It is necessary to draw several distinctions on this complicated point.
Land which is not occupied is not rated or rateable at all, under the Act of Elizabeth. The extent of such land is probably not very great, and it is generally confined to a few sites in the centres of towns.
The land which is more vaguely described as "building land" on the outskirts of urban and suburban districts is almost always occupied, usually for agricultural purposes, gardens, recreation grounds or the like. It is, therefore, rateable, and is in fact rated. But there are two points to be noted about it (1.) The valuation upon which it is rated is, of course, the rent which a tenant might reasonably be expected to give; but this has been interpreted to mean the value to an occupier in its existing state, rebus sic stantibus. Thus, if land is used for agricultural purposes, it must be valued at the rent which an occupier using it for agricultural purposes would give. (2.) Further, agricultural land is rated at 1/4 for the General District Rate under the Public Health Act, and at 1/2 for all other rates under the Agricultural Rates Act.1 With regard to unoccupied land, two reasons have been given for assessing it to local rates (1.) That its value is being maintained and increased by the expenditure of the ratepayers' money. (2.) That it is against public policy to permit or encourage owners to keep spaces vacant which could be built upon, and that the imposition of a rate would have the effect of forcing them into the market. Similar arguments are also applied to occupied land, which, while it has a prospective (or perhaps a small present) value for building purposes, is let for agricultural or like purposes at a comparatively low rent.
Sabin, 21,392-401, and Vol. IV. of Min. of Ev., App. No. III., par. 3.
Sabin, Vol. IV. of Min. of Ev. App. No. III., par. 5.
H. A. Hunt, 21,045-54.
On these points Mr. Costelloe observed: - "The Council has always been of opinion that the existing system of assessment in London does not take adequate account of the actual value of spaces of ground which are not covered with buildings, or used for purposes of real economic utility. The question originally arose in the first Council over what was called the Holland Park case. It was contended by Mr. Saunders, and by a great number of the County Committee, that the assessment, according to the then existing practice, of large pleasure grounds like Holland Park was ridiculously low, considering the fact that, whatever rental might be obtainable for Holland House and the park for use in its present state as a dwelling, the actual value of the land in question was enormous, and a corresponding annual value might be obtained for it if the owner chose to sell it. It was answered, apart from technical arguments, that it was undesirable to drive open spaces of this kind into building. It has always seemed to me that the reply was irresistible - that open spaces held for private use and pleasure are not in the same category as public open spaces at all, and that in so far as it is desirable (as it clearly is) that spaces should be kept free from building for the public advantage, it is the obvious course, and in the end much the cheaper one, that these spaces should be acquired by the public and managed for the public utility.
Moulton, 23.040-2, and Vol. IV. of Min. of Ev., App. No. X., par. 9.
Costelloe, Vol. II. of Min. of Ev., App. No. XL, pars. 60-64.
1 The definitions in the two Acts are not quite the same.
"The majority of the Council have always said that they were perfectly willing to assent to the treatment of open spaces in private hands, such as, for instance, the open spaces of the Temple, as proper to be regarded for assessment purposes as quasi public, wherever the legal owners were willing to allow reasonable public access. The whole question, however, is only indirectly connected with the present inquiry.
"The Commission will also observe that the present exemption from local charge of empty houses is dealt with in the resolutions of the Council and in the Report of the Committee by which they are prefaced. I do not think it is necessary at this stage to enter further into this branch of the subject, as to which, in my opinion, the Council is practically unanimous. I have never myself heard any serious reason for continuing the present exemption of empty houses from local charge.
"As regards the vacant land upon the borders of the building area, including building estates ripening for building value, a further series of considerations arise. It has undoubtedly been the general opinion of the Council for a long time that it is undesirable to allow speculators to hold land of this kind for indefinite periods, in order that they may obtain higher prices for it when the land is, under the present system of assessment, practically unburdened with any contribution to the municipal expenses. This is obviously a strong case in which the municipal expenditure actually goes to create site values in the hands of a man who proposes to pocket the unearned increment, and does not bear his share of the burden.
"The considerations in question do not, in my view, in any way negative the argument that, while the present system of assessments according to rateable value is maintained, it is an injustice that speculators should be allowed to hold land which is more or less available for building within the metropolitan area, free of any reasonable contribution to metropolitan charges, not only because that arrangement appears to me to be financially unjust, but also because they are by that means induced or enabled to keep land out of the market for long periods of time, which would, if it were brought into building, tend by its competition to reduce the general level of rent in London - a circumstance most urgently to be desired, inasmuch as the housing problem is, in my opinion, the most grave of all those with which the Council has to deal."