Firle Estate – tax free and for what?

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The Firle Estate, near Lewes in East Sussex contains some of the most iconic walking landscape in the country, including the Firle Beacon stretch of the South Downs Way.

Firle Beacon on the Firle Estate, from the Old Coach Road.

Firle Beacon on the Firle Estate, from the Old Coach Road.

So it might not surprise you to learn that the Estate has obtained exemption from inheritance tax (2) on nearly all the estate (3) in return for keeping the estate in good condition and allowing public access.

This is a considerable tax concession and one that many home owners in the South-East would like to have.

But what are we getting for our money?

An examination of the agreements made between the estate and the government show that all we seem to have got are two short footpaths:

1) South from Charleston Farmhouse to meet the old coach road
2) South from the car park at the Barley Mow Inn at Selmeston, to join the lane about 375metres to the south.

These paths are not signposted so only those “in the know” can use them.

In addition Firle House, with associated artworks (4) is open to the public on a limited number of days of the year – but you have to pay a substantial charge for this.

And that’s just about it! There is no requirement to provide access to woodland or parkland, for example (6)

There are other conditions that the estate must comply with, but these are largely things that they have a statutory duty to do, such as keeping rights of way open, or which would be required by planning laws or which any good manager would do (5)

Conditions not complied with?

In some cases even the limited conditions may not be being complied with. For example the estate has agreed to post information about the two paths, but none can be seen. It has also agreed to take responsibility for waymarking the rights of way on the estate, but East Sussex County Council’s rights of way team were not aware of any signposting when they were contacted. The government appears to have no effective way of policing these agreements.

Who benefits from this tax loophole?

Local OSS correspondent Chris Smith comments: “With house prices rising, many home owners would be glad to open their gardens as part of an open garden scheme and to open their houses as part of an arts open house event, if they could escape inheritance tax, but this seems to be a loop-hole only for the rich. It is shameful that the government has not demanded more public access in return for this very lucrative tax loop-hole.”

For further information contact Chris Smith, OSS Brighton and Lewes correspondent on 01273 483869 or

1 The Open Spaces Society is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865. It campaigns for the protection of common land, town and village greens, other open spaces and public paths, in town and country, in England and Wales
2 Inheritance tax is normally charged at 40% of the value of any estate over £325,000. Agricultural land being worked is normally exempt, but buildings, parkland and woodland are normally subject to tax.
3 A map of the areas of the estate that are exempt from inheritance tax can be seen here. It is taken from the Inland Revenue website. The exemption includes Tilton Farm (former home of Maynard Keynes) and Firle Place itself, although not the main Building at Charleston (home of the Bloomsburys which is now owned by the National Trust). Areas in brown show places where the public has a right of access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which is separate from the inheritance tax agreements.
4 As the OSS is principally concerned with access to land we have not examined the fine detail of the agreements about opening the house.
5 For example the managers are responsible for “Preservation of woodlands to maintain their amenity, flora and fauna and sporting value” (but there is no public access to these “amenities”
6 Access to the site of special scientific interest must be given to experts on request, but most of this is covered by access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. There is no right of access to the parkland around Firle House for example. This is sometimes open for events but, unless the event is one favoured by the estate, a charge to the organisers will be made.
7 The full text of the agreements made by the estate is available on request.
8 This is a national scheme. The full list of beneficiaries can be found here.

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