Manjimup land battle escalates

Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

Manjimup farmer Peter Swift learns tomorrow whether he faces foreclosure on his property after a multi-year battle in which he was accused of clearing land but was later found to be innocent.

The date for negotiations between his bank and the Financial Ombudsman over the matter was April 3, and, as of Tuesday, Mr Swift was unaware of any progress being made.

But he said his lender P&N Bank could expect a showdown if it tried to enter his property, as the State Government had put him in this situation and led to his inability to service the debt.

Furthermore, the bank lent money on the basis the full property could be farmed, which was not the case because of environmental restrictions.

Mr Swift was charged in 2009 by the then-Department of Environment and Conservation after it identified the alleged native vegetation loss at Mr Swift's property using satellite imagery monitoring.

He had faced penalties of up to $250,000 and three years jail if convicted of breaching a section of the Environmental Protection Act relating to the unauthorised clearing of native vegetation.

Mr Swift maintained his innocence throughout the trial, claiming the vegetation he had been accused of destroying was cleared before he bought the property in 2007.

A Bunbury court acquitted Mr Swift of the offences but the ordeal left him on the brink of financial ruin with an estimated $360,000 in losses, largely because of legal fees.

Adding further salt to the wound is the same environmental legislation, which means about half of his 1200-acre property is deemed environmentally sensitive and cannot be farmed despite the rural farmland zoning.

Because only half his land is workable, Mr Swift said he was unable to service the $750,000 loan by the bank, which was also unaware of the environmental restrictions upon approving the mortgage.

He said before the initial charges in 2009 he was ahead in payments and there were no issues.

Mr Swift said he approached his bank and asked whether they would accept interest only while the issue was being negotiated with the State Government, but was told they were "not here to cut deals".

"The bank then came and valued my property but did so on the basis there were no environmental restrictions," he said.

When he pointed out the restrictions, the bank said it would reassess.

Mr Swift said he later heard only secondhand his bank planned to start proceedings.

Mr Swift said he is not looking for charity but he needed to be able to farm his whole property if he had any chance of servicing the debt.

"I just want the Government to give me back what was mine in the first place," he said.

"Alternatively if my land is such a benefit to the community, they could purchase it from me and let me start a fresh elsewhere."

He said although the current Government is looking to repeal the legislation that stops him using his land, this is not happening quickly enough.

"Instead the bank is holding a gun to my head. But they will need to bring in the army if they think they are getting me off my property," he said.

Meanwhile former Liberal MP Murray Nixon told a state parliamentary committee last month that many farmers were unaware that they were legally prevented from grazing livestock on designated sensitive areas, and there was not adequate consultation before the classification was entered into legislation in 2005. The Government wants to repeal the legislation which affects between 3,000 and 4,000 farmers.

Federal Liberal MP Don Randall told Parliament earlier this month the treatment of Mr Swift by the State Government was a disgrace.

Mr Randall said the environment law should be clarified and the Government should do the right thing and compensate Mr Swift.

Mr Marmion did not respond.

A P&N Bank spokesperson said it would not comment on individual customer circumstances.

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