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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Land sales lies lure in investors
by Malcolm Prior
Inside Out, BBC South

Stephen Cleeve
Mr Cleeve has been banned from being a director for eight years
It sounds like the perfect deal - buy a piece of the English countryside, apply for planning permission and sell it on to developers for a huge profit.

But scores of investors across the country have been tricked into handing over thousands of pounds for land that has no chance of ever being built on.

An investigation by BBC South's Inside Out programme has exposed one "landbanking" company that has convinced investors to pay above the odds for sites that have little or no development potential.

Commercial Land, based in St Johns Square, London, formerly European Land Sales Partnership (ELS), specialises in buying agricultural land and dividing it into tiny plots, which it then sells to investors at 5,000 for every 0.02 acre.

The site at Eynsham
The Oxfordshire site is in the greenbelt and in the floodplain

It tells investors they could get a five-fold return on their money if planning permission is granted.

What it does not say is that the development potential of the sites it is touting is non-existent.

Three employees tried to convince BBC journalists posing as potential investors to hand over 10,000 for a small piece of land in Dorset that planners are adamant can never be built upon.

Commercial Land - which has never won planning consent for any of its holdings - is currently marketing a four-acre site near the hamlet of King's Stag.

I feel this company is trying to sell land to people on a fraudulent basis
Nick Fagan, council planner

During a meeting at the company's London headquarters, one salesman claimed the local council had written to them saying the land in King's Stag was "suitable for housing and also for commercial use".

His colleague, who said between 30,000 and 50,000 could be made from a 10,000 investment, claimed the quiet rural hamlet would soon be part of the suburban sprawl, adding "go back there in five, six years down the line and it will be very built up".

The company's own in-house planning specialist claimed it would not be long before planning permission - for either residential or commercial use - was secured.

He said: "It's just a matter of time to see when we get planning permission in 2008 so it's not too far away.

"They [the council] are always saying this is what we need at the moment."

The field at King's Stag
The four-acre field in King's Stag is being sold off as 112 plots

In fact North Dorset District Council has told the BBC there is no chance of development, not least because the area actually has an oversupply of homes.

Nick Fagan, the council's development control manager, said of the chances of the site winning planning permission: "Zero, nothing - there's no chance at all of ever getting planning permission here.

"We did send them a letter. It said there's no chance of developing this land, basically ever.

"I feel this company is trying to sell land to people on a fraudulent basis. They are cowboys and they should be closed down."

If the company successfully sells all its plots at King's Stag it will make about 750,000.

Its main partner, Stephen Cleeve, paid just 30,000 for the site in September 2005.

Stephen Cleeve
Mr Cleeve was involved in a fight on Australian television

Mr Cleeve, who is banned from being a company director for eight years after a previous investment scam, has already been the subject of a public warning issued by the Australian authorities over his tactics in selling UK land overseas.

In this country, the Serious Fraud Office - despite deciding not to prosecute Mr Cleeve - has said there is evidence that investors have been misled by ELS in the past.

The company's sales tactics have certainly proved a success for Mr Cleeve over the years.

In Oxfordshire, ELS made hundreds of thousands of pounds from investors by selling land it said was ripe for development.

Investors were not told, however, that the land near Eynsham lies in the Oxford greenbelt and in a floodplain.

I can see I have been conned
Investor Satish Mehta

West Oxfordshire District Council says it will never allow building there.

One of the many investors who spoke to the BBC about how they were convinced to part with their cash is Satish Mehta.

The 70-year-old retired GP from Stockport paid 7,600 for his plot back in July 2004 and was told the land was likely to be included in the local development plan.

He said that he felt he had been "led up the garden path" and added: "I can see I have been conned."

In a statement, Mr Cleeve said that a new member of staff had made a genuine error about the letter, which was actually from the company's planning consultants and contained their view of the council's position on development.

He added: "We are not free to discuss our planning processes as this could prejudice our chances of gaining the relevant permission and as such would be doing our clients a disservice.

"European Land Sales is a bona fide organisation and has a strict disciplinary code. Any breaches of our code are dealt with quickly. Several employees have already been disciplined."

Inside Out, BBC1, 1930BST


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