Rolland O'Regan's Life-Long Campaign
for the Taxation of Land Values in New Zealand
by Robert D. Keall
[Excerpted from material published by The Resource Rentals for Revenue Association, Auckland, New Zealand, May 2005]
In 1943 Rolland O'Regan succeeded his father as Chairman of the then NZ League for the Taxation of Land Values Inc. This was changed to the NZ Land Value Rating Assn Inc, later included the NZ Crown Leasehold Assn and later again took the current title.
Right after the war, to rectify the ageing membership of his father's time he arranged for Betty Noble to run the Henry George School in Wellington, and held public meetings to examine topical issues. The post-war boom, public apathy and the apparent security of the welfare state denied these ventures the success they deserved despite the hundreds of students who passed through the School.
His endeavours then evolved in five main ways.
1. Picking up where his father left off he secured Land Value Rating wherever possible -- whether City, Borough, County or County Town. To this end, at least every three years to coincide with the local elections, local business people would be mailed to, explaining the merits of Land Value Rating and telling them how to get it in their area by poll.
Meantime a series of Rating Bulletins were prepared discussing topical Rating issues -- Differentials, Special Valuations, Ratio of improvements to land value, statistical data, etc. These were distributed to the Mayor and Councillors of every Local Authority in NZ, preserving Land Value Rating wherever it obtained and inviting change where it didn't.
In addition, as opportunity offered periodically, he prepared submissions to Govt. on Local Body Finance and Rating issues. Their clear, professional presentation commanded the attention of any impartial arbiter, and the enthusiasm of supporters. One such submission was reproduced in Missouri, USA and returned to NZ to be used in support of subsequent Ministerial representations.
The result of these endeavours was that by 1985 90% of all municipalities had by poll adopted Land Value Rating which accounted for 80% of Local Govt. revenue. His quiet expectation was that given a devolution of function from Central to Local Govt. more and more land values would be absorbed with less and less taken from income taxes accordingly. At that time he calculated that without the land value charges then in place land prices would be half as dear again.
A significant level of Public Body Leases, (Crown and Council), contributed to the overall revenue from land values.
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2. The Land Tax introduced by Sir George Grey in 1878, as Premier then, after two earlier terms as Governor, by 1922 accounted for 10% of the Budget, but had steadily atrophied to about 0.4% in 1987.
Rolland steadfastly, eloquently and effectively opposed any assault on this charge and finally urged it be allocated to Regional Local Govt. for major works or disaster relief. A vested interest such as that would have entrenched it irrevocably, in the right place. Instead the Labour Govt. of 1989 abolished it in mindless, futile, political expediency, at a time of Holland's incapacitation.
3. In 1966 with a view to consolidating and furthering the real-life gains above, he narrowly failed to gain the Wellington Central Parliamentary seat. He later topped the poll in Wellington City Council elections and was for nine years Chairman of the Town Planning Committee and the Wellington Harbour Board. His thinking here was to be able to more effectively relate Land Value Taxation theory and practice to real-life situations; to be able to defend and promote the cause with first-hand evidence and understanding.
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In 1973 while still on Council and Harbour Board, he wrote "Rating in NZ". This recorded NZ's experience of over 100 years of Land Value Taxation in one form or another, even before George. For the benefit of Georgists around the world who ardently, in vacuo, advocated Land Value Taxation he set out the practical difficulties and political hazards. To Rolland's dismay it caused hardly a ripple in Georgist circles. With Local Govt. members, officials and related professionals in NZ the first edition was a sell-out. It also served as a blue print for any Minister of Local Govt. who might have the will, if not the wit, to rationalise the interaction of Local Govt. Rating and Central Govt. Valuation, and should be read by all who are concerned with this subject. The second edition, revised in his blindness with the aid of friends, was not so successful, but even now should be injected into the community as funds allow.
4. In 1968 he realised that Land Value Taxation in any form was vulnerable to the whim of every tax collector at every level every year.
In 1896 after being blocked in the Upper House for three years (and at the time when Holland's father was in the Parliament, and incidentally corresponding with Henry George) the Rating on the Unimproved Value Act was finally passed allowing a petition to demand a poll on the issue, at the Local Govt. level. Despite the rapid success thereafter at the hands of Ratepayers, there remained a crafty opposition that constantly tinkered with it, confusing even the most assiduous student.
On this basis Rolland reconsidered his inherited ascription to Land Value Taxation and submitted a paper to the 12th International Union Conference at Caswell Bay, Wales, September 1968. In this he proposed "State Leaseholds as the basis for Land Reform". That was 35 years ago. In support he noted the established precedents in Australia and NZ. and the advocacy of a leading jurist in Australia -- Justice Rae Else-Mitchell.
