‘Capitalism out of control’: Offshore investors cling to property empires in north London
PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:32 24 February 2020
Huge swathes of land and property in north London are still being held by anonymous corporations despite Brexit and changes to tax law, the Ham&High can reveal.
Some 4,297 properties in Haringey, Barnet and Camden are owned by offshore entities, according to the Land Registry.
It represents a small drop on the 4,424 held three years ago.
In 2016 a new tax on "enveloped properties" forced firms to pay up to £250,000 per year on their most expensive assets and some buildings - including sprawling Bishop's Avenue mansions - have since been sold off.
But buy-outs of houses, shops, luxury flats, ex-council offices and listed buildings in the boroughs have continued apace by proprietors who have chosen to keep their names - and accounts - off the public register.
Ben Cowdock, a researcher at anti-corruption charity Transparency International, said: "This is definitely still a concern.
"If the government has tightened up on this being done for tax purposes, it gives fewer and fewer good reasons to own a property through an anonymous vehicle."
In recent years companies in secrecy jurisdictions have consolidated their hold on buildings of historic and architectural interest.
Leasehold ownership of 18 flats in The Gables, a Grade II-listed building in Fortis Green Road, was secured by a Guernsey-based company that already owned the freehold in 2016.
Two Grade II-listed Edwardian former hostels in Highgate, Furnival House and Elizabeth House, were bought out by entities in Jersey and the Isle of Man in 2016.
There are now a grand total of 166 commercial properties held by offshore entities up and down Finchley Road. In December 2016, a 10-property stretch of Golder's Green Road was shored up for £22million.
Thirteen buildings in Hampstead High Street, meanwhile, are also now owned offshore.
Janine Griffis, chairwoman of the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum, said: "Some are owned by large investment funds that don't necessarily care about our high street - or whether a shop has been empty for six months."
Citing the case of the Old White Bear pub in New End, an asset of community value closed by its offshore owners in 2014, she said: "It makes it more difficult to get owners to adhere to legislation. These properties should be offered to the community first."
In Camden speculators have spent tens of millions buying out new-build flats and buildings ripe for redevelopment.
Some 15 flats in Bayham Place, St Pancras were bought up at once in March 2018 for £10million by a BVI company, while the building was still being refurbished.
Another BVI shell was used to acquire 14 luxury apartments in Carlow House, King's Cross for £9.5m.
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Other properties, though, changed hands for next to nothing. A house in Haverstock Hill, Chalk Farm, where average house prices are over £1million, was acquired for just £2,500 an Isle of Man entity linked to a family of Libyan businessmen in the Panama Papers.
Cllr Douglas Beattie, who chairs Camden Council's housing scrutiny panel, said he planned to write to the Mayor of London with concerns.
He said: "Aspects of this raise serious questions at a time when there continues to be intense pressure on housing across Camden and beyond.
"In many respects it looks like a case of capitalism out of control when housing should be a human right.
"Anonymous offshore companies are acting like vultures - making many millions at the expense of citizens. This is a disgrace."
Barnet Council has not responded to a request for comment on why its own offices at Barnet House, Whetstone, are now wholly-owned by a firm in Jersey.
The leasehold on the eleven-storey block was bought for £18million in February 2017 ahead of a would-be redevelopment into 254 flats.
Barnet Council blocked the plans, but 18 months later the same company was able to buy the freehold for £5.25m.
Elsewhere, vast stately homes in north London have been bought through offshore entities despite the new tax being levied on them.
Planning documents indicate a Russian ex-senator was the buyer of a £41.5million 10-bedroom mansion in Compton Avenue through New Zealand-based accountants, Roosevelt and Partners, in April 2018.
In The Bishops Avenue, often dubbed Millionaire's Row, 44 properties are held by companies registered overseas, from embassies to Saudi royals: down from 50 three years ago.
The 8,000 sq ft mansion known as Dryades was bought for an eye-watering £21million in 2017 via a BVI company called Paramount Global Investments.
In 2016 the UK government committed to setting up a public register of the beneficial owners of foreign companies owning property in the UK.
But three years on and despite consultation, the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill has yet to become law.
Mr Cowdock added: "We are continually seeing properties owned by these companies turning up in money-laundering and corruption scandals. Unless we have this legislation it's going to continue."
Members of the Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association echoed the call for the new legislation, adding in a statement to the Ham&High: "The Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association believes that all leaseholders and tenants should have the right to know who their freeholder or landlord is, and to be able to get in contact with them.
"Land-banking is a serious problem in London, as it contributes to the already pressured housing market and can make it difficult for local people to find a decent place to live.
"We are not aware of this being particularly prevalent in Muswell Hill. However, we remain vigilant and would be extremely concerned if we discovered that offshore owners were keeping properties in the area empty deliberately."
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