Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 15th February 1933.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local authorities to exempt improvements from assessment and rating, and to levy rates instead upon land values.
I am obviously conscious that, although the House always listens to me with consideration when I speak on any other question, yet when I approach the matter of the land there is a sort of instinctive hostility against any proposal which I
may make. I beg of the House on this occasion, when I am moving that leave be given to bring in a Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule, not to regard it as a hostile Measure of a hostile party, but to consider the Bill on its merits. We are all, on both sides of the House, desperately anxious to do anything that we can to improve trade, and this Bill which I am proposing now is to my mind by far and away the best way of improving domestic trade. The other day I was present at a Chamber of Trade dinner when the two questions raised by all the people present —shopkeepers, bankers, agents and whatnot—I might say it was a thoroughly Conservative dinner party—were the increased provision of allotments for the out-of-work miners, and some change in our rating law which should cease to penalise every owner of property who improves his property.
I expect that many hon. Members are in a somewhat similar position to that in which I find myself. I want to put up a new shed on one of my farm houses, and I want to put up a new garage and a new arrangement for chickens on my own property. We are all in the same boat. Many people want to put up an extra room in the roof of their bungalow. All these schemes are in the interests of the community as a whole. They are the only way in which a man can improve his property. They involve the employment of the working class at present out of work. Every reconstruction of a house and every improvement in the street of a town gives employment. Tradesmen who want to put in a plate-glass window in the front of their shop—all those people at present are being prevented from doing so, or at least checked in their desire, because they know that the immediate result of effecting any improvement of their property will be a visit from the assessment officer and an enhancement of the tax which they have to pay to the local authority. It was not so bad in the old days, but now the reassessment takes place every five years. Every person anxious to employ labour in improving his property is up against the constant threat of an increase in his local taxation if he does that piece of work or allows it to be done. One of the first questions asked of the owner of property on the re-assessment papers which I have recently received is:
Have you effected any structural improvements in the property during the last. five years.
Instinctively you say, "How can I conceal the fact that I have put in a new lavatory?" People can still improve their property if they can keep it dark, but, if it is in the main street of a town, that is impossible. I will not say that it is entirely impossible, but it does involve a tax of 50 per cent, of the annual value of the improvement which has been made. Therefore, there is a constant and an ever-growing check upon any improvement of existing property in England. It is equally a check upon every new house put up. The man who is contemplating building a house, whether for himself or for anybody else, has to face the fact that, as soon as he has built the house, half the annual value has to go to the local authority, and, therefore, he is not building for himself but for the local authority. This sort of thing acts as a constant deterrent on anybody doing anything. May I, in parenthesis, mention that the Bill has not been introduced for a period of 28 years, and that it was carried in 1905 in a thoroughly Conservative House of Commons as far as the First Reading was concerned. It was carried as I hope it may be carried to-day. You will at any rate give us a chance to have the Bill in print so as to see whether there is or is not any atrocious Bolshevist principle involved in it.
What is the purpose of the Bill t It is simply to give to local authorities, that is to say, to the municipal and county councils, if they choose to exercise the power, the right to exempt improvements from local rates. The late Government did it in 'the case of business premises where those business premises were used for manufacture. They allowed the manufacturer to escape, I forget whether it was two-thirds or three-quarters of his rates, because it was realised that the rate upon a factory acted as an overhead charge upon the industry, increased the cost of production, and limited our power of competing with our manufactured goods. That was a right thing to do, but why not extend exactly the same principle to the production of houses and housing improvements in this country? We want the houses and we want the employment. Why, therefore, insist on riveting upon every local authority, whether they chose to have it or not, an obsolete system, of rating invented in the time of Queen Elizabeth and never changed since?
What we ask is that the local authorities should have the power to base the rates not solely upon the annual value of the premises under present conditions but to levy an alternative rate, great or small, upon the land value of each hereditament. The same people would pay the rate in future as pay at the present time, but they would pay upon a different basis. They would pay upon what the land would sell for as against what the property is at present used for. Our present system of local rating is a tax on use. What we want to substitute, in part, is a tax upon that form of so-called property which is in use or is not in use—suburban land unbuilt on, empty house sites, unoccupied land in our towns, the value of which has not merely been created but is being maintained by the local expenditure of those towns. In all honest fairness the owner of that property should contribute his fair share towards the local expenditure of government. You make great street improvements, construct new playgrounds, widen roads, spend local money on policing property and in providing an admirable education system. All these things are presents to those who come along to live in the town, but when a person comes to live in that town he is asked by the owner of land which has not paid one penny piece of taxation, to pay an enhanced price for the privilege of living in that town, because of the public expenditure to which the man owning that' land has not contributed.
In asking the House to agree to the First Reading of the Bill I am asking them to agree not to anything revolutionary but to something so elementarily just, as well as expedient, that I cannot think why the old system should have gone on so long. In the United States of America and in all our Dominions they have a 3ystem of local taxation different from ours. In all our Dominions they levy rates upon the capital value, the selling value of the property. In Australia and New Zealand and parts of Canada they exempt the buildings from local rates. Even in America they levy upon the selling value, whether the land or building is used or not, so that empty sites contribute a fair share to local taxation. After the War they were faced in New York with preclisely the same difficulty that faces us in this country, namely, a shortage of houses and the absolute necessity of new houses being built. They met the problem in New York by the simple method of saying that for a period of years—I forget whether it was for five years or for seven years—new houses would be exempt from local taxation. The result was that there was a boom in housing.
I would ask the Minister of Health whether he does not agree with me that the greatest possible benefit he could confer upon the building trade in this country would be the exemption for a period of years of all new houses from local rates. It seems to me that by that means we should have a way of getting not merely an increase in the numbers of the employed by the increased number of houses that we need. The objection which is always raised is: "Yes, but where are you going to get the funds?" The local rates being levied as they are, you will get no improvement. You will have unemployment increasing and the possibility of trade recovery stopped. If you allow any local authority so to change their basis of taxation that they levy the rates in whole or in part on the land value then, and not till then, will you get a stimulus in building and a sufficient penalisation upon those dogs-in-the-manger who keep God's earth idle.