In advancing his case he was mindful of the political hazards of Land Value Taxation and the practical problem of the ever-diminishing tax base as the tax increased. He was also aware of those other natural resources like minerals, water-rights, airwaves, some forestry, fishing, electricity generation and distribution, etc, for which Land Value Taxation was unsuitable.
Accordingly he sought to institutionalise the principle of Resource Rentals by whatever means was most appropriate. One member at the conference, (E.W. Walthall) regarded the proposal as the most sense he had ever heard at a conference and proposed to fund Rolland for full-time work on it. On the strength of that initial gesture Rolland published his books.
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In 1980 he published "Te Ara Tika" (The Right Track/Road/Way for NZ) elaborating his views on leasehold tenure as the basis for a stronger economy to be derived from greater integration with Australia, essential to support an adequate common defence policy. Two years later the CER (Closer Economic Relations) Agreement with Australia was signed by the National Govt, but without the revenue base he proposed.
5. In 1985/6 he crystalised his representations on Local Govt. Finance and addressed them to the Labour Party Policy Council and Caucus Committee on Local Govt. With his credentials within the Party and in Local Govt., plus the Labour Party's formal adoption of Land Value Rating in 1948 (of which he reminded them) he reasonably expected some progress from the new Labour Govt. For those who see the ultimate objective as the collection of the full economic land rent at the local level this would have just about sewn it up. A quiet, bloodless revolution democratically achieved. Having had no response after a year he widened his approach, with scant response once again - ominously in hindsight!
In 1987/8 the new Labour Minister for Local Govt. began the restructuring of Local Govt. First by removing the traditional right to a poll on Rating (whilst at the same time propounding the merits of "local decisions locally made"), and then promoting a reversion to Capital Value Rating wherever he could, finally proposing that wherever Capital Value Rating had been or was ever adopted, (by Council resolution now) it would be irreversible. That was dropped. Meanwhile the grapevine had early delivered its message. So that Dunedin, Christchurch and finally Wellington reverted to Capital Value by means various, definitely devious and contrary to popular reaction. Rolland was quietly mortified. Ninety years of progress, every step democratically achieved, now vandalised and undone by erstwhile colleagues prepared to do m stealth what not even the known enemy had dared to do.
The change to Capital Value in his beloved Wellington especially, devastated him. His shining example to Auckland and the world, of urban renewal; of a city united, cleanly and honestly run without faction, division or strife; rescued from partial to complete Land Value in 1927 by his own father reversing the Council's endeavours; now sold out, clumsily, illegally, arbitrarily, contrary to popular input and with a Knighthood for the perpetrator!
Subsequent Council attempts elsewhere to revert to Capital Value have generally failed due to vigorous popular opposition, galvanised by this Association. So that due to Rolland's continued efforts Land Value Rating has become entrenched as the norm but is steadily being eroded, without the right to a poll now.
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Moreover, in any straight contest between Capital (Improved) Value and Land Value Rating, Land Value almost invariably wins because improvements are exempted (the homeowner's particularly) and because the majority of Ratepayers (homeowners again) gain a reduction in Rates at the expense of the numerically fewer on relatively under-developed commercial properties. But with the introduction of User Pays, Direct and Uniform Charges (arguably valid in the Local Govt. context) the basis for the General Rate has become almost a non-issue. Without a poll and the statutory information that came with that, ignorance and apathy lose out to vested interest, or to "sock the rich" ideologues.
In Auckland particularly, now, higher population from immigration, northern drift and tourism sees land prices rocketing and the roads and sewers clogged. So the search comes on belatedly for the means to pay for the solutions -- petrol, people, tolls, users, anything but the related land values that have almost become a sacrosanct industry, openly promoted for the tax advantages now and later.
Australia has retained an exemplary degree of Land Value Rating - mandatory throughout Queensland, (the speculator's hometown), and predominant across the nation.
But in neither country could it be said that George's expectations had been fulfilled, Le. that even a modest example would see a clamour for more.
Rolland's advocacy for institutionalising George's reform is confirmed in our Public Bodies Leases Act, the Melanesian Mission Leases on Auckland's waterfront, and such as the Masterton and Greytown Trust Lands Trusts demonstrating local benefits from local proprietorship - with rare complaint. Extending the example to land tenure generally, and now to infrastructural natural monopolies has become a constitutional issue and must be clarified on that basis.
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