HC Deb 11 May 1886 vol 305 cc790-801
MR. DUCKHAM (Herefordshire, Leominster)

Mr. Speaker, the question to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is one of very great importance to the ratepayers of this country, embracing, as it does, the necessity of passing a comprehensive measure for the valuation of real property for the purposes of Imperial and local taxation. One of the first questions which the Chambers of Agriculture took up was that of the rating of metallic mines, woods, and plantations; and one of the first Acts passed, for which the Chambers of Agriculture pressed, was an Act for that purpose. The Acts 25 & 26 Vict. and 27 & 28 Vict, were professedly framed for the uniform rating of real property liable to be assessed for the relief of the poor. In 1884 I obtained a Return of lands that were entirely out of occupation, and that Return showed that in 1881–2 99,521 acres were unoccupied, and in 1882–3 the acreage was reduced to 51,617 acres that were void and allowed to go to waste, and were consequently relieved from both Imperial and local taxation. The Income Tax returned, in the first of the periods mentioned, amounted to £2,328 19s. 10d., and in 1882–3 to £1,374 13s. 3d. The local rates also suffered. The poor rates and other rates chargeable upon that property would have been considerably in excess of these sums. Therefore, the result of allowing that land to get into that condition was to place an increased burden upon the surrounding property. The same policy is still carried on, I am sorry to say, for only last Saturday I heard of an estate which was included in the Return of 1884 being still in the same disgraceful state, the herbage having been allowed year after year to grow up and rot down. The proprietor—a wealthy man—whose previous tenant was ruined by an excessive rent, repeatedly refused to let the land at a rent which a tenant could afford to pay. The disgraceful state of such property should, I think, form a matter for the serious consideration of the Head of the Local Government Board and of Her Majesty's Government generally. It is abominable that any landed proprietor should allow the grass on his land to grow up, fall down, and rot upon the ground without being utilized for the benefit of the people of the country, while so many millions of money are being sent abroad to obtain food to supply the wants of the people. The principle laid down by the 6 & 7 Will. IV. c. 96 is that no rate shall be of any force which shall not be made upon an estimate of the net annual value of the several hereditaments rated thereunto—that is to say, of the rent at which the same might reasonably be expected to be let from year to year. If that provision of the Act were carried out, this wealthy proprietor would not escape the payment justly due to the rates of his district. There is another little grievance, although it is but a small one. Formerly, when that Act was passed for rating real property, it applied to parochial rating. We have now adopted a system of Union or district rating, and not parochial rating. The Union Chargeability Act for the relief of the poor, and the district rating for the highways, bring all the property in the different parishes under the same head. Yet if a man occupies a farm, with a small rivulet running through it, which places one-half in one parish, and the other half in another, he has to pay in excess upon that portion which has no buildings upon it. Five per cent being allowed on that part upon which there are no buildings, and 10 per cent upon the rest, although it is all part of the same farm; whereas if it was all in one parish 10 per cent would be allowed upon the whole. These maybe looked upon as trivial matters; but when the authorities are preparing—and we hope to see before long a good Valuation and County Government Bill—I trust that we shall have these inequalities and grievances redressed. As I have said, one of the first objects of the Chambers of Agriculture was to obtain power to rate metallic mines, woods, and plantations. The Act for carrying out that object was passed in 1874. Previously, underwood was rated at its value as underwood; but the heavy timber in the woods was not rateable, yet, when felled and removed, it does serious damage to the roads; but now, on appeal, the proprietor is able to obtain a reduction of 50 per cent in the rate, seeing that the land is to be assessed at its value in an unimproved state, on the supposition that everything has been cut down and carried away. Therefore, instead of getting some little assistance towards the rates from what we all felt to be a most valuable property, we get nothing whatever towards the rates; but, on the other hand, that which was formerly rated at its value as underwood pays upon a reduction of about 50 per cent. Hedge-row timber frequently seriously reduces the value of cultivated land. In one instance, I happen to know that a neighbour of mine offered to pay his landlord 10s. more per acre for his farm if he would consent to fell the hedge-row timber; but the landlord refused. The principle advocated by the Chambers of Agriculture was that no land should be rated at less than the value of the surrounding land of the same class. Then, again, a large portion of the landed properties in the country are overrun with game. That is not so much the case now as it was before the Hares and Rabbits Bill was passed; but it now has a material effect upon the annual value of the property. The principle adopted by the Assessment Committees is that the rating should be imposed in accordance with what the land is rented at. Therefore, the rent of farms which are overrun by game being reduced, the rates are also reduced, and an additional burden is placed upon the surrounding property. In my county the rating of woods has long been a burning question among the ratepayers of the different Unions. In the county of Hereford there are some 38,000 acres of woodlands in an area of some 500,000 acres. Therefore, these are most serious questions. In one Union the Assessment Committee valued 418 acres of woodlands at £186 10s. The rate was appealed against. The Chairman of the Assessment Committee was also the Chairman of Special Sessions and Quarter Sessions, and he was a consenting party to the making of the rate. Nevertheless, when the appeal came before him at Special Sessions the assessment was reduced to £57 10s., being about 2s. 10d. per acre. The Assessment Committee felt much aggrieved at the decision, and regarded it as unjust. They, therefore, employed a competent surveyor to assess the property; his valuation was £154 10s., with which they then assessed it. An appeal was made to Quarter Sessions, and it was then rated at £79 16s. 6d., or little more than one-half the amount the Assessment Committee placed upon it, and amounting only to 3s.d. per acre. Now, that land, if it was divested of timber and cultivated, would be worth at least four times the amount at which it is now rated. There are large quantities of wood in the same Union which are now rated at 14s. an acre, and yet this property is assessed at only 3s.d., although a good portion of the land covered by the timber is near the mansion, and consists of plantations, ornamental ground, belts, and clumps of trees. To show the feeling