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Controversy over marshes ownership

PUBLISHED: 08:00 20 March 2009 | UPDATED: 08:03 01 August 2010

BECCLES Town Council is facing a massive legal headache over the status of the marshes and common it owns, which bring in significant annual income.

The Charity Commission is currently conducting an investigation into whether the land has charity status - and if it is found that it does the council warned this week that it could have a huge impact on its budget, affect a wide variety of organisations and users of the land, and potentially lead to a steep rise in the town's annual precept.

BECCLES Town Council is facing a massive legal headache over the status of the marshes and common it owns, which bring in significant annual income.

The Charity Commission is currently conducting an investigation into whether the land has charity status - and if it is found that it does the council warned this week that it could have a huge impact on its budget, affect a wide variety of organisations and users of the land, and potentially lead to a steep rise in the town's annual precept.

The marshes which envelop the town of Beccles have a long history and form an integral part of the landscape - but the battle that is simmering has the potential to alter the way the lands have been managed for years.

The lands were given to the people of the town in 1584 by Queen Elizabeth I and in recent times the town council, as the registered freehold owner, has rented much of the land, which comprises of about 750 acres, to farmers for the grazing of livestock. And the money that comes in from rents - about £40,000 per annum - makes up the bulk of town council funds.

Now, following an inquiry from a member of the public, the Charity Commission, the regulator for charities in the UK, says it has records showing the land has been treated as a charitable trust as far back as 1829 - a fact that is disputed by the town council.

But if it is declared charity land it then must be run separately from the town council with a set of trustees and subject to specific rules and accounting procedures.

The town council says it has taken legal advice on the matter and has doubts as to whether the land would qualify as having charitable status.

Beccles town clerk Bernice Broom said the decision could potentially have an impact on a large number of people and organisations, and would leave a gap in the town council's budget which could potentially involve a rise in the precept.

Mrs Broom said: “As far as the town council is concerned the land is registered freehold to the town.

“It is mainly grazing land which is rented to various organisations and clubs, marsh tenants and allotment holders.

“If the Charity Commission can prove that the land is charitable we will have no real option but to register it. But we cannot say this is going to happen until we know one way or the other.”

She added: “If this money we get in rents is removed from town council use we are going to have a hole in our budget.

“I personally cannot see what benefit this will bring to the people of Beccles. We are already doing everything for the benefit of the town and all the money is spent on the town. It does seem rather a senseless exercise.”

She said that if the Charity Commission determined that the land had charitable status then the town council would not be able to use all the income as it does at present.

“We will be able to use some of it, but there will be rules about how that money can be used. There has got to be a deficit and this could potentially impact on the precept.”

Beccles mayor David Smith said: “We were quite surprised at the emergence of this Charity Commission business. The trouble is it leaves us in a state of limbo because we do not know on the financial side of things what is going to happen.

“Therefore we cannot look forward and plan anything for the forthcoming year because this matter might affect it. It could lead to a rise in the precept and could have quite a big impact on the town.”

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