Mira Barhillel

Property Special: Agricultural landKilling fields

So just what was that Matt Crawford up to in Midsummer Meadow?

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So just what was that Matt Crawford up to in Midsummer Meadow?

For the benefit of the one or two of you who are not Archers fans, a villain of a property developer straight out of central casting (sleazy accent, lap-dancing clubber) was about to buy some meadow land from the saintly David and Ruth (Archer, natch), ostensibly for the use of his lady wife's horses.

It was soon suspected that Crawford was, while offering to pay agricultural prices, hoping to employ a planning loophole and get permission for some country house designed by a fashionable architect with the right connections. When the upright David Archer suggested a clause giving him a share of any windfall development game, the nasty developer made an excuse and backed off. But this correspondent has her suspicions that Mr Crawford may have been even more devious, planning to do something that is the 2003 answer to the timeshare sales of the 1990s.

In the wake of the farming crisis that culminated in the foot-and-mouth disaster, agricultural land values plummeted and some farmers, traditionally land hoarders, became desperate enough to sell. Their hardship created a new enterprise: middlemen companies were set up, buying acreage and selling tiny plots to individual buyers at up to 20 times their real value. This trade in what is often green belt on the fringes of existing villages but with no development value has rocketed in the past five years, making huge profits for the traders.

One company alone, Gladwish Land Sales of Horsham, boasts that its sales have multiplied fiftyfold, from £92,000 in 1995/6 to £4,786,000 in 2001/2. The number of buyers, it claims, has risen from 535 to 14,688. One plot on offer on the Gladwish website is one twentieth of an acre near the pretty village of Ticehurst, East Sussex. Its price tag is £2,700 - the equivalent of £54,000 an acre. As farmland it is worth less than £3,000 an acre.

The Gladwish website also lists numerous plots outside the picturesque village of Bramber, West Sussex. A 60-acre field near the River Adur has being split into 220 small parcels of about 15 by 60 metres, which are offered for about £6,000 each, a total of more than £1.3 million. It claims that 48 have already been sold.

Yolande Barnes, head of research at the estate agents FPDSavills, thinks paying these prices is a worse bet than buying a lottery ticket. 'I personally, if I had any money, might be prepared to take a slice of some action in certain areas where I thought there was a real chance of planning permission in the long term - but only at very little, if anything, above agricultural value,' she said.

In the case of Bramber, however, the chartered surveyor, John Miles, who is familiar with the area, also said that the entire field is subject to regular flooding. 'The land is being sold at a pro rata price equating to about £21,000 per acre. I believe that the open-market value of the land in question is probably less than £3,000 per acre, given the flooding which would rule out any development-hope value.'

In addition, he said, 'The local council is in the process of serving a legal notice which will effectively block any future development rights over the land.'

However, buyers who want to make sensible checks before spending thousands of pounds on a few square metres of land are banned from doing so. Gladwish states that the land is sold without planning permission - and without searches - but that buyers are not allowed to make inquiries of their own.

'Anyone contacting councils prior to buying will be deemed to be unethical, and we will have no further dealings with them,' it warns. This allows Gladwish salespeople to suggest to potential buyers that the land has 'hope value': the prospect that some day permission may be granted to build on it, leading to massive windfalls.

In reality, the likelihood of planning permission at any time is not much better than winning the lottery. However, the traders are making millions immediately, taking advantage of gullible punters, rocketing house prices and well-known development pressures in the South-east.

Gladwish say: 'We do not apply for planning permission but simply sell the land to you