that this mode of assessment has excited, I will, with your permission, read a passage from a letter which I hold in my hand from a ratepayer of the district. He says— Our recent rating appeals have brought before me very strongly the injustice and unfairness of the present law, even when carried out fairly; and, of course, that injustice is greatly intensified when the Act is not fairly carried out. Previously to the last year, I think, the woods in this Union have been pretty fairly assessed according to the present Act. The writer proceeds to say— As the law at present stands, whether the Assessment Committee appeal to Special Sessions or Quarter Sessions, they have to go before one class of Judges—namely, Magistrates, who are chiefly landed proprietors, and who, while being also judges, have a right, which you will see in the case before us was exercised, to attend and practically prevent an appeal from their decision. When this case was before the Quarter Sessions at Hereford, Mr. W. H. Cooke, Q.C., intimated that the Assessment Committee were liable to be indicted for conspiracy for having obtained new valuations of the woods after the decision of Special Sessions; and, as you will see, Sir Richard Harington practically repeated the threat at a meeting of Guardians. It certainly will appear somewhat singular that an Assessment Committee appointed under an Act of Parliament for levying rates being threatened with indictment for conspiracy, because, in the exercise of their duty, they, feeling that injustice had been done by the Justices in the Special Sessions after having called to their assistance a qualified surveyor to value, presumed to appeal. Well, Sir, in the Report of the Assessment Committee upon the decision of the Court of Quarter Sessions they say— There appears to be a larger quantity of ashbed than was accounted for to the Committee. 418 acres was the quantity accounted for and rated, but there appears to be 50 or 60 acres of land not rated at all. This Report goes on to say— The value put by the Court of Quarter Sessions upon the appellant's woods and lands is, in the opinion of your Committee, too low. Your Committee would, therefore, recommend that, in order to place the matter upon a proper footing and to insure that the appellant should berated in comparison with other ratepayers in the Union, the whole of the appellant's lands and woods in the parishes appealed against should be scheduled and valued by some competent and independent person or persons. Further on the Vice Chairman said— He thought that the incidence of the rates should be fairly and properly treated, and a rich man, because he happened to have land in his possession, should not have it assessed at a nominal sum. The woods throughout the Union were rated, on an average, at 14s. per acre, and it was manifestly unjust to single out one gentleman and assess the virgin soil of Herefordshire at 3s. or 4s. per acre. Allow me, Sir, to make another little extract from the same Paper, and to quote the language of the Chairman, who was, as I have said before, also Chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions, Chairman of the Special Sessions, and Chairman of the Assessment Committee under whom all of these different valuations were made. This gentleman said— With regard to the rateable value of the land in question, members of the Assessment Committee would not forget that land with timber growing upon it had, by a special provision, to be assessed at its unimproved value. That is the manner in which, under the Act of 1874, the rateable value is to be assessed by the Court. The effect of this system of procedure is this. The Guardians have strongly protested against the result of the appeals; and as those who attempted to amend the valuation list were threatened with an indictment for conspiracy, the newly-elected Guardians have refused to act upon the Assessment Committee. Turning from the Bromyard to the Newent Union, I have here a letter from a tenant farmer, who informs me that a few years ago he took a farm at a rental of £270 a-year, but that the Assessment Committee in that Union assessed him at £365. He writes of the farm he occupies as— Some of the poorest arable land in the county, which, during the past three years, has not paid the cost of cultivation; whereas in the Bromyard case the appellant, a country gentleman, a man of wealth and position and influence, obtains in all cases the full reduction asked for, and gets the whole of his costs, whilst I have to pay the full costs myself, £200. I paid last year two rates, one at 1s. 4d. and the other at 1s. 5d. in the pound, a sum of £13 9s. 2d. more than if I had been rated at the actual gross rent. Now, he had appealed to the Assessment Committee, then to the Special Sessions, and lastly to the Quarter Sessions, with the result he had named. He took the land when, in consequence of the depressed times, it was lying idle, and had been advertised to let for some weeks. He took it at the highest rent that could be obtained; but the Assessment Committee placed the value at 35 per cent more than the rent he has to pay. The injustice with which he has been treated has created a strong feeling of discontent not only in his mind, but in the minds of other people. Four or five very excellent men of business—men of judgment, and well qualified to give evidence of the value of the farm, gave evidence before the Quarter Sessions; but their evidence was of no avail. The person whom the Assessment Committee had themselves employed to value the land was present in Court; but the Assessment Committee were afraid to call him, because he, like the tenant's valuers, had placed a less value upon it. Turning from that Union, I come to the one in which I live myself, and there an arbitrary rule is laid down that rent shall be taken as the value by the Assessment Committee. The men who hold under liberal landlords are, in these times of severe depression, able to obtain a great reduction in their rent; but the men who hold under needy landlords are unable to get such an advantage; and, in addition to paying excessive rent, they have also to bear an undue proportion of the rates. I have shown that one Union adopts rent as the basis; another Union sets rent at defiance; whereas all should be treated alike, in order that they may pay upon a uniform and equitable basis. This is a serious matter, and one which ought to be carefully considered by the Government when preparing a County Government Bill. There are many expenses incurred by the proprietors of land in erecting buildings and making drains, and in effecting other improvements, and yet no allowance is made for these things from the Property Tax. It is surely right that when a landlord expends heavy sums in permanent improvements that he should be allowed an abatement, and not have to pay Income Tax when he does not receive any rent, but is put to considerable expense in erecting what is requisite for the use of the holding, and which does increase the annual value of the holding afterwards. I hope I have said sufficient to show that there are inequalities which amount to gross injustice existing in our system, and that there is room for a full and comprehensive measure of relief. I beg to move the Resolution which stands in my name.

