A Whitby businessman says he has been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the Duchy of Lancaster which owns thousands of acres of land in Goathland.
James Fearnley says if he doesn’t pay £20,000 to the Duchy, whose revenues go to the Queen, by today he will be hit with a £120,000 legal bill which means he could be forced to sell his home.
Mr Fearnley (67), who lives in Goathland, but researches and manufacturers natural medicine and runs a community health project in Whitby, is compiling a list of other villagers and organisations also with concerns, such as:
l Goathland parish council which has to pay £15 a year for the siting of a memorial bench on the village common and £70 for the village’s two bus shelters.
l Four homeowners who have to pay £300 a year for water pipes running across 50 yards of Duchy land.
l Former hotel owner Adrian Caulder who had to pay £40,000 to the Duchy for change of use when he converted his hotel into four houses back in 2008, one of which he now lives in.
Mr Fearnley, who has started his own website called Stand Up to the Duchy, believes the Duchy, whose estate is managed by agents Smith Gore, has made around £200,000 out of the people of Goathland over the past four years.
He is now calling for a parliamentary review of the Duchy’s activities and is looking at holding a public meeting for villagers.
He said: “There’s a significant number of people in Goathland who are afraid to speak. It’s not just about me and Adrian.
“I know one man who was asked to pay £10,000 to renew his water pipe which crossed Duchy land. He couldn’t afford it so he put his house up for sale.
“These tactics are probably being applied throughout the 46,000 acres of the Duchy Estate and no one, certainly not Parliament or the law seem able to do anything about it. There was a day, not long ago, when Duchy representatives were greeted with respect if not reverence when they came to Goathland. But times have changed.
“They’re like feudal tax collectors. Some people have had gagging orders put on them not to speak about their settlement and others are afraid to oppose the Duchy publicly.
“It is stifling the village.
“I think the Goathland experience is the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr Fearnley’s own dispute dates back to 1996, when he opened a field at the back of his home as an overflow car park in 1996 to help with the flood of visitors who flocked to the village where ITV police drama Heartbeat was fillmed and to stop vehicles parking on the Duchy’s common.
Out of the blue eight years ago, Smith Gore acting on behalf of the Duchy, wrote to him demanding he close the car park immediately because cars were passing illegally from the road to the field gate over a tiny strip of land the Duchy claimed to own.
It demanded 50% of profits made from the car park annually and now after eight years he is facing a bill of £40,000 for legal costs and back payments.
Last month, after spending large amounts of money on solicitors fees, Mr Fearnley was unable to afford any further legal representation, so offered to pay £18,000 in back pay and £2,500 per year in instalments over three years.
He said the Duchy refused this offer and demanded all the back pay immediately plus £50,000 in costs, and threatened Mr Fearnley with costs of £120,000 if the action went to court.
Following Mr Fearnley’ s application to the court the Duchy agreed to settle for £40,000 if £20,000 was paid immediately which is due today.
“If I don’t pay it by the end of this week, they will go back to the injunction which means the car park will have to close and it would mean I would have to pay the full £120,000,” he said.
“This is causing me incredible stress and upset.”
Following concerns about the financial strategies of the Duchy of Lancaster, Whitby MP Robert Goodwill told the Gazette: “I think they are being a little bit predatory and they are taking advantage of a legal decision that is giving them an opportunity to extract money from people.
“I think at the very least her majesty would raise her eyebrows. If these people are having these experiences it is important we hear them.”
Mr Goodwill has written on his constituents’ behalf to Lord Hill, Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster,but has had no response as yet.
A spokesman for the Duchy and Smith Gore told the Gazette: “The Duchy is a responsible landowner with a long term interest in the protection and development of the village of Goathland.
“Over the years we have made substantial investments in initiatives designed to improve the village for residents and visitors including rebuilding the village pavement, the creation of walking trails and saving the village bus service with investment to help create a bus turning circle.
“The Duchy is a commercial organisation and like any landowner, in order to be able to invest in the village, we have to generate revenue.
“Through our agents, we work closely with people and organisations wishing to use our land for commercial gain and private use, to try to reach a mutually acceptable agreement guided by market value and always take the full circumstances into consideration when negotiating licences, easements and rents.”