A country estate has been criticised for taking advantage of an exemption from inheritance tax in return for access to its land while opening just two footpaths, which the Firle Estate disputes.
Chris Smith, from the Open Spaces Society, said an examination of the agreements made between the Firle Estate and the government showed ‘all we seem to have got are two short footpaths’.
The Firle Estate said there were more than 20 miles of public rights of way over the estate and 600 acres of open access land.
Mr Smith said: “With house prices rising, many home owners would be glad to open their gardens as part of an open garden scheme and to open their houses as part of an arts open house event, if they could escape inheritance tax, but this seems to be a loop-hole only for the rich.
“It is shameful that the government has not demanded more public access in return for this very lucrative tax loop-hole.”
The Firle Estate said it was granted conditional exemption from inheritance tax in 1984, explaining to qualify for the exemption, stringent criteria had to be met, which were assessed by HMRC with advice from Natural England, before any conditional exemption was granted.
A spokesperson for the Firle Estate said: “The conditional exemption for the Firle Estate covers approximately half of the estate, including Firle Place, and contains several conditions relating to public access, all of which are complied with.
“There are over 20 miles of public rights of way over the estate and 600 acres of open access land.
“The estate also provides additional voluntary public access facilities, including three free to use car parks and the Berwick Way Cycle Path and has recently worked with the South Downs National Park Authority to further improve public access to parts of the estate.”
Annual reports are provided to HMRC and five yearly inspections are carried out to ensure compliance, the estate said.
Mr Smith said the estate obtained exemption from inheritance tax on nearly all the estate in return for keeping the estate in good condition and allowing public access.
An examination of the agreements made between the estate and the government showed the two footpaths were: south from Charleston Farmhouse to meet the old coach road and south from the car park at the Barley Mow Inn at Selmeston, to join the lane about 375m to the south.
He added these paths were not signposted.
Chris Smith, from the Open Spaces Society, said the house was open to the public on a limited number of days of the year and that entry cost money.
There were other conditions that the estate must comply with, but these were largely things that it had a statutory duty to do, such as keeping rights of way open, or which would be required by planning laws or which any good manager would do. He added some conditions were not being complied with. For example the estate has agreed to post information about the two paths, but none can be seen.