The Eye has done a remarkable service in exposing the magnitude of offshore ownership of the UK’s historic country houses and of the huge swathes of the British countryside that they control. Using FOI applications and extensive analysis of other data, it has found that since 1999 titles to no less than 97,500 properties covering 490,000 acres have been acquired by companies vested in tax havens. With much land already acquired by offshore companies before that date, it is likely that the total area acquired could be a million acres or more.
One example quoted is a British Virgin Islands (BVI) company, Gunnerside Estates, which owns over 27,250 acres of the North York Moors widely used by grouse-shooting parties. The company is controlled by an American, Robert Miller, who made his fortune from luxury duty-free shopping, and now is reported to live tax-efficiently in Hong Kong. That would enable him to take advantage of the inheritance tax breaks provided for a ‘non-dom’ on overseas assets. He is also likely to have escaped stamp duty when his company acquired the estate in 1998. Moreover, to cap it all, the EU paid agricultural subsidies to the estate over a decade of some €430,000.
But it’s not just foreign arrivistes who have been buying up tracts of England through tax haven companies. Much of the old English aristocracy are up to the same game as well, including the Gascoigne-Cecils and the current Marquess of Salisbury. The family own Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, but 2,000 nearby acres have been put into the name of Jersey companies Samos Investments and Syros Investments. The family also own Cranborne Manor and another 2,000 acres in Wiltshire, again transferred to both Samos and Mysia Investments. The current Marquess, Lord Salisbury, when Tory leader in the House of Lords in the 1990s, vehemently opposed reform of the Lords and objected so strongly to new disclosure of interest rules that he left in 2001.
It is odious that these exceedingly wealthy foreigners and vestiges of the English aristocracy continue to flaunt their estates whilst escaping all their tax liabilities, when the country is being ground through endless austerity which is crippling a third or more of Britain’s hard-working families (to use the current Tory mantra). Osborne constantly boasts of his crackdown on tax avoidance/evasion, yet turns a Nelson’s blind eye to some of the most egregious tax fiddling going on under his nose. The Labour leadership contestants should each be asked point blank if they will give an unqualified commitment to put an end to this haemorrhaging of Britain’s tax receipts once Labour is elected.