One for the common man

Not all land purchases turn out profitably, as one firm found out the hard way. Chris Partridge reports
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The Independent Online

When Newtown Common is auctioned off next Tuesday, the people who live around it hope it will mark the end of a nightmare. Until 1999, the 140 acres of heath and woodland south of Newbury were a tranquil retreat for the families who lived around it. Some had ancient rights to graze their livestock or collect firewood, although few exercised them. They mostly just enjoyed its natural charm, movingly described through the eyes of the emigrating rabbits in Watership Down: "Newtown Common - a country of peat, gorse and silver birch..."

When Newtown Common is auctioned off next Tuesday, the people who live around it hope it will mark the end of a nightmare. Until 1999, the 140 acres of heath and woodland south of Newbury were a tranquil retreat for the families who lived around it. Some had ancient rights to graze their livestock or collect firewood, although few exercised them. They mostly just enjoyed its natural charm, movingly described through the eyes of the emigrating rabbits in Watership Down: "Newtown Common - a country of peat, gorse and silver birch..."

Everyone drove over the common to get to work and school. They did not worry about development on the land because everybody assumed it was public property. After all, that is what "common" means. But then came a brutal update on the arcane and uncertain state of British property law.

All commons are freehold properties, the last remnants of the manors that organised medieval farming communities. The Enclosure Acts of the 18th century removed common rights from vast areas of England that were needed for the new intensive agriculture. Only the less desirable hills and moorland, plus pockets of heath near ancient settlements, are left.

Many of these commons are now owned by local councils or the National Trust, which maintain them as public open spaces. But hundreds are in private ownership, and some owners look for ways of making money out of their asset.

When Bakewell Management acquired Newtown Common from the Earl of Carnarvon, the company discovered on the deeds that none of the commoners had permission to drive over the common. This, Bakewell claimed, was a criminal offence, so the fact that residents had been taking their cars to their houses for at least 20 years without dispute did not build up a right to carry on doing it. The firm demanded one-off payments of up to £30,000 per house for permits.

About 40 householders paid up, but for many others the demand was financial disaster. They did not have the money, and the legal threat made their houses impossible to sell. Four years of litigation followed, ending at the House of Lords, which earlier this year found in favour of the residents. They had won the legal right to drive to their own front doors without charge. Champagne flowed. The prospect for Bakewell Management was bleak, however. There was an outstanding mortgage of £150,000, plus legal fees and the money obtained from residents that would have to be returned. The company was forced into compulsory liquidation.

And so it is that Newtown Common is being sold by Savills next Tuesday, in the plush surroundings of Claridge's. Auctioneer Chris Coleman-Smith is setting a guide price of £450,000, despite having few suggestions as to what an owner could do with it.

Even the liquidator, Michael Locke of Begbies Traynor, sounds downbeat about how much will be raised. "I don't see how anybody can pay £450,000 and make it pay for land anybody can pass over," he says.

The residents are considering putting in a bid for the common, but are unwilling to pay much. "We think the common is worth very little indeed," says Tony Webb, a member of the Newtown Common Residents Association. "The rights of access are now resolved and under the new Countryside Rights of Way Act the common will be open to roaming anyway. All we will be doing is paying to take on a little bit of a headache."

In any event, the residents have not had any of their legal costs paid and many of them are facing the loss of the money they paid for the right of way. Few of them want to throw more money into Newtown Common. The House of Lords decision, combined with the right to roam, has finally eliminated any hope of making money out of these ancient places. They will inevitably fall into the hands of charities and local amenity groups for the enjoyment of everybody, which must be a good thing.

Stick to bricks and mortar

Also in Savills' auction is a truly stately pile: Botany Bay water tower in Enfield. It would be perfect for Rapunzel, adorned with battlements and arrowslits. The 64ft tower has views to the City of London on one side and open countryside on the other.

The tower comes with planning permission for conversion into a four-bed house, the bedrooms being in the tower and reception rooms in a new extension next to it. The guide price is £225,000.

Auction details from FPDSavills on 020-7824 9091.

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