MR. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)

, in seconding the Motion, said that it was noticeable as regarded taxation that the poorer the property the more heavily was it taxed. There were many descriptions of property which at the present time escaped taxation altogether. The value of the land of this country had greatly increased, and one of the ablest statisticians estimated the present value of landed property at something like £2,000,000,000 sterling. He would like to get a Return of the proportion paid by these £2,000,000,000 towards the Imperial and local taxes of the country. It was also said that £10,000,000 sterling annually went into the pockets of landowners in the shape of rents and royalties from mines. He would like to know how much these paid? Then, as to ground-rents, he did not see why they should be exempted. It was the greatest possible anomaly that ground-rents should not be subject at all to local taxation. In the Mid Lothian Manifesto it was held out to the nation that local government, which would afford the means of remedying all these matters, would be dealt with in the present Parliament. He sincerely trusted that that pledge would be redeemed, and hoped the Government would bring in a measure on the subject.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a comprehensive measure for regulating the valuation of property for the purposes of Imperial and Local Taxation is essentially necessary."—(Mr. Duckham.)

MR. GREGORY (Sussex, East Grinstead)

said, he objected to being asked to deal with so important a subject on an abstract Resolution; but the hon. Member (Mr. Duckham) who had brought forward this Motion was justified in calling attention to it, because there was no one who did not feel that the question of the assessment of property was not on a satisfactory footing. There were two systems, one for Imperial and one for local purposes, and the local assessments were again divided into rural and urban. There was no great principle by which these assessments could be regulated except that laid down by the Courts—that the value of the property was what a solvent tenant would pay for it. That was a rough and ready method of finding the value, and nothing more. But he was afraid that, whatever principle might be laid down, it would still come to this—that valuation was a matter of opinion. For his part, he doubted very much whether any broad general principle could be laid down upon which assessments were to be made. It seemed to him, however, that the direction in which they could satisfactorily go would be to constitute some better and more efficient Court of Assessment, some more satisfactory tribunal for deciding assessments, than existed at present; and if the question was to be dealt with in a large and comprehensive spirit, it would necessarily involve the equalization of the burdens between real and personal property, for which they had contended for so many years on his side of the House.


