THE FIRLE ESTATE AND THE INHERITANCE TAX EXEMPTION SCHEME
article researched in 2014
Governments have adopted a scheme to exempt property from inheritance tax in return for undertakings about public access and the adoption of measures designed to conserve the property. This can apply to land, buildings and works of art.
The Firle estate opens the Firle Place, a stately home, on a number of days per week in return for one exemption, but the estate has managed to get out of paying inheritance tax on the whole of the rest of the estate in return for what appears to be the granting of 2 new paths, doing the things it legally has to do anyway, and maintaining the estate in the way that any decent landlord would do. The exemption is worth many millions.
The Firle Estate is situated in East Sussex to the east of Lewes in the South Downs. It includes Firle Place, the seat of the Gage family for many generations. One Lord Gage commanded the British forces in the American War of Independence.
So far as I am aware there is no other public access to buildings on the estate.
Apart from buildings, the estate includes gardens at Firle Place and also Parkland, outside of the gardens but near to Firle Place. The remainder of the estate consists of lowland fields, mainly south of the A27 (many of them cropped) and the high downs, including Firle Beacon – the subject of one of the wartime series of posters entitled “It’s Your Country- Fight for it Now”. There are a number of small woods on the estate.
There are a significant number of rights of way on the estate, including the South Downs Way, There are also a number of areas of statutory access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW)
The exemption from inheritance tax covers the bulk of the estate which would otherwise be the subject of tax (agricultural land is not taxable). The villages of West Firle and Alciston, together with the road up to Bo-peep, Charleston House and another small area are excluded.
The exemption covers a large amount of valuable land and also a number of valuable buildings to which there is no access.
There are a number of rights of way through the estate. There is also statutory CROW access land.
With the exception of the two paths described below the Firle estate has not granted any free access in return for its inheritance tax exemption.
There is no access to any of the woodlands on the estate except in the odd case where a right of way passes through, even though these woodlands are described in the third section as unsuited to commercial production but having a high amenity value.
Undertakings given to obtain exemption
The undertakings given to obtain tax exemption are in three sections
The first section was made in 1984 and covers Firle Place and its gardens and parkland.
The second section was made in 2005 and covers the lowland area around Charleston, and Alciston (the north east of the area of exemption) It includes Tilton House (although not, apparently, the whole of Tilton Farm. Charleston House is not now owned by the estate but the estate owns some ancilliary buildings there.) It is this section which requires the creation of two paths.
The third section consists of the downland area of the estate and also the part of the estate running towards the A27 at Middle Farm.
PUBLIC ACCESS GIVEN IN RETURN FOR EXEMPTION
The first section requires the estate to “keep open for public use the footpaths through the park”.
A number of public events are held in the parkland. However it is my understanding that the organisers would normally pay a commercial fee for the use of the park on these occasions.
The second section requires the estate to “retain the existing network of definitive rights of way on the estate” This is a legal requirement in any case.
It also requires the estate to provide two further paths
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. (running parallel to an existing right of way 30 metres away
The estate must publicise these paths by “displaying on site maps showing all permissive access routes/areas on the land.”
The estate manager tells me that these paths are used but, despite walking frequently in the area I had never noticed them. Up until recently there was no signage or maps on site and the paths do not appear on ordnance survey maps.
The third section requires that the estate carries out its statutory duties in relation to all existing rights of way on heritage land and that these are “signposted and waymarked in accordance with the recommendations of local highway authorities and any guidelines issued by the countryside commission”.
Waymarking is the statutory responsibility of the county council. Their rights of way were not aware, at the time of the writing this report, of any contribution to this task by the Estate.
Access to the site of special scientific interest (SSSI) must be granted to bona fide naturalists and similar, but by appointment only. However the bulk of the SSSI is now access land under the CROW act. . A map of the SSSI can be found at http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?startTopic=Designations&activelayer=sssiIndex&query=HYPERLINK%3D%271000986%27
There are no other undertakings regarding access.
MANAGEMENT COMMITMENTS IN RETURN FOR EXEMPTION
This is a summary of what I consider to be the most important undertakings in relation to land:
The first section requires the estate to manage the parkland so as to ensure the preservation of its character.
The second section requires the estate to agree a heritage management plan agreed with the Countryside Agency and English Nature and to revise this every 5 years
The third section requires the estate to
- Give no consent for ploughing of any land scheduled as permanent pasture
- Make no major changes to farming practices without prior consultation and agreement
- Manage the SSSI in accordance with the general guidelines given by the Nature Conservancy Council
- Maintain hedges and control scrub
- No new farm roads or tracks without prior agreement
- Listed buildings to be maintained in good repair
- Ancient monuments to be protected in accordance with the 1979 Act
- Preservation of woodlands to maintain their amenity, flora and fauna and sporting value.
- Wildlife conservation where compatible with the management plan
Substantial amounts of the land covered by the third section are already covered by agreements made under the other schemes.
These things seem to me to be either normal good management practice, or things that the law or the National Park authority would require to be done in any case.
NOTES ON PROPERTY PRICES IN THE AREA
Agricultural land in the area sells for around £7-10 thousand pounds per acre
A 3 bedroomed former farmworker’s cottage on the estate might be worth in the region of £3/400,000.
The value of Tilton House must run to millions.
In 2014 inheritance tax was 40% percent of any inheritance over £325,000
Agricultural land and buildings may be eligible for relief from inheritance tax even if not exempted under this scheme. This relief may be up to 100%. However woodland is not considered to be agricultural land unless managed for timbe