“Councils are selling off land: vast swathes of it. It’s estimated that 10 million hectares of public land have been sold in the past four decades, and sales are accelerating. In Gloucestershire, where I live, the council has sold £100 million of land since April 2011 and recently announced plans to sell up to £53 million more.
Who’s buying it all? There has been little press coverage of this fire sale of land, and councils are cagey about reporting it. To find out more, I wrote code to compare a mid-2017 version of the Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial Ownership data, which lists what UK corporate bodies own, with the latest Overseas Companies Ownership data, which lists what overseas companies own. If titles move from the first dataset to the second, that indicates they’ve been sold to an overseas company.
I found that since summer 2017, local authorities, government bodies and universities have sold public land worth more than £100 million to companies in Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, British Virgin Islands, Malta and Cayman Islands. This is despite David Cameron promising to end property sales to “anonymous shell companies” in May 2016.
These countries are tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. Private Eye, Global Witness and Transparency International have exposed for years how offshore companies hide the true identity of the buyers, allowing ‘dirty money’ to be laundered through the UK. Yet still the sales go on.
There’s no suggestion that the sales below are being used for money laundering, or even good old-fashioned corruption – the few I can identify look like UK development groups using offshore vehicles. But the problem is, we just don’t know who the buyers are – that’s the point of offshore. And most likely, nor do the public bodies doing the selling!
The government recently announced plans for a register of beneficial owners of offshore companies that own UK property. But campaigners say this is too little, too late: unless draft legislation goes to Parliament soon, the register won’t be in place till 2021.
In the meantime, and despite Theresa May also promising a ‘crackdown’ on companies’ use of offshore tax havens (£), public bodies are still merrily selling off public land – plenty of it to anonymous companies in these “sunny places for shady people”. …
[For specific examples see the remainder of the article]