These weighty objections would be met by the revised proposal which we are inclined to recommend for adoption, viz., that the new site value rate which we have proposed should be charged in respect of the site value of all uncovered land which is intended to be let, or could be let, with a covenant for immediate building.
The new Site Value Rate should be levied in respect of all land which can be let for immediate building.
This proposal has various considerable advantages. In the first place, the charge would be moderate in amount. In the second place, it would avoid the injustice of taxing owners and occupiers of agricultural land upon a capital value which could not be realised in the form of annual income. In the third place, it adheres closely to the definition of value as the rent at which a property might reasonably be expected to let. It may, indeed, be urged that this definition, even as it stands, ought to cover the rent which a tenant would give for land for building purposes. The courts of law have, however, decided against such a view, on the ground that land must be valued on the hypothesis that it is to be used for the same purpose for which it is at present used, or in its present state rebus sic stantibus. What our proposal amounts to is, in effect, the removal of the limitation thus put upon the definition of value.
It is an important question of policy whether the rating of uncovered land might not unduly discourage the preservation of open spaces. The reply to the objection on this ground is that a space reserved for private occupation is, as a rule, of less public advantage than a space dedicated to the public. The rating of vacant land would facilitate, and ought to be accompanied by, a liberal and far-sighted policy in the direction of acquiring parks and gardens for public use. The present system may help to preserve some open spaces, but it is, at best, a mere accident if those spaces are situate where they are wanted. The reform which we propose would make it easier to get houses where houses are wanted, and open spaces where open spaces are wanted. A provision might be added, empowering the Local Authority to reduce or remit the charge in any case where that Authority considered the retention of the land in its present condition desirable on public grounds, even although it were not formally dedicated to the public.
The discouragement of open spaces.
Further, we think that, in putting our proposal into legal shape, provision should be made for safeguarding land which is bond fide occupied as a garden or pleasure grounds in connexion with a dwelling-house, and thus adds to the amenity and healthfulness both of the hereditament and of the neighbourhood. In such a case, it would probably be well to enact that no higher value should be put upon the site than such proportion as will fairly be attributed to it, if the property continues to be valued and occupied as a whole, in accordance with the principle described by the words rebus sic stantibus. The value of such a provision can easily be illustrated; for instance, it seems obvious that, when the ground now forming Brock-well Park (and wholly exempt from rating under a recent decision of the House of Lords) was in private hands, it would have been in the public interest not to put such a burden upon it as would have tended to prevent its being maintained as an open space.
There are, however, other classes of uncovered land; and, first, there are the plots of land which may sometimes be seen in important thoroughfares, lying waste and neglected, destined for no purpose but building, yet withheld from the builder. In such cases, we entertain no doubt, either as to the propriety of imposing a rate on the true site value, or as to the ease with which this object can be effected. Next, there is a somewhat different class of land - which is, perhaps, the most important in this connexion - the land on the outskirts of towns, which continues in use for agricultural purposes, when it is fully ripe for building.
With regard to such properties, we do not disguise from ourselves that there would be some difficulties in carrying our proposal into effect. There can be no doubt that the task of determining what land could be let for immediate building, and of assigning a value to such land, involves some risk of mistakes. It is impossible to frame a legal definition of such land which would work automatically, and the decision could only fairly be made on the facts of each case and in the light of both expert and local knowledge.
The burden of proving that land was ripe for building would, of course, fall on the Assessing Authority; and it may be observed that if, in doubtful cases, a mistake were sometimes made, no very great injustice would result, because in such cases the site value would necessarily be small, perhaps, indeed, not greatly in excess of the accommodation value at which the land ought to be rated under the present law. By way of further safeguard, in addition to the rights of objection and appeal, it may be suggested (following the precedent of the scheme for betterment charge as settled by the House of Lords) that, if the owner of the land considered the valuation excessive, he should be entitled to require the Local Authority to take over the land at a fixed number of years' purchase of that valuation.
Further, it is to be remembered, in the first place, that we do not propose to empower the Local Authority to impose the whole of the rates upon the value thus ascertained, but only a special rate of limited amount; and, secondly, that the general scheme for a site value rate is very advantageous for suburban landowners, because the rate would be small in the outskirts of a town, as compared with the present rates. Thus, against the new burden involved in the extension of the site value rate to uncovered land, it seems fair to set the consideration that, if the owner of such land would consent to let it for building, he would generally be able to do so to greater advantage than at present.