Land-banking at Barley Lane: A History of Dodgy Dealing
By Richard Price
The planning appeal which is to be heard by way of public inquiry in December (see front page) follows an application made in August 2017 for outline planning permission to build nine houses on scrub land to the south of Barley Lane. However there are actually 105 separate but contiguous plots altogether in this location, so if permission were to be given for the initial nine it seems likely that further applications would follow.
Nine separate owners (individuals or couples) are referred to in the application form, believed to be respective owners of the nine plots. However, the application was made by WS Planning & Architecture on behalf of a company BBCN Limited which has three directors: Barry Osborn, who has a 50% shareholding, and Nicholas Stilwell and Brian Woods who have 25% each. Mr Osborn has a long and interesting history of financial involvement.
The Barley Lane location is one of four sites across Kent and Sussex selected by Mr Osborn – the others are similarly on the fringes of growing towns, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells and Worthing – where it could be plausibly speculated that there might be respective opportunities for building development in the foreseeable future, even if they are currently of rural character. He did not however intend to speculate too far for himself. His plan of campaign was to purchase a swathe of land at each of these locations at a modest agricultural value, then divide it up into small house-size plots. Those could then be sold on to individual investors at a huge mark-up, trading on the potential gains in value that could accrue as and when each became buildable – if they did.
He seems to have started buying low and selling high through a company, ESVI, registered in the Virgin Islands, of which he was sole director and shareholder. In 2008 ESVI ceased trading, leaving unhappy investors complaining that they had ‘lost their money’. He then moved the business on to a successor company Towers Property Development Ltd (“Towers”) which he had incorporated in 2007.
Mr Osborn took only a 25% stake in Towers with a further equal stake given to his wife Kay. The remaining 50% percent stake was held by a Mr Carlos Amaya-Torres, who acted as the company’s sole director. Mr Osborn’s avoidance of responsibility for the conduct of of Towers proved to be a shrewd move. Between July 2007 and May 2012 sales over the four sites totalled £3.8 million. He and his wife were paid in dividends over a four year period in 2013 but had no legal liability for its conduct.
The late Hastings Old Town Councillor John Hodges wrote about Towers in his ward report of February 2011: “I have investigated the ongoing problem of the sale of plots in a ‘pseudo-development’ off Barley Lane called Belmont Views. Some consternation has been caused to local residents by the misleading documentation that accompanies this promotion.” At the time 105 house-size plots of land were being advertised in glossy promotional literature that described it as an area occupying 2.87 hectares at the east of Hastings between Barley Lane to the north and Rocklands Lane to the south.
The Towers enterprise came to a sticky conclusion not in Hastings but in Brighton, where its selling methods were investigated by the Trading Standards department of Brighton and Hove City Council during 2011. They concluded that hawking the plots for up to 15 times the actual value as low-risk investments was an illegal scam since they were in fact high risk and the land had little prospect of gaining planning permission. Injunctions were obtained in the High Court to stop Towers selling plots at two sites, and a costs order was made against the company in the sum of £92,000.
Towers ceased trading and went into insolvent liquidation, administered by the Insolvency Service. Towers were unable to provide the investigators with any “documentation pertaining to statutory or accounting information.” But Barry Osborn incorporated his new company, BBCN Ltd on 21st June 2013, with the same business specification as that of Towers – ‘Buying and selling of own real estate’ – and once again arranged for the new company to take over the remaining unsold plots, apparently 165 of them spread over four locations. Of course BBCN paid no greater premium for them than Towers had done before. According to Insolvency Service records, these plots were transferred for an aggregate price of £11,680; Land Registry data indicate that it was a total of just £3,040 for the plots at Barley Lane. Meanwhile the claims of unsecured creditors received by the Insolvency Service amounted to more than £2.5m.
Towers appointed liquidators on the 5th December 2013 and published a directors report that attempted to explain its enterprise. It was claimed that “There was a political atmosphere and statements made by the Government indicating that consideration was being given to relaxing planning laws with a view to encouraging new developments.”
In February 2016, the Insolvency Service concluded their investigation into Towers. They concurred with Trading Standards. Mr Amaya-Torres was disqualified from acting as a company director for 14 years. Mr Osborn was left free to renew his tricks. However he now took a different tack. BBCN would seek planning permission for a selection of the plots at Barley Lane. It might seem a long shot but, if successful, would arguably legitimise the previous operations, proof that any ESVI and Towers investors who have retained plots at this location are finally on their way to getting what they bargained for.
The 2017 planning application was met with a barrage of objections – 52 letters and a petition from the public. Hastings Borough Council planners rejected it in February 2018, listing eight refusal reasons. Reason number five stated that ‘The proposed development will introduce an incongruous urban form of development into existing green landscape out of keeping with and harmful to both the rural character of the area and the setting of the Old Town Conservation Area.’ Now comes the appeal.
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