Although the council bought some of the land in February 2014 at a cost of £408,500 the existence of the restrictive covenants do not appear to have been revealed to councillors or to consultants who were subsequently employed to recommend uses for the land (they suggested using the land for leisure and cultural activities, including a cinema, in apparent conflict with the terms of sale).
The restrictive covenants in even more stringent terms also applies to the land behind the Post Office which the LBO revealed last month has been sold to an unnamed developer for an estimated price of over £1 million. The developers’ plans for that site are currently unknown but as well as banning “places of amusement” it says the land can only be used for a private dwelling house - although it has already been previously the site of the sorting office.
The existence of the covenants does not appear to have been taken into account by Central Bedfordshire Council in its 2016 review of its plans for the South Side of the High Street when it said: “Our market testing has identified initial interest from a boutique cinema operator of a smaller format 2 or 3 screen cinema and given the lack of catering offer in the town, some serious consideration should be given as to whether the scheme could be made financially viable to include a cinema operation.”
If the cinema plan did not come off then the council suggested “alternatives including hotels, gyms, trampoline, climbing, adventure golf, Ping Pong and boutique bowling are all options to explore.” While all these places could be described as “other places of amusement”, CBC did not refer to the restrictive covenants in the document.
Although these covenants do not apply to all the land the council owns, it does apply to a large tract of land behind the Wilko store. Another section of land behind 46b High Street has another covenant that separately bans the use of any building on the site for the “sale of intoxicating liquor or for use as a club”. It also precludes the erection of a multi-storey car park within 10 yards of the Swan Hotel. This land has been in council ownership since 1975 when it was bought for £275,000. It is currently used as a car park for market traders but is not multi-storey.
So far despite making enquiries, the LBO has been unable to discover whether any councillors or senior officials of Central Bedfordshire or Leighton-Linslade Town Council have ever previously been made aware of the restrictive covenants on any of Land South of the High Street. Councillors and officials of both councils so far contacted by the LBO have said they knew nothing of the existence of the restrictions and town and CBC Cllr Victoria Harvey said: “I am amazed that the council officers dealing with this area for many years were not even aware of the covenants.”
Among the organisations frustrated by the lack of information are the Peppercorn Centre trustees who hope to build a Heritage and Arts Centre on the land but do not wish to commission architects for the site if Central Bedfordshire was unable to grant planning permission because of the covenants. They believe the uncertainty also makes fundraising difficult.
A statement from the Peppercorn trustees said: “All we are asking for is clarification from Central Bedfordshire Council about whether the covenants are still binding or could they be removed in the public interest. Currently we cannot find out if they even know about it, surely this should be public knowledge since it was council taxpayers who paid for the purchase?”
The LBO asked a number of questions of Central Beds Council including if the council, its officers, councillors, and/or consultants had been aware of the covenants over recent years, or had they only just come to light.
We also asked if the covenants could be removed in the public interest in order to allow development on the land.
A spokesman for Central Beds Council simply said: “The council has not been involved in developing the ideas being proposed by Peppercorn for the council’s property at land south of the High Street. It is not uncommon for land or property to have covenants and detailed legal investigations would need to take place to address the questions raised.”
The covenant on the land behind Wilko was imposed during a land sale in 1920 at the height of the Temperance Movement in Leighton Buzzard. It says: “The purchaser his heirs executors administrators and assigns will not use or permit to be used the said hereditaments thereby conveyed or any part thereof for the erection of a Cinema Picture House Theatre Music Hall or other place of amusement whatsoever.”
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