Farmers and owners of land have been warned to beware ‘conservation’ letters, after plots were bought and flipped to buyers with marketing indicating they could be developed or used for other purposes.
A mystery organisation called Country Land Conservation sent letters to those who own fields, woodland and other protected plots indicating that it wants to buy them to protect wildlife and the countryside.
As a result a community in Digswell, Hertfordshire, has ended up fighting to save protected green belt land from potential developers and buyers who think they can build on the land or use it for other purposes.
In instances, such as the plots in Digswell, some of which were up for auction this week, councils have placed even more onerous restrictions on them than usual green belt limits – meaning even fences and stables may not be able to be put up.
Communities are worried about protected land such as this green belt land in Hertford Road, Digswell, next to a Grade II listed railway viaduct and the Mimram chalk stream.
A letter from Country Land Conservation (CLC) was sent to a farmer claiming to be a conservation group trying to save species in the UK that have declined since 1970
Plots were put up for sale by a company initially called Exclusive Property Sales, which after heavy marketing over summer and critical stories then morphed into Exclusive Estates and Auctioneers.
It has also listed land in Box Wood, near Stevenage, which residents have again ended up fighting to protect. The agent has plots of land across the South East of England listed on Zoopla.
One of the half acre plots in Digswell, on land sold by a local farmer who says he felt duped into thinking it would be for a conservation project, was sold at a Barnard Marcus property auction this week for £38,500.
An auction map shows that the land in Digswell next to an architecturally important railway viaduct and the River Mimram chalk stream has been subdivided into 14 plots and one very small ‘conservation area’
Land in Box Wood failed to sell as did some plots in Church Road, Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, while one 0.36 acre plot – indicating development potential – sold for £10,000.
This map from the Barnard Marcus auction listing shows the land at Digswell divided into plots, with three remaining for sale in yellow marked I,J and K and a small green conservation area
Country Land Conservation (CLC) sent letters to land and homeowners in various parts of England stating that it wants land for conservation projects.
But some of these plots have then ended up for sale through agents, including Exclusive Property Sales now Exclusive Estates & Auctioneers, and via traditional auction house Barnard Marcus.
The farmer who previously owned the Digswell land, who asked to be named, said he was approached in April by CLC stating that it was interested in acquiring land for conservation to preserve habitats and protect endangered species.
He says: ‘A letter came through the post and it was very tempting. The land is too far from my base and I had tried to sell it, but I didn’t get a sensible offer. I just sent a map of the field to these guys and I doubled what I thought it was worth and they accepted.
‘They then put an auction sign up on the field. My lawyer said they couldn’t do this as I hadn’t completed the sale. I took it down and they put it up again.
‘Then the Digswell residents came to see me, and we had a chat about it. I said I was stuck as I’d signed a contract.’
The farmer said he was sure that after the council put an Article 4 notice on the land, which severely limits what can be done with it, that the buyers would be put off.
But they weren’t. He says: ‘These boys said they wanted to complete next week, and I thought “fine let’s get rid of it” and that’s what we did.’
He adds: ‘I feel that I was conned into this sale for the fact that they said it would be for conservation and then immediately marketed as potential building land, which I know is not possible as I spoke to various builders and they said that I’d never get to build on it because of the viaduct.’
While previous listings of land for sale, such as that in Kent revealed by This is Money earlier in the summer, had computer generated images that implied it could be built on. New listings do draw attention to Article 4 notices from councils.
Another homeowner in Hertfordshire who owns a small plot of ancient woodland at the back of her house also received a number of letters from Country Land Conservation.
She said: ‘The letters clearly implied that this organisation wanted to buy land to protect wildlife and the countryside and for conservation purposes, but they seemed very suspicious.
‘My wood is a plot amongst neighbours who also own the stretch of wood at the back of their houses and is inaccessible from any roads or paths. I would never sell, but anyone who bought it would find it impossible to get to unless they owned the house or the field behind.’
A warning notice on the land at Digswell from the local council highlights the Article 4 status
The green belt land in Digswell is currently used for grazing horses but small parcels are being sold off at prices in excess of that often paid for land
When approached about CLC’s practices which appear to contradict the conservation implication it makes to landowners and farmers, auction manager of Exclusive Estates, Jonathan Lloyd, confirmed he sells for ‘Country Land’, adding: ‘I have sold land and buildings for many clients and often the former owners regret having sold if the then owner gets a better price, I don’t hear too many complaining that they “got out at the right time”.’
Previously some of the plots of land have been advertised on listing sites like Rightmove, Zoopla and OntheMarket with images indicating properties and lifestyle buildings on them, as revealed by This is Money in July.
Auction manager of Exclusive Estates, Jonathan Lloyd, says his company offers a guide to all prospective purchasers which explains what an Article 4 directive is
Councils in areas affected such as the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, Sevenoaks District Council in Kent, and Dacorum Borough Council in Hertfordshire have made efforts to protect various pieces of land under an Article 4 declaration after communities raised the alarm.
This can remove permitted development rights and act as a greater preventative than green belt restrictions, in some cases meaning land cannot even be fenced off.
However, some communities have felt this is not enough and have rallied together to ensure that the land remains protected and not developed.
These include the residents of Digswell who have created the Digswell Residents Association (DRA) and the residents of Stevenage who have created the Friends of Box Wood group.
Both have an active group on Facebook that regularly shares news about attempts to sell the protected land.
In the past Exclusive Property Sales marketed land with CGI images such as this one that showed a potential development in St. Clere Hill Road in Kent
Some have even gone so far as to try and buy the land, but claim to have been unsuccessful.
When asked about this, Lloyd denied the community had approached his company.
