§ Order of the Day for Second Reading read.
§ LORD STRACHIE
My Lords, I introduced this Bill in order to do away with 67 what is a very serious difficulty in rural districts and, I might say, a serious grievance as regards the present system of rating. I did so at the request of the clergy in my part of the country—Somerset—who feel very strongly upon this matter. They informed me that a great number of parish halls and public buildings of that kind have had to be closed owing to the large additional assessments put upon them. I may remind your Lordships that a new valuation of all property had to be made under the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925. That, as your Lordships are aware, was revolutionary as regards the whole system of assessment in our rural areas. In the old days the overseers were the people who assessed the property of a particular parish, but with the abolition of the overseers the whole system was entirely altered. The overseers were local people who knew the hereditament which had to be valued. That has all been changed. I quote my own county because I know what has happened there, but I have been told that the same state of things is found in other counties.
What has happened? In my own County of Somerset the county valuation committee are bound by the principle that all hereditaments, such as hospitals, schools, Poor Law institutions, village halls, miners' welfare halls and so on have to be valued by an expert panel valuer. What principle does the panel valuer adopt? In my county and, I believe, in other counties too he adopts a principle which is, no doubt, perfectly correct as the law now stands for the assessment of properties such as village halls—that is to say, he adopts the basis of rent and not of profit, and considers at what rent the hall would let to a hypothetical tenant in the open market. Again, the floor space of a building is taken as the basis for arriving at the rateable value. I do not say that this is not a right principle as the law now stands, but it does not matter whether the hall is in a small village or a big town. It stands to reason that it makes an enormous difference whether a hall is in a large town or in a small village, because, as your Lordships know, the trustees of a village hall are dependent to a large extent on their ability to get people to come to enter- 68 tainments, whist drives, dances and so on. In a small parish the income is very small indeed, and yet it is laid down as a matter of principle that, for the purpose of valuation, it does not matter where the hall is situated and the question of population is not taken into account at all.
Generally speaking, it has been laid down, I believe, by the panel valuer that there shall be a £2 rateable assessment on a floor space of 100 square feet for a building that is constructed of brick and tile. With such a building of 1,485 square feet floor space this would work out at £30 a year but if you take a corrugated iron building, of the same size, such as is very common in the small rural villages, you still have to pay on an assessment of £1 for 100 square feet, working out at about £15 a year. This is a very heavy assessment for a small village hut. I have here a list taken from village halls in my own county showing the enormous difference which has been made by this new assessment. There is a Red Triangle hall that was assessed at £1 and is now assessed at £10; a Church hall, formerly £2 10s., now £28; a Women's Institute, formerly £4 15s. and now £20; a Y.M.C.A. hut with assessment raised from £1 to £27; a British Legion hut which used not to be assessed at all and is now assessed at £12; a miners' welfare building—my noble friends on the Front Opposition Bench will be interested in this—formerly £3 and now £19. This shows that all classes of village buildings have been affected. I recall one very hard case near my own home. A lady was kind enough to put up a hall in a small parish. It was assessed at £2 10s., and the assessment has now been raised to £11. This is in a parish of only just over a hundred inhabitants. It is quite clear that the profits of such a hall must be infinitesimal. Already I am informed that, if the assessment goes on as it is, the hall will have to be shut up. Taking these cases generally, one sees that village halls with an old assessment of from £1 to £4 15s. a year are now assessed at from £10 to £28 a year. It must be remembered that in some places the county rates are very high, varying from 15s. to 20s. in the £, and your Lordships will see, therefore, that these very high assessments will mean that the parish halls will have to close down.
69 I venture to think that, unless this method of assessing these halls is altered, either in the way suggested in ray Bill or in some other way, a large number will have to be closed. I think most of us are agreed in these days as to the great advantage of having these halls, whether they are parish halls, miners' welfare halls, or Y.M.C.A. or Women's Institute buildings. These places have done a great deal to brighten life in our rural districts and to a certain extent they counteract the attraction of the towns. We all know that some of our best young men are being drawn away to the towns, thus depleting the rural areas. I have already said that I am not finding fault with these assessments in themselves, but with the present law and the alterations that came into force owing to the abolition of the overseers under the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925. I agree that the law has been carried out properly. Only yesterday in this House—I regret that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House is not in his place—the noble Marquess stated that both the English and Scottish Local Government Acts would probably have to be amended in the light of practical working. I venture to think that this view applies equally to the method of valuation, which has to stand the test of time and practice.
The object of this Bill is to assess not upon what the hypothetical tenant might give but upon the profits that accrue on an average of three years, adopting very much the Income Tax system of valuation. As regards that I think it is very much fairer all round, because in some cases the valuation under this Act is actually too low. I know of a case where the valuation in a very large village was only £27 whereas the profits derived were £70 a year. In one case alone the county council pays £45 for the rent of that particular hall. The test of rent is really not satisfactory. I know of a case where the county council had to close a county council school and of course they had to let it at the best possible rent. They let it for £1 a year as the village hall, and in that case the assessment would be only £1 a year. We all know what occurs in the case of our own houses. It is all very well to say that if there is an open market it is quite easy to get a particular rent, although it is well known that if you 70 attempt to let the house you will get nothing like the assessment.
