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'Register Beccles Fen as charity land'

PUBLISHED: 10:06 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 09:08 01 August 2010

TOWN councillors have been urged to stop going round in circles and register Beccles Fen as having charitable status.

The fen was granted by charter to the people of the town by Queen Elizabeth I in 1584, but in recent times the town council, as registered freehold owner, has rented much of the land to farmers to graze livestock.

TOWN councillors have been urged to stop going round in circles and register Beccles Fen as having charitable status.

The fen was granted by charter to the people of the town by Queen Elizabeth I in 1584, but in recent times the town council, as registered freehold owner, has rented much of the land to farmers to graze livestock.

The money that comes in amounts to £40,000 a year and is the council's third main source of income.

But early last year the Charity Commission launched an investigation into whether the land might have charitable status and in the summer it wrote to the town council to say it believes it does.

If it is agreed the land has charitable status, it must be run separately from the council by trustees and be subject to specific rules and accounting procedures.

The council would also not be able to use all the income as it does at present as there will be rules about how the money can be used. What is more, the council would be left with a gap in its budget that could mean having to put up its precept (its share of the overall council tax).

A working party was established in September and the matter discussed at a town council meeting on Tuesday night.

At the meeting, town councillor Michael Doherty accused the town council of going round in circles.

“We have now been 12 months looking into whether Beccles Fen land is of charitable status,” he said.

“It is clear from the latest letter of the Charity Commission that this is indeed charity land and it is now up to the council to prove otherwise. It would appear that we cannot. We seem to be going round in ever decreasing circles.”

Fellow town councillor Jill Featherstone said: “It needs to be registered as charity land.”

Working party chairman, Jeffrey Harris, said the group had sought further legal advice. It had been difficult to get a response but the expert eventually described the situation as “extremely complicated” and one that would cost a “small fortune” to pursue.

Beccles mayor Jack Walmsley told councillors: “The land is registered to us. It belongs to this council. What the Charity Commission doesn't do is protect. There is this notion somehow that if we register something as charity land, the Charity Commission will protect it forever more in the state it is in. They are not interested in that.”

Councillors agreed to receive and accept the Fen working party report and to act on its recommendations which include going back to the Charity Commission regarding the wording and purpose of the charter.

After the meeting, Mr Harris said: “The findings so far have been inconclusive because of the ancient language used in the documentation. Meanings of language change over time.” He added: “We are not fighting this - we are investigating and exploring it. It comes down to what is meant by Beccles Fen.”

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