Window tax avoidance, Queens' College Cambridge

Professor Chantal Stebbings speaks to HMRC about the impact of tax on the nineteenth century landscape

Professor Chantal Stebbings of the Bracton Centre for Legal History Research was invited to speak to HMRC on 24 October 2017 in London, as part of their Prestigious Speakers Programme.

Professor Stebbings spoke on the subject of Tax in the Historic Landscape, which is part of her British Academy funded project on the impact which tax had on the urban landscape in the nineteenth century.

In the first part of the illustrated presentation she spoke about how the window tax and the taxes on building materials changed the appearance of the townscape. Simple tax avoidance techniques, namely using untaxed building materials instead of taxed bricks, stone and slate resulted in many visible changes to the urban landscape. Concrete and cheaper stone came to be used instead of taxed bricks, in some areas weather-boarding became popular, and slates and tiles alternated in popularity for roofing according to their taxed status. The tax on bricks resulted in a plain style of building which avoided the use of polished or shaped bricks. The window tax gave rise to a very clear visual change, namely the building of houses with fewer than seven windows to come within the tax exemption, and the avoidance of all decorative windows and bay windows in particular. The monotony of the London townscape was largely put down to this. The abolition of the construction taxes in the middle of the nineteenth century was widely welcomed by taxpayer who resented this fiscal intrusion into matters of personal taste, and led to the highly decorated and ornate building style of the late Victorian era.

In the second part of the presentation, the extent to which there existed a discrete architecture of taxation in the form of specialised buildings in London to administer the ever-growing body of taxes in nineteenth-century Britain was discussed. Using Somerset House, the Excise Office and the Custom House in London as examples, and also local tax offices, Professor Stebbings showed how nineteenth-century architects used their design of buildings to promote specific and subtle messages about taxation. Primarily the product of practical imperatives, style yet had a role. Avoiding ostentation and ornate grandeur, the central tax buildings in London were yet large, dignified and imposing. The message was one of state authority to tax, responsibility in spending the revenue, control and solidity in managing the country’s finances. Outside London, the aim was quite different: it was to absorb tax offices into the vernacular architecture, to make them indistinguishable from other public or commercial buildings, to reinforce the ethos fundamental to British taxation, that of taxation by the consent of the people and by means of local administration by their peers.

The presentation concluded with a lively discussion addressing the avoidance of the construction taxes, the wider problems caused by the window tax, other impacts on the landscape, and current views on the location of tax offices.

Date: 31 October 2017

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