Warning to investors over 'false' promises

Where was the planning permission when a firm bought land for development and then lured in backers?
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The Independent Online

The idea behind "land banking", as it has been dubbed, is that the firms behind these schemes buy up fields close to small towns and villages or in the green belt, then subdivide them into small plots which are offered at substantial mark-ups to investors.

With prices starting at £4,000 per plot, investors are lured in with the promise of fivefold returns in just a couple of years.

But while the proposition might seem attractive, these schemes are causing serious concerns among lawyers, local councils and regulators - both here and overseas.

One London-based firm, Euro- pean Land Sales Partnership (ELS), is causing particular anxiety in Australia, where at least two states are probing its sale of tiny chunks of greenbelt land in the English countryside.

The firm, and its major partner, Stephen Cleeve, are becoming controversial for allegedly promising vast returns at Australian property exhibitions. In a number of cases, ELS clients claim they were led to believe by salesmen that the firm was very close to securing planning permission for large-scale housing developments.

Yet ELS, despite boasting of a wealth of experience, has never secured planning permission for any of its holdings.

What is of particular concern to the Australian clients is Mr Cleeve's status. He was barred by the High Court in 2000 from serving as a company director for eight years, over an alleged spirits mis-selling scheme.

According to Patrick Walker, the consumer protection commissioner for Western Australia, the ELS operation is "questionable" for investors.

"This is a high-risk and speculative investment," he says. "Investors will be left with a parcel of land many thousands of kilometres away that is worth a fraction of the price they paid for it."

But for Mr Cleeve, the returns are excellent. For example, ELS bought a field at Bow Brickhill, near Milton Keynes, for £90,000 in March 2004. By June this year, it had sold 61 of the 112 plots on the field for £954,000.

ELS also has a holding at Pool Batten, deep in rural Devon, which it bought for £30,000 in September 2004. By June, it had sold 47 plots for a total of £181,500 - valuing all 250 plots on the land at just under £1m.

At three ELS sites, the local councils have won special powers that bar it from carrying out developments. For each of ELS's six known holdings, the councils have stated there are no plans to zone those fields for housing.

Nonetheless, dozens of Mr Cleeve's clients have complained that salesmen led them to believe that planning permission would be granted imminently, and they were poised to win guaranteed returns. Some have spent up to £70,000 on a series of plots.

Paul Smith, a property lawyer acting for dozens of disgruntled ELS clients, says: "My clients feel they've been induced into buying land with false and misleading statements by salesmen as to the likelihood of getting planning permission."

ELS insists its clients are warned in their documentation - which is only sent out on receipt of a 10 per cent non-refundable deposit - that there is no guarantee the land will get planning permission. Mr Cleeve also claims his salesman are told to be honest about the risks.

Asked about the latest row, he says: "Our Australian lawyers are dealing with the statement and as such I cannot comment until after the impending court case. All investments have an element of speculation."

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