Greenbelt’s five-figure Pines offer ‘disingenuous’

RESIDENTS of Ellon’s ‘The Pines’ estate have expressed their frustration at the apparent stalemate in efforts to end a long-running dispute with land maintenance company Greenbelt Ltd, describing the company’s latest offer to householders as ‘disingenuous’.

Householders have been in protracted discussions with Greenbelt Group Ltd over the company’s alleged poor standard of grounds-keeping in public open space areas. The land was originally transferred to Greenbelt by the estate’s developer, with residents obliged by their title deeds to pay for land maintenance services.

However, following a recent meeting with representatives from The Pines Action Group, Aberdeenshire Council, Alex Salmond’s office and Ellon & District Councillor Rob Merson, Greenbelt Managing Director Alex Middleton has now gone public with an offer to residents. In a statement issued this week to the Ellon Times, Mr Middleton indicated his company’s willingness to transfer ownership of the land for what he described as “a very reasonable transfer value”.

“I made this offer in November 2008, but Councillor Merson has recently again championed transfer to the residents so I have today written to him outlining the legal requirements for this to proceed”, he said. Claiming that no approach to Greenbelt requesting transfer had been made since November 2008, he continued: “Greenbelt wants our customers to enjoy their environment and guarantee its sustainability for future generations. If residents on The Pines do not wish Greenbelt to be involved, my offer to Councillor Merson is simple and straightforward. He knows what he now needs to do”.

However, his statement provoked a terse reaction from campaigners, who disputed Mr Middleton’s contention that the offer was a reasonable one, and claimed that their previous attempts to enter negotiations with Greenbelt over land transfer had been ignored by the company.

The offer marks the latest twist in the aftermath of a November 2008 public meeting between residents and Mr Middleton.

At the meeting, which was chaired by Cllr Merson, Mr Middleton agreed to look into residents’ concerns, holding out the prospect of a reduction in service charges if work was found to be unsatisfactory. That offer was later withdrawn following an assertion from Mr Middleton that the company had met its service obligations – a move which led some residents to withhold further payments. Alex Salmond also met with Greenbelt in December 2009 as MSP for Gordon, calling afterwards for the company to negotiate the transfer of the land and maintenance arrangements to Aberdeenshire Council.

Responding, Cllr Merson said: “Having indicated throughout the discussions that Greenbelt would be willing to ‘hand over’ or ‘transfer’ the land for a nominal sum, Mr. Middleton has appeared at the eleventh hour with a price which he asserts is based on a Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors valuation – to which he has the temerity to add the sum of his company’s unpaid householder bills. My constituents therefore consider his idea of an ‘acceptable price’ to be thoroughly disingenuous.

“I have suggested that Greenbelt should accept a truly nominal sum for the land - and that it is for them to collect their outstanding accounts in the normal way of business. It is my opinion that my constituents have been perfectly entitled to withhold payment for services which they have not received. For that reason, I would doubt that Greenbelt could be confident of securing payment through the Courts, so I can well understand why they would seek to tie that into the deal.”

A spokesman for the residents of ‘The Pines’ Action Group expressed disappointment with Mr Middleton’s public statement, and surprise at his claim not to have received any approach regarding a possible transfer:

“Having made a specific request that the matter should be dealt with in a private and confidential manner, we were disappointed that Greenbelt Ltd. should then issue an announcement extolling the virtues of its offer – nothing could be further from the truth.

“In addition to correspondence from Cllr. Merson, two letters have been sent directly from the Residents of ‘The Pines’ Action Group asking Greenbelt to expedite negotiations for the transfer of the land at a nominal value. We are still waiting for a reply. What Greenbelt has now put on the table is anything but ‘nominal’.

“This company has a track record of poor service and failed promises, not only to the residents of ‘The Pines’, but to householders right across the country. Over 90% of the residents of this estate have now confirmed their wish to sever all ties with Greenbelt – and not one has expressed otherwise. We will therefore be discussing our options further with Cllr. Merson, and our MSP as soon as parliament reconvenes after the election.”

Alex Salmond, who is currently the SNP candidate for Aberdeenshire East, added: “That the Pines residents have been moved to take on control of the land is indicative of the deteriorating relationship between the residents and the Greenbelt group.

“The residents are disappointed that the sum offered is substantially more than the nominal fee previously discussed, and are understandably reluctant to see any personal debt tied up in a business transaction - something that they do not see as conducive to a ‘very reasonable transfer value’.

“I will continue to support the residents who are keen to see the land transferred for a reasonable, nominal value as soon as possible.”