When the Measure establishing the Land Commission was being debated, my hon. Friends became amazed at the complexity of the new law that was being proposed. We doubted its intelligibility and we forecast grave problems of interpretation and practice. My hon. and learned Friend gave a classic example of this.
I have been handed a file by a firm of estate agents in Leeds. This firm was engaged in negotiations with the district valuer there for the sale to Leeds Corporation of three houses for the total price of £35. When completed, that transaction was followed by a letter and questionnaire of the kind quoted by my hon. and learned Friend. Not unnaturally, when the estate agents received this communication, the firm doubted the necessity for it and wrote to the Land Commission accordingly. The company received a reply from the regional controller saying:
… the District Valuer has informed me that there may be realisation of development value in the sale of the above land.
To that the estate agents replied:
… will you please ask the District Valuer to state his reasons for assuming that there may be 'realisation of development value in the sale of the above land'".
To that the firm received what I can only describe as this classic reply:
… the District Valuer … is unable to say at this stage whether development value arises; on the other hand he is unable to say that it does not.
The estate agents, prompted to reply, answered in these terms:
Thank you for your letter … from which it appears that the District Valuer's uncertainty as to whether or not development value
arises in this case is the basic reason why we (and yourselves) must waste our time on this matter … Will you please point out to the District Valuer that the sum of £35 paid by the Corporation for the land in question was based on a figure of 4s. per sq. yd., which is an arbitrary price fixed by the District Valuer himself for compensation purposes in those cases where the site is zoned for residential re-development and is incapable of such development by reason of the By-Laws.
If the district valuer himself fixed this arbitrary price for this land, how was he to advise the Land Commission that he was unable to say whether or not the price contained an element of development value?
The correspondence continued along these lines for a few weeks and ultimately the firm of estate agents thought that it might as well communicate direct with the district valuer, and this it did, quoting the previous correspondence it had had with the Land Commission. The district valuer replied on 22nd December saying:
In reply to your letter of the 19th December, the quotation you give from the regional controller's letter does not state the position correctly.
Apparently the regional controller had not understood the position.
This was followed by an apology from the regional controller who said:
I can only apologise and say that this arose through my unfamiliarity with the valuation terms.
The correspondence continues further in this vein, until the firm, feeling that it had wasted enough time and effort, filled in the form. It pointed out that it had received a number of other forms, for other clients, in respect of other land. It then received the somewhat curious reply from the regional controller that although it was not returning the forms for that other land, no liability for the levy arose in respect of those other claims. The firm terminated the correspondence with this letter:
We are interested to note that the Commission is of the opinion that no liability to levy arises in respect of the sale of the above premises to the Corporation, in view of the information at present before it. We find this of particular interest in view of the fact that we told you in our letter of 1st February that we had your form concerning this transaction in our possession, and did not propose to complete it until the Commission had dealt with the houses which were the subject of that letter, and of the completed form which we sent in. It would appear, therefore, that the Commission is able to form
an opinion without requiring the information called for in your forms, and we presume, therefore, that there will be no need to complete them in future.
Will the Minister say whether it is necessary, in view of this lamentable case, for practitioners to have to waste their time, and their client's money, filling up forms for transactions of £35, when the district valuer has fixed the price of the land, and yet is uncertain whether there is any development value contained in the price, and when the regional controller does not know what the terms mean?
How do the Government expect normal commercial transactions to proceed when ordinary people are to be tied and trammelled with red tape over fiddling little transactions that can produce only a minimal amount of revenue? Is it any wonder that in 1967–68, £463,000 was collected in betterment levy, at a total collecting cost of £2·3 million? It cost £5 for every £1 of levy collected and it required something in the region of 1,500 civil servants to do the work.