Multi-million pound Firle Footpath ploughed up for the third time4 min read

For the third time, the Firle Estate has ploughed up a path that it gets a huge subsidy to keep open, despite promises to the Open Spaces Society given three months ago that it would be opened.

The path, which runs south from the Barley Mow Pub at Selmeston, is one of the reasons that the Firle Estate gets millions of pounds worth of Inheritance Tax relief.

The south end of the path

The south end of the path

Until the Open Spaces Society publicised the situation, there was almost no way of telling where these lucrative paths were.

After pressure, the Firle Estate waymarked the paths but then ploughed one of them up. We exposed this and the path was reinstated. Now the path has been ploughed up again and is more or less impassable as you can see from the pictures.

Three months ago the society discovered that the paths had been ploughed up but the Firle Estate told us that they would deal with the situation. They did not. At the north end of the path the sign pointing you to the path has been removed, to make things even more difficult

The north end of the path

The north end of the path

How did this come about?

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. There are many legal rights of way and areas of statutory public access but, as many landlowners will ruefully tell, you don’t get money for that. So it might surprise you to learn that the Firle Estate has obtained exemption from inheritance tax (2) on nearly all the estate which would otherwise be subject to inheritance tax (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 (signposts at the south end of this path have been removed.)
2) South from the car park at the Barley Mow Inn at Selmeston, to join the lane about 375metres to the south.

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).

Local Open Spaces Society representative Chris Smith says “The amount of the tax relief given to the Firle Estate would pay for the maintenance of the whole footpath network in East Sussex – and they don’t even have the grace to keep the paths open!

A new walk

Open Spaces Society member Chris Smith has created a walk highlighting the secret multi-million pound footpaths of Firle. You can find it on-line here.

For further information contact Chris Smith, OSS Brighton and Lewes correspondent on 01273 483869 or cs@hbhelp.co.uk.

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. It is campaigning for increased access in return for inheritance tax exemption.
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 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). Agricultural land is not subject to inheritance tax, so the exemption only applies to buildings, parkland and woodland.
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 must undertake “Preservation of woodlands to maintain their amenity, flora and fauna and sporting value” (but there is no public access to these “amenities”.
6 This is a national scheme. The full list of beneficiaries can be found here.

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