said, that the hon. Member who had just sat down always spoke with authority on this subject; but he could not agree with him that the Motion of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Duckham) did not go in the right direction in this matter. The hon. Member seemed to think that it would be impossible to lay down any general principle for dealing with assessments. It seemed to him, however, that it was impossible to deny that a comprehensive measure for the purpose of assimilating the assessments for the purpose of Imperial and local taxation was absolutely essential and necessary. He had himself introduced a Rating Bill in 1873. If the fates willed it he should be glad to repeat the experiment of 1873. The Bill was thrown out in the House of Lords, but was, in a practically unchanged form, passed in 1874 by his Successor the right hon. Member for North Hants (Mr. Sclater-Booth). That Act determined the classes of property to be rated, and to a certain extent the method of valuation to be followed. The hon. Member for Herefordshire had pointed out defects of which he was not disposed to deny the existence. But the Bill was closely discussed, clause by clause, and line by line, by men who, with their experience of their own estates, knew much more of the subject than he did himself. His hon. Friend had pointed out defects in the 4th section of the Act, which dealt with the assessment of plantations and woods. It was very likely that the experience of 13 or 14 years had revealed defects which it was impossible to foresee at the time. It was said that Unions were in some cases disposed to regard the interests of proprietors rather than of the community. It had been thought that the Assessment Committees would regard the interests of the parish rather than of individuals; but if that partiality were displayed, no doubt a legislative remedy ought to be applied. He should be happy, if opportunity were afforded him, to deal with those questions, and also with the much larger question of local government generally. No doubt there were defects in methods of valuation; but in 1873 it was thought wiser, and it was wiser, as a general rule, to go upon the broad principle of what a hypothetical tenant would pay, and leave the Assessment Committees to work the question out. It might be now that they could go a step further. Two or three methods had been suggested of ascertaining the valuation of mines, and other suggestions might be made with regard to property of other kinds. No doubt, also, the machinery of assessment required some change. Those were sensible provisions which made the Assessment Committees the primary Assessing Bodies, subject to appeals to the Petty and Quarter Sessions. But there were difficulties in the course pursued with respect to different properties in different Unions. It was desirable, not only in the interest of local, but also of Imperial taxation, that these differences should be done away with. In 1869 a Valuation Act was passed for the Metropolis; and in another Bill—a Valuation Bill—which he had also brought in in 1873, he had followed the lines of that Act. He thought the only way of settling this question with regard to Imperial taxation was to introduce the surveyor of taxes. But he found that there was considerable jealousy of that proceeding in the Union and other County Authorities. It was, however, impossible to secure uniformity of valuation, not only as between Union and Union, but also between county and county, for the purpose of local and Imperial taxation, unless some authority intervened which represented the country as a whole.


said, he thought there was a general concurrence of opinion that the present law of assessment was unsatisfactory, and also that perhaps no system could be devised which would be entirely satisfactory to everybody. He thought they might likewise gather from the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Stansfeld) that the state of things at which we had arrived imposed upon us a special difficulty in regard to this question. It was pretty certain that, whatever course was taken to amend the law of assessment, the lines of the Metropolis Valuation Act must be, to a certain extent, followed. The main purposes of that Act, according to its Preamble, were to provide a common basis of value for the purposes of government and local taxation, and to promote uniformity of rating property in the Metropolis. Those, however, who had followed the history of this matter must be aware that the passing of that measure had increased the difficulties which Parliament must encounter in dealing with the subject in the country as a whole. There were two tendencies in reference to assessment. Generally speaking, the Assessing Bodies for local purposes desired to make assessment as high as possible; but for Imperial purposes the desire was to make it as low as possible. The result of the conflict of these two ideas in the Metropolis had been to raise the valuation for Imperial purposes above its average in the country; and consequently there was a disposition on the part of those who represented the country outside the Metropolis not to encourage the extension of the system which was the basis of the Metropolis Valuation Act. In the Metropolis that subject presented less difficulty, and the right hon. Gentleman had indicated perhaps the only mode of dealing with the case in the country generally—namely, by the importation of the surveyor of taxes. He hoped that, in any measure applicable to the whole country, care would be taken to deal with the defects in the Metropolitan Act. As an instance of points requiring attention, he might refer to that of appeals to the Assessment Committee. In some parts of the Metropolis sufficient notice was not given of the time when appeals to the Assessment Committee would come on for hearing, the consequence being that many persons were obliged to submit to an unfair assessment or else appeal, at much greater cost, to the Quarter Sessions. He trusted that whenever a general system was brought forward for the whole country the machinery of the Metropolis Valuation Act would be carefully overhauled.

Resolution agreed to.