OPINION: London silks give short shrift to rates call

THE 54th anniversary of Newcastle City Council's crushing defeat before the Privy Council in seeking unpaid rates from Royal Newcastle Hospital is fast approaching.

Special, I know.

It may not be a particularly important case, but it does paint an interesting snapshot of eastern Newcastle in the 1940s and 1950s.

The fenced hospital grounds covered 17.5 acres of land at the time and were surrounded by a buffer of scrub totalling 18.5 acres.

Those areas were exempt from council rates.

Between 1926 and 1946 the hospital acquired several parcels of land totalling 291 acres.

Lord Denning described the acreage as "traversed by ridges and gullies, which are heavily timbered with a good deal of underwood. The gullies are steep and rough, some of them so steep that they are impassable".

"There is very little flat land. There are a few bush tracks, one of which is well defined."

Interestingly, the hospital bought the land to "keep the atmosphere clear and unpolluted, to prevent building upon the land and so act as a barrier against the approach of factories and houses; to provide quiet and serene surroundings for the patients".

In 1952, the council demanded that the hospital pay rates for the 291 acres for the preceding six years, a bill that totalled a touch over £4000.

The council argued that the hospital should not be able to claim a rates exemption for the land because unlike the hospital grounds the hospital did not use the 291 acres for hospital purposes.

A district court judge disagreed, as did the NSW Supreme Court.

The High Court ruled 3-2 against the council so they took their case to London.

Lord Denning again: "An owner can use land by keeping it in its virgin state for his own special purposes.

"An owner of a powder magazine or a rifle range uses the land he had acquired nearby for the purpose of ensuring safety even though he never sets foot on it.

"The owner of an island uses it for the purposes of a bird sanctuary even though he does nothing on it except prevent people building there or disturbing the birds.

"In the same way this hospital gets, and purposely gets, fresh air, peace and quiet, which are no mean advantages to it and its patients," he said.

Fast-forward half a century and Newcastle is littered with unused properties whose owners never set foot in them while only the pigeons seek sanctuary in them.

At least the council collects rates from them.

Stephen Ryan is the Newcastle Herald's court reporter.

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