I shall probably be told by my noble friend when ho answers for the Government that it is impossible to go against the general principle. I am reminded of what was said by Lord Esher, Master of the Rolls, when a case was argued before him on a question of principle. He said it showed that the case had no merits, and I venture to think that if my noble friend rests his case on a question of principle it is because it has no merits. What I venture to say is that we should do nothing which will make it more difficult to brighten rural life. It is of no use saying that these halls ought to be assessed on the principle of the rent that the hypothetical tenant would give. The last words that I wish to say are these and they will bring to your Lordships some knowledge of the strong feeling there is on this matter. The executive of the Rural District Councils Association, upon the report of its Parliamentary Committee, unanimously approved this Bill upon the ground of the great injustice and difficulty created by the present system. They say that this Bill will assist what we are all trying to assist, namely, the entertaining of the people in their own parish halls instead of allowing them to go to town for their amusement. I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Strachie.)
THE PAYMASTER-GENERAL (THE EARL OF ONSLOW)
My Lords, as far as I understand from the title of the Bill and from what my noble friend has said, his object in bringing this proposal before your Lordships is not to obtain a concession for village halls or such institutions, but to secure for them what he considers to be a fairer basis of valuation and to do away with the present one which he considers is a grievance of which they are rightly entitled to complain. I would like to explain to your Lordships the difficulty which prevents me from accepting this Bill. As he correctly anticipated I am going to mention the question of principle, although he has endeavoured to counteract in advance what I shall say by saying that such a plea has no merits. The fact is that if you were to accept the principle of this Bill you would be alter 71 ing the statutory basis of assessments at the present time, because if you introduce a reference to actual profits gained by the occupiers it would be inconsistent with the general basis of rating which, as my noble friend very correctly and fairly said, is the letting value to a hypothetical tenant. He told your Lordships that a great many of these village halls, of which he has of course very great knowledge in his own county, were very much more highly assessed than they had been in the past under previous assessments, but I think so far as I understood him that these assessments are not the final assessments. There is a right of appeal. If that is the case, these assessments are only tentative.
§ LORD STRACHIE
It is quite true they are not final but as the county valuation committee have adopted that principle, even if the appeal were granted it would be opposed at Quarter Sessions and it would cost the occupiers of the hall some £50 or £60 in legal expenses.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
If the Quarter Sessions, which is a judicial body, would settle whether the assessment was correct or not, I think the noble Lord will agree with me that the Court of Quarter Sessions in his county would be a most admirable tribunal, presided over as it is by a chairman for whom we have the greatest respect. As I was saying just now, our rating system, broadly speaking, does not make profits earned the basis of liability for rates. I am not going to argue that there may not be a great deal to be said in favour of adopting the principle in this Bill. It may be a very good principle, but it is not the principle at the present time. The principle is as stated by the noble Lord, and I think it would be wrong to introduce this new principle in regard to one extremely limited class of property, and leave it inapplicable to others. There are other classes of property which come very near the village hall, such as hospitals, almshouses, and charitable institutions.
Possibly there may not have been the same amount of uniformity in regard to the assessment of these buildings as is desirable. It might have been better if some system could have been adopted by which you could secure general uniformity with regard to the rating of village halls and similar premises. We 72 know that the assessment authorities in various parts of the country have taken different views as to the valuation which ought to be put upon these premises; but I would call your Lordships' attention to the existence of the Central Valuation Committee which is a body representative of the local authorities of the country as a whole. It is a statutory body, and it has a statutory duty to promote uniformity of valuation. This body has passed a resolution formulating the principles which in its opinion should be adopted. My noble friend will probably say that that is all very well, but that there is no statutory obligation upon a county valuation committee to follow that resolution. If, however, you have set up a Central Valuation Committee, and say that it is the duty of that Committee to recommend a uniform system of valuation for certain hereditaments, it would be a rather strong order for a county valuation committee to say: "We will not follow that Committee's recommendation, but we will follow some other line of our own." And there is another point. I said just now that if you are going to have any such system as is proposed, it should not apply only to village halls. I think it ought to apply also to other charitable institutions, such as voluntary hospitals. I venture to think that if you passed the Bill and applied to village halls this totally new system of rating you would be treating other buildings, such as hospitals, not quite fairly. If you did adopt this system you would have to do so on a very comprehensive scale and by a more carefully considered method than is perhaps contained in my noble friend's Bill.
My noble friend rather emphasises the point that you ought to adopt this principle of valuation for village halls because they are situated in rural districts, and therefore their profits are exiguous and they are not able to make sufficient money to pay the very high assessments which have been placed upon them—if, indeed, on appeal those valuations are sustained. He has drawn the line in the Bill at urban districts, but we know very well that many rural districts in the country are urban in character. The Royal Commission on which my noble friend and I have been sitting made a recommendation to Parliament, which has been adopted, that there shall be a redistribution, and that 73 anomaly may disappear to a certain extent in the future. But at the present time there are no doubt a very large number of rural districts which are largely urban in character. You may have a large rural district with a populous little community situated in the midst of it. Those are the two main difficulties in accepting this Bill. One is that it is a new principle, and the other is that you make a distinction between the urban and the rural areas which, I think, would be very difficult to follow out in practice.
I do not want to find fault with the drafting of the Bill, but, even if we were able to adopt it, there are considerable difficulties in the administration of the Bill. In the first place the words "profits from such hall" are rather vague and difficult to define, and I think some very strict system of accounts would have to be insisted upon and carefully adhered; to if that principle of rating assessment were to be made workable. In Clause 2 are the words "used mainly for the social improvement." That also, I think, is a rather loose expression, and would be scarcely sufficient
§ Resolved in the negative and Motion disagreed to accordingly.