Mr. Fletcher Moulton thus expressed his views upon this question: - "In the case of unoccupied land in towns, I am of opinion that this taxation would be both just and beneficial. On examination, it will be found that the land is held in that state because a higher price is sought than can be obtained at the time. But for that it would be sold. This price is sure to be a town-site price, and the owner is being assisted to obtain it by the communal expenditure, and ought to contribute to it in proportion to the value of the property. This supposes the case to be one in which the land is not deliberately kept vacant, or only put to small and temporary use, because the owner wishes ultimately to dispose of it at an enhanced price due to the growth of the town during the intervening period. But the latter is a common case, and it is important to put a check upon it, as it is very injurious to the public welfare."
Moulton, Vol. IV. of Min. of Ev., App. No. X., par. 9.
Also Mr. Harper says that if lands are ripe for building, they ought to be rated as such, having regard to the necessary fairness to other owners. ... "The growth of the community and the public expenditure have produced a certain value; he (the owner) does not wish to use that value, but he has no more right to stand between the community, which has produced that value, and the governing body which requires a portion of that value for its expenditure, than any other owner has."
It was then suggested to Mr. Harper that "although you will not compel him to do it, you will put such a tremendous fine upon him that no income can stand it." He replied, "I would put a fine upon him such as would be moderate in comparison with the income that he might realise if he chose."
As regards valuation, apart from any question of policy or expediency of taxation, unoccupied land which is situated within towns and surrounded by buildings, and which could, without controversy, be described as "land ripe for building," would not appear to present serious difficulty. But in the case of land on the outskirts of towns, which is described as " ripening for building," but which has no greater present annual value than that of the adjacent agricultural land, difficulties of valuation would occur. Such land may have a very small present building value, that is to say, its capital value to the speculator would be little more than the capital value of the agricultural rent, or it may have only a prospective value of a speculative character, perhaps dependent on the drift of fashion towards one side or another of a town, or on the enlargement of an urban district, or the building of manufactories, or the making of a railway or a tramway line. Such land is often bought by speculators who are content for some years with a small annual return on the capital expenditure, in the anticipation of being able to make a larger profit, should the land become more valuable for building purposes.
The difficulties of ascertaining how far land is actually ripe or merely ripening for building, are discussed hereafter.
Apart from questions of valuation, two other practical points must be considered : (1.) In what areas land, ripe or ripening for building, should be rated, if at all.
(2.) To what extent such land should be rated.
On the first point, the evidence before the Royal Commission on Local Taxation was mainly directed to land "ripe or ripening for building" within or adjacent to large towns, though it may, of course, be the case that in most agricultural districts, however remote, the land immediately adjacent to a village or a railway station has some prospective building value or accommodation value, however small.
On the second question, namely, the extent to which such land should be rated, the answer would seem to depend upon the reasons put forward for rating it.
One object would be to secure a more equitable distribution of local burdens, having special regard to benefit conferred by the expenditure out of the rates, whilst another object might be to compel owners to place their land upon the market sooner than they otherwise intended. But witnesses in England who gave evidence before the Royal Commission, did not propose to levy any higher rate on land ripe for building than on sites which were covered by buildings and occupied.
The proposal of the London County Council was that the same site value rate should be imposed as in the case of sites which are built over, and they also suggested that sites of empty houses should be treated in the same way. The resolution passed by that Body was, "That vacant land and empty property shall be liable to pay the owner's tax upon the site value as appearing in the valuation list." The Council also added that it was desirable to bring before the Commissioners the question of requiring owners of empty tenements to pay (as is done in the City of London with regard to the Sewers Rate) the whole or part of the ordinary rates.
Costelloe, Vol. II. of Min. of Ev., App. No. XL, par. 61.
Mr. Harper, on being asked his opinion upon the expediency of rating land ripe for building in a town, said: "Speaking for myself, and not for the County Council, I think these sites ought to be included; whether they should be charged with the full rate, or only a proportion, is another question; but I think they ought to be charged with something, because they undoubtedly benefit by local expenditure."
On the question of forcing land into the market, it was confidently stated by several well-known valuers and, agents, that land ripe for building was seldom, if ever, withheld from the market for the purpose of securing a larger future price, but, on the contrary, the tendency is to put it upon the market before it is ripe for building. Mr. Wainwright argued that to put building land on the market before it could command the best price, was not only bad for the owner, but bad for the Local Authority, and also for the public, as inferior houses would be built producing a low rateable value.