What’s going on at the land auctions?
The protected land has been up for auction repeatedely over summer and listed at times on Rightmove and Zoopla.
Some plots were auctioned this week through Barnard Marcus.
One plot in Digswell was sold this week for £38,000., others in Box Wood failed to sell and one sold in Little Gaddesden for £10,000.
Some have raised suspicion about whether seemingly agreed aucton sales have gone through.
One person, who asked not to be named, said an auction conducted at the end of July by Barnard Marcus offered four plots where three were sold at reduced prices for £36,250 £25,000 and £22,000.
They added: ‘These were the same four plots that were offered at the Barnard Marcus auction the month before and two of them sold above the reserve price of £50,000.
‘As you can imagine it’s strange to see the same plots reappear one month later and get sold again at a lower price.
‘The whole process is opaque, so we can’t be sure if they are really sold.’
When asked about these claims, Lloyd responded: ‘I can’t advise on what happens with other auctioneers, but there is nothing to stop anyone buying land or buildings and then trying to resell for more money.’
He said: ‘We would be delighted to sell to any local buyer and encourage any of them to come forward, the sellers have also said they would love to sell to either an individual or any community groups but so far none have actually come forward to buy in either of these locations.’
The Bishops Stortford Independent similarly reported that the Bishop’s Stortford Town Council had made a ‘generous offer’ to buy land sold by Exclusive Property Sales in its district but claimed that this had been rejected.
A Digswell Residents Association spokesperson said he welcomed action taken by the local council.
He says: ‘It follows concerns raised by the DRA, together with the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) about issues surrounding the sale of this land.
‘The land involved is in a very sensitive green belt location in the Mimram Valley, between Welwyn Garden City and Digswell.
‘It adjoins the historic Digswell (or Welwyn) viaduct on the East Coast Mainline, constructed in 1848-50 by Sir William and Joseph Cubitt, which is a grade II listed building.
When asked if he was aware the land was next to a historic viaduct, Lloyd said: ‘It’s a stunning piece of engineering and who would not want that as a backdrop to land they own?’
The Digswell group spokesperson claimed that Exclusive Property Sales has previously marketed the land as offering an ‘excellent opportunity for a number of other potential uses along with future potential for development.’
The spokesperson added: ‘Our concerns centred immediately on the damage that could be done to the landscape in this particularly sensitive area, once it is in multiple ownership.
‘In particular we were aware that many structures and uses would be possible under permitted development rights, without planning permission being required. Thus, the DRA urged WHBC to issue an Article 4 Direction.’
A resident who refused to be named also relayed fears of the land becoming a traveller site.
What is an Article 4 direction?
According to Gov.uk, an Article 4 direction is a direction that enables a Secretary of State or local planning authority to withdraw a specified permitted development rights across a defined area. It can:
– Cover an area of any geographic size
– Remove specified permitted development rights related to operational development or change of use
– Remove permitted development rights temporarily or permanently
It is often used to stop development rights to protect the wellbeing of an area but there needs to be strong justification for it.
Reasons include the preservation of a national park or area of outstanding beauty (AONB), especially when developments pose a “serious threat to areas or landscapes of exceptional beauty”.
That doesn’t mean land owners can’t try and apply for permission to develop the area or use it for other purposes.
Gov.uk says a planning application can still be made which “gives a local planning authority the opportunity to consider a proposal in more detail”. But the chances of such approval are slim.
Various farmers have shared concerns about being misled and approached about selling land for conservation by the CLC on The Farming Forum.
Several farmers said they had been approached out of the blue, while some said they had sold some plots to the entity. However, most have viewed such approaches with suspicion.
The Country Land Conservation website address now goes to a Spanish website on bacterial control and there is no UK listing on Companies House for the firm, however, it gives a company registration in Ireland on the letters, which the Irish Companies Registration Office confirms exists.
Since This is Money covered similar sales in Kent and Hertfordshire in mid-July, wording on listing websites has been toned down.
Several CGI images that gave the impression that such land could be developed have been removed.
Previous listings claimed that the land could be bought for ‘future generations to enjoy’, had ‘development potential’ and failed to mention any current development restrictions, such as Article 4 declarations.
Lloyd told us that Exclusive provides a guide to all prospective purchasers which explains what an Article 4 directive is. He says this has been put together by an independent planning consultant.
The London address that links the companies
Exclusive Property Sales was heavily marketing itself over summer under that name, but its website now redirects to Exclusive Estates & Auctioneers.
On Companies House, there is a listing for Exclusive Property Sales based at One George Yard, London, but it was dissolved in October 2017. Its sole director has 332 appointments on Companies House.
Over summer, Exclusive’s Mr Lloyd said that it was actually called Home Counties Property Consultancy Ltd, which is listed as active on Companies House and was incorporated in April 2017. Its address was changed from One George Yard, London in February 2018.
However, Exclusive Estates & Auctioneers now says that it operates as a trading name of Barney Estates Limited, although Companies House shows that this was only incorporated on 18 August 2020.
Numerous attempts were made to contact CLC from the contact details provided on its letter but This is Money had no reply.
Filings at Ireland’s Companies Registration Office show that Country Land Conservation has a registered address in Dublin, but its secretary address is again One George Yard, London.
Barnard Marcus which has advertised and auctioned some of the property on behalf of Exclusive Estates & Auctioneers, were also approached for comment about CLC.
A spokesperson said: ‘Barnard Marcus Auctions did not act for CLC in respect of the acquisition of the land and had no involvement therein.
‘Barnard Marcus acted purely as the selling agent with the appropriate disclosures made to potential purchasers. We will not be acting for CLC on any future disposals.’