Steeple Morden field divided into squares and sold offshore

30th November 2017

An American investment firm bought a field of farmland on the edge of Steeple Morden, divided it up into squares and sold it on as part of an apparent land scam.

The Crow has acquired Land Registry data showing that Asset Land Investment LLC of Reno, Nevada, paid £499,000 for a field north of Ashwell Road, south-west of the village, in 2009.

On first glance, not much sets the now-uncultivated field apart – but it is in fact carved up into square-shaped parcels, 45 of which were sold on for amounts ranging from £10,000 to £16,000 between 2010 and 2013.

Listed as proprietor for 12 of these acquisitions is the Equity Trust Company of South Dakota. The Pensco Trust Company of San Francisco is listed for 18, and the IRA Services Trust Company of San Carlos, California, is listed as proprietor for seven.

The sequence of events closely fits the description of a land-banking scheme, whereby offshore firms buy agricultural land without planning permission for sale to overseas investors in the form of piecemeal plots.

Buyers in such ‘collective investment schemes’ are led to believe the land will be green-lit for housing development, and that plots’ value will soar as a result.

South Cambridgeshire District Council has no record of any planning application for this field.

Steeple Morden Parish Council chairman John Brocklehurst told the Crow the land was sold by the Town Lands Charity – whose trustees today include the parish council and Mr Brocklehurst – in 2009, after about a century of use as agricultural land where the parish’s poor could grow food. He said there had since been several complaints about a footpath across it not being maintained.

Asset Land Investment LLC is still listed by the Land Registry as the land’s registered owner. In Nevada, its listed responsible person is Seguros Management Ltd of Nassau in the Bahamas.

Efforts by the Crow to contact either company did not succeed. Seguros’ website seems to have been deleted in 2013.

UK-registered firm Asset Land Investment plc was confirmed by the Supreme Court last year to have operated an unauthorised collective investment scheme – selling similar patches of land around the UK at inflated prices.

The High Court found in 2013 that David Banner-Eve, Stuart Cohen, Asset Land Investment plc and Panama-based Asset LI Inc had run an illegal land bank by operating a collective investment scheme without authorisation.

The Financial Conduct Authority defeated an appeal from Asset Land Investment plc and Mr Banner-Eve in 2014, and the Supreme Court dismissed a further appeal last year.