Professor Antonia Layard’s blog post explores three stories of land secrecy in England: the land registry, beneficial ownership of land, and commercial confidentiality in affordable housing. An informative read reflecting how secrecy about land ownership and deals remain part of English land developments.
Also mentioned are Guy Shrubsole and Anna Powell Smith of the excellent Who Owns England blog, as well as Anna Powell-Smith’s extremely useful blog showing how you can use local land registry data to explore who owns land in your area.
On Sunday 15th April we held our national gathering at the Friends of the Earth offices in London.
This was the day after our buzzing and well-attended tour of London’s housing crisis, organised as part of our Week of Action for Land Justice. Many people at the meeting had organised or taken part in the tour, and celebrated its success long into the evening… I think Nick Hayes summed up the feeling in the room when he said “I’m so happy and tired I think I’m going to cry!”
On Saturday 14th April, after a week of rain, on what felt like the first warm and sunny day of the year, just shy of a hundred people gathered in central London for the inaugural Land Justice Network Landlords’ Game guided walk.
On Sunday about 75 protesters travelled to the Bathurst Estate in Cirencester to participate in a mass trespass, calling for land Justice. Organised by groups including RisingUp and the Land Justice Network the protest included speeches, songs and marching band.
Gail Bradbrook of RisingUp said afterwards:
[Lord Bathurst] watched on with family and game keepers bemusedly / slightly chewing a wasp at times – but we got a good balance of friendliness and calling out behaviours that need to change I think. It was quite a spectacle!
The protesters marched down the main avenue into the estate and then went to a private field and climbed the fence to surround a tree on the land. A banner was raised over the main road leading into Cirencester saying “No Justice Without Land Justice”.
The trespass was to demonstrate that land is an essential resource that our society, culture and economy depend upon. However, land ownership in Britain is still one of the most unequal in the world. 0.6% of the population owns 69% of the land. More than a third is still owned by the aristocracy whose ancestors seized it during the Norman Conquest and through the use of land trusts they are avoiding paying inheritance tax while maintaining the concentration of ownership to this day. During the enclosures our ancestors were violently thrown off the land and much of our current common land is being privatised (Cahill, 2001).
Peaceful civil disobedience can be a useful tool in changing things for the better. Mass trespasses have achieved successes in the past, such as at Kinder Scout, which celebrated its 86th anniversary on the same day and helped to provide bring about the right to roam.
Simon Bramwell, from RisingUp in Stroud, said:
It’s especially relevant to undertake a civil disobedience on the Bathurst Estate, much of which is owned offshore while the owner receives vast subsidies from taxpayers. Some of the land is being sold off for mostly unaffordable housing. It’s totally illustrative how there is one rule for the rich and another for the rest of us.
Katharine Hallewell of the Land Justice Network added:
Everything flows from the land, our well being, our freedom and our equality. That we are still living under a system of landownership handed down from the Norman conquests speaks volumes about our so called democracy.
The trespass was reported on BBC Radio Gloucester and there has been much discussion and sharing on social media since, including the Lady Bathurst getting stuck in!
You can watch an unedited video of the day here. Guest blog by Gail to follow.
Source: Who Owns Britain, Kevin Cahill, 2001.
Adapted from a press release by Gail Bradbrook of RisingUp.
Scotland, as many know, is quite a few years ahead of England with land reform.
A summary of Faulty Towers: Understanding the impact of overseas corruption on the London property market by Transparency International UK (2018)
As well as providing homes, the UK property market has long been recognised for providing a reliable investment opportunity. Whilst much of this investment will be from genuine investors seeking a steady income, there is now substantial evidence to show that:
‘UK real estate, particularly in London, is attracting corrupt officials and businesspeople who have stolen money from some of the most impoverished and repressed countries in the world’ (p4).
Since 2015, Transparency International UK (TI UK) has been examining the potential impact this illicit wealth might be having on London through surveying Londoners and analysing open source data such as the Panama Papers, articles by investigative journalists and Land Registry data. In so doing, they reveal how people launder stolen money into the property market, often through the use of ‘anonymous’ companies registered overseas. These organisations cannot be found on a public register and leave few paper trails, allowing their owners to enjoy their gains without scrutiny.
The London housing crisis
In London, house price rises consistently outstrip wage increases, dozens of prospective buyers compete for a shrinking pool of affordable stock whilst rent prices rise ever higher. As a consequence, it is becoming more difficult to afford to stay in London for average people, with the Government admitting the UK housing system was ‘broken’ in February 2017.
Overseas investment is just one of a range of factors that may be driving the crisis. Others include the lack of social housing, increased domestic demand and the shortage of development land. But TI UK’s report reveals that corruption overseas is also likely to play a significant contributory role, albeit in some slightly unexpected ways.
Understanding overseas investment into property
A significant amount of illicit investment into the property market stems from individuals buying homes to launder corrupt funds to conceal its criminal origins. This cleanses large amounts of illicit wealth in a single transaction and provides the individual with a valuable asset. London property retains value and often offers almost certain profit, with prices rising even amidst uncertainty over Brexit in early 2016.14
Corrupt individuals also buy homes in London because they provide a bolt hole in case they fall out of favour in their home country. Buying mansions in sought after areas of London or in exclusive new build developments comes with status, helping corrupt individuals distance themselves further from past corruption offences a practice which can be described as ‘reputation laundering’.
The London property market is highly vulnerable to corrupt wealth flowing into it. Analysis of open source material found over £4.2 billion worth of properties bought with suspicious wealth.
Corruption causes high levels of instability abroad leading to ‘crisis capital’ being placed in safe havens like London. Since 2006 around £100 billion of hidden inflows have entered the UK.
House prices are affected as illicit wealth and crisis capital entering the UK increase demand in the London housing market, particularly at the top-end; ‘the ripple effects they generate resonate across London’,
New build developments are built targeting wealthy international investors and are not meeting demand for affordable homes. In 14 landmark London developments almost 40 per cent of future homes were bought by those from high corruption risk jurisdictions.
London’s role as a global safe haven is resulting in homes being purchased and not used. Areas with higher levels of property owned by anonymous companies also have high levels of abnormally low electricity usage; an indicator for empty or underused homes.
Young people are moving out of London in record numbers due to the cost of housing. Over half of Londoners responding to our survey said wealthy overseas investors are causing house prices to rise and more than 1 in 5 believed money laundering was a motivating factor for overseas investment.
Transparency International UK warns that if these issues are not addressed, corruption abroad will continue to have a negative impact on the London housing market.
The report’s findings pose a problem for policy makers: how can you ensure the property market is not distorted by corruption overseas without unintentionally excluding innocent investors, many of whom might be seeking to escape from tyranny and instability in their home?
Transparency International UK makes the following recommendations to the UK government:
- Introduce greater transparency to the property market
- Reform the UK’s anti-money laundering system
- Retain tackling global corruption as a key priority
If these recommendations are followed, says TI UK, the negative impact overseas corruption inflicts on the people of London and its property market will be reduced and the UK’s role as a safe haven for illicit wealth will be diminished.