Private Eye investigation: Britain's tax haven landowners

Zardoz Greek zardos777 at
Sat Jun 13 15:56:59 BST 2015

Offshore acres... Vast tracts of land owned by companies registered in tax havens

Estate Planning 
Offshore ownership, Issue 1394

A CHUNK of England’s green and pleasant land larger than the county of Surrey is owned by companies registered in not so pleasant tax havens, an investigation by Private Eye has established.	

Park Place, bought for £120m and owned by a company in the British Virgin Islands

Using freedom of information laws and extensive data-crunching, the Eye has established that since 1999 titles to 97,500 properties covering 490,000 acres have been acquired by companies in tax havens from the Caribbean to the Channel Islands. With much land also acquired by offshore companies before then, the total area could well be twice that.

Perfectly placed to benefit from inheritance tax breaks
The largest single owner by area is a British Virgin Islands company called Gunnerside Estates Ltd, with an expansive 27,258 acres of the North Yorkshire moors much favoured by grouse-shooting parties. Behind the company is American luxury duty-free shopping pioneer Robert Miller, reported to have acquired UK citizenship but to reside tax-efficiently in Hong Kong. As with any property owned by an offshore company, the precise reasons for the structure are hard to discern – and Miller didn’t answer the Eye’s request for an explanation – but the American is perfectly placed to benefit from the inheritance tax breaks given to a “non-dom” on overseas assets and is likely to have escaped stamp duty when his company acquired the estate in 1998. None of this prevented the EU paying agricultural subsidies to the estate over a decade or so of €430,000.

The most expensive piece of land is inevitably further south, next to the Thames near Henley. In 2011, Park Place and its 300-acre grounds in the village of Remenham were bought by the former president of the Bank of Moscow, Andrey Borodin, but not in his own name of course. The 18th-century home of Frederick, Prince of Wales, is now owned by another BVI company, Durio Ltd. Again, the exact reason for the structure is not known but the acquisition was made while Borodin was under investigation by Russian authorities who are still pursuing him over alleged fraud at the bank and froze hundreds of millions of dollars of his assets in Swiss banks before he received political asylum in the UK in 2013.

Chocolate-box village
A mile or so down the river is the chocolate-box village of Hambleden, backdrop to Midsomer Murders and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and generally described as “quintessentially English”. But when the 1,600-acre estate with its 40 brick and flint houses, pub and village stores was bought by Swiss foreign exchange dealer Urs Schwarzenbach in 2007, he acquired it through BVI company Hambleden Estates Ltd.

At an employment tribunal last year, where the tight-wad financier (a UK resident worth £1bn but almost certainly non-dom) contested that he employed a gardener on his estate who was sacked after snapping a tendon, it emerged that the BVI company was owned by yet another offshore company, but the judge was satisfied they were controlled by Schwarzenbach and could be considered the employer. Schwarzenbach’s home, and that of his 250 polo ponies, is the 1,100 Culham Court Estate on the other side of the river, itself owned by yet another BVI company.
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