Thursday, February 07, 2013

The UK Treasury world view is that having overseas holidays is bad

Now I am not one to accept on face value a report commissioned by an industry sector for political lobbying purposes.  For that is exactly what the report on Air Passenger Duty is.

So, it is not unreasonable to be sceptical about some elements of the analysis.   The Treasury has completely dismissed them, as has the leftwing environmental lobby group AirportWatch.

Treasury's view is simple, as scrapping air passenger duty would reduce the tax take to government by up to £4 billion a year.  The assumption is that the people who would retain that money couldn't possibly spend it as wisely as Her Majesty's government.  Business travellers and tourists, both local and foreign, would presumably be expected to fritter away their money on such trivialities as goods and services they want, or to save/invest in businesses or for later capital or consumption goods (most of which will generate tax as income or in consumption).  The leftwing anti-aviation environmentalists of course believe that more money spend on state institutions like the NHS, Police and schools must be a better good than people keeping their own money.

However, part of the argument against scrapping Air Passenger Duty is purely mercantilist.  Air Passenger Duty reduces the incidence of British residents engaging in overseas tourism.  The UK has a "tourism trade deficit" which essentially means that Britons spend more in travelling abroad than foreigners spend on their trips to the UK.  More curiously is that this deficit only exists outside London, so that despite the preponderance of London origin business traffic, most inbound tourism expenditure is in London.  In short, tourism is part of London's economy in a positive way.  The rest of the UK generates a "tourism trade deficit", because the number of locals (outside London) flying overseas for holidays is not offset by foreigners visiting those areas.  In short, foreigners don't come to Britain to visit Birmingham, Manchester or even Scotland and Wales in sufficient numbers, or spending enough money to compensate for the locals keen to flee.

So what?  If Britons can afford to go on holiday to foreign countries it is something to celebrate.  They spend money on holidays to Spain, Italy, France, the United States or wherever, because they get more utility out of that than spending it on a holiday to the Isle of Wight, the Lake District or Skye.  It isn't a direct financial benefit to the UK, but they enjoy themselves.

That freedom to enjoy life, to visit where you want with your own money is none of the business of the government.  Treasury acts as if the money spent by UK residents on overseas trips is a loss that it should be concerned about.  That's simply wrong.  It isn't your money, and the people who return from these holidays are refreshed invigorated and are more likely to be productive, happier citizens, who work hard, raise happy families and are less of a burden upon others.

Treasury doesn't understand that.

Abolition of Air Passenger Duty would increase UK inbound tourism and outbound.  The inbound is a win for the economy, the outbound is a win for residents, and the inbound win may offset the shift of UK residents holidaying overseas instead of in the UK.   The abolition of duty would reduce tax revenue, but the state spends ten times that subsidising housing costs that it constrains the supply of through planning restrictions.  The state spends double that on contributions to the European Union.   The state spends the same on subsidies to preferred industries. 

Of course abolishing Air Passenger Duty would mean demand for air travel would increase, and it would confront the spineless approach to airport capacity around London that has meant the government has vetoed expansion of any of London's three largest airports.  Good.  So it should.  Get out of the way, and let Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted expand without your interference, if their owners wish it.

Naturally it benefits UK based airlines, which is why they are lobbying for it.  Of course, why shouldn't they? It is a tax on their business.  They don't get any specific services from the state that justify it, so Air Passenger Duty should go.   It should go, not primarily because it would boost inbound tourism and reduce the costs of doing business from the UK to other countries, but because it is a tax on people undertaking an activity that not only generates business, but gives them pleasure.

What about the environment? Well the argument that as aviation fuel isn't taxed it is "unfair" compared to land based modes, is ludicrous.  The response to that is that it is equally valid to reduce fuel tax, and besides almost all rail services competing with airline services are electrically powered.  In addition, fuel tax is not specifically an environmental tax.   

Air Passenger Duty is a tax on flying.   It isn't for airports or air traffic control, and isn't about compensating anyone for noise or other pollution (nor could it or should it be so).  There is an economic case for phasing it out, but more compelling, in my view, is the philosophical case.

When UK residents fly, they do so either for business reasons or personal reasons.  The business reasons are typically about generating wealth, and are good for that reason alone.  The personal reasons can range from leisure to visiting friends and relatives to attending a funeral.  The more of that people do, the happier they are, and as long as they pay their travel costs, there is no good reason for the state to tax them over and above that.

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