly higher than the 62 per cent who believe climate change is largely man-made. And the fact that the total support for the law has held up this year, actually somewhat increasing, dispels any assumption that the future climate threat has been forgotten because Covid-19 is a more imminent danger.

Most of those who approve of the net-zero law are in favour of a £1 a week increase in council tax for climate change reduction. But remarkably, most of those against a green council tax still support the net-zero 2050 legal target. This might suggest that the obstacle facing environmentalists is an aversion to taxes in general—or council tax in particular.

Regarding this month’s target for 100,000 coronavirus tests a day, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said last week “Of course 100,000 is in some ways an arbitrary number but setting a target like that is how you get things done in a big bureaucracy like the NHS—it galvanises the system.” By contrast, despite widespread support, the 2010 child poverty target did not galvanise the system, but was scrapped as arbitrary when it became clear that it would not be met. It is still not clear how supporters of net-zero 2050 expect the target to be reached, and after this new poll they may be less confident they can rely on taxes to pull it off.