Indie: The biggest property company you've never heard of

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Oct 19 12:58:36 BST 2013

The biggest company you've never heard of: 
Lifting the lid on Peel Group - the property firm 
owned by reclusive tax exile John Whittaker

The low-profile company controlled by a billionaire tax exile
Author Biography


When the BBC announced in 2007 that it was to 
move five major departments and 1,500 
London-based jobs up to Salford, Manchester, one 
of the reasons it cited was a commitment to 
“distribute production spend
 more widely across the whole of the UK”.

Its new £200m, five-storey home – MediaCityUK – 
on the banks of the famous Salford Quays would be 
a shining beacon of regeneration that the 
then-Labour government was trying to encourage in 
less-affluent regions beyond London and the South-east.

However, the company that rents the 200-acre 
waterfront site to the BBC is, in fact, one tiny 
cog in a giant network of companies ultimately 
controlled by a billionaire tax exile who lives on the Isle of Man.

Over the next 20 years, the BBC is due to spend 
hundreds of millions of pounds in licence-fee 
payers’ money to the Peel Group, one of the 
largest private-owned property companies in the UK.

At the apex of its complex corporate structures 
sits John Whittaker, a fearsome dealmaker whose 
aggressive business strategies have seen the firm 
colonise huge swathes of the North.

There are hundreds of subsidiary Peel companies 
registered in the UK, all ultimately owned by a 
private family trust, the Billown Trust, registered in the Isle of Man.

Almost three-quarters of this entity is owned by 
John Whittaker, 71, and his children, with the 
remaining stake taken by the Saudi Olayan Group.

The tycoon is a director of an astonishing 312 
companies, according to Companies House. Almost 
all are Peel Group subsidiaries, which include 
interests in Liverpool, Durham and Doncaster 
airports, the Manchester Ship Canal, Scottish 
ports, and docks along the banks of the River Mersey.

The jewel in the Peel crown was, until 2011, the 
Trafford Centre, a huge out-of-town shopping mall 
in Manchester eventually sold to CSC for £1.65bn. 
When the sale was completed, Whittaker’s empire 
managed to legitimately avoid paying around £200 
million in capital gains tax because it took payment in CSC’s shares.

Last week, MPs on the Commons  Public Accounts 
Committee published a report that warned of a 
danger to the BBC’s reputation if it forms 
questionable business partnerships. “The BBC’s 
relationship with significant partner 
organisations also involves potential 
reputational risks for the BBC, for example, the 
extent to which partner organisations are 
transparent about their tax status in the UK and 
the amount of tax they pay,” it said.

The committee demanded that the BBC executive 
provide evidence to the governing BBC Trust 
showing that it assessed the “potential risks” of 
allowing the Peel Group to have a “dominant position” at Salford.

“It should also make clear its expectation that, 
as an organisation funded by the licence fee, it 
expects companies with which it contracts to pay their fair share of tax.”

Peel Group’s MediaCityUK venture in Salford is 
heavily reliant on public money, including more 
than £400 million in rent for BBC studios and office space.

The labyrinthine nature of the Peel Group’s 
corporate structure means it is difficult to say 
how much tax it pays to HM Revenue and Customs.

In June, the MPs made a visit to the premises and 
the committee chair Margaret Hodge said the Peel 
Group was not contributing enough to the Inland 
Revenue, claiming the group paid a maximum 
average of 10 per cent corporation tax. “They do 
not pay their fair share,” she said.

A Peel Group spokesperson said: “It is inaccurate 
to suggest that Peel is not paying its fair share 
of corporation tax. All Peel Group operating 
businesses, including Peel Media (the developers 
and owners of MediaCityUK), are UK domiciled for 
taxation purposes and pay the appropriate level 
of UK corporation tax.” He declined to comment on 
the tax affairs of Mr Whittaker, of whom surprisingly little is known.

Mr Whittaker seldom makes public appearances, and 
when he does they often stay in the memory. When 
the Trafford Centre opened in 1998, Mr Whittaker 
dressed up in a spotless white naval uniform with 
gold epaulettes and abseiled down into the mall 
from the bridge of a mocked-up transatlantic cruise liner.

Despite Mr Whittaker’s advancing years, his 
ambition shows no sign of faltering. His next big 
project is to transform 50 miles of bleak 
industrial land between the Port of Liverpool and 
Salford Docks into a £50 billion redevelopment 
called “Ocean Gateway”. The scheme, which will 
take at least five decades to complete, will 
include a £5.5 billion overhaul of the city’s 
waterfront with 50 skyscrapers, four hotels, a 
marina and a cruise liner terminal.

However, there is significant local disquiet over 
pumping yet more public money into a company that 
– albeit legally – appears to avoid so much tax.

Peter Kilfoyle, a former Labour Cabinet Office 
minister, is campaigning for more openness and 
transparency in Peel’s dealings on Merseyside.

His think-tank ExUrbe claims the Peel Group has 
received millions in EU and UK public grants. Mr 
Kilfoyle is also concerned about the influence 
the group has over local planning and points out 
one of its directors, Robert Hough, was chair of 
the North West Regional Development Agency and 
now chairs the Liverpool City Region Local 
Enterprise Partnership. He told The Independent: 
“Everything we know about what Peel does is 
legal. But that is vastly different from what is in the public interest.

“We have to ask ourselves if putting public money 
into organisations like Peel, who operate through 
a web of companies that funnel a lot of money 
offshore, is actually in the national interest. 
Just because it is legal doesn’t mean it cannot 
provoke disquiet. Where does the investment go?”

Mr Hough said: “The roles and responsibilities of 
all LEP board members, including the chairman, 
are clearly defined and have been formally discussed by the board.”
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