How developers are buying Norfolk land through offshore tax havens
- Credit: Ian Burt
Investors are buying up Norfolk land using offshore firms which disguise who is behind some controversial developments.
When villagers in Sculthorpe wanted to find out who was trying to build 200 new homes to double the size of their village they faced a problem.
No one knew who ultimately owned the land – and no one could find out. There was no developer to rally against, no landowner to write to.
A search of the Land Registry brought up the owner as Amstel Group Corporation, registered at an address more than 4,000 miles away in the British Virgin Island of Tortola.
When UK property is bought through offshore companies, often based in the tax havens of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, buyers do not have to declare who is the ultimate owner of the property.
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As reported in yesterday's EDP, almost 500 properties in Norfolk, Waveney and Fenland have been sold offshore from 2008 to 2014, costing at least £700m. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing in the cases in this article.
But buying through offshore firms does mean the community has no way of finding out in some cases who is behind some developments on their doorstep.
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'Some of these companies don't want you to know who owns the property,' said Cambridgeshire tax expert
Richard Murphy. 'If you buy a patch of land you want to develop, you wouldn't want the rest of the world to know who is behind the development.'
According to the Panama Papers, a leak of data about offshore banking,
35 companies are registered at the same address in the British Virgin Islands as Amstel Group, which owns the land in Sculthorpe, and no further information about the company can be found.
But an appeal in June against North Norfolk Council's decision to reject the new homes at Sculthorpe was put in by planning agent Indigo on behalf of Amstel Group. We contacted Indigo but have not received a response.
A firm called Colegate Management Ltd has previously managed sales of the land, so we tried to contact them to find out who is behind Amstel.
Colegate used to be registered in Norwich, but is now registered at a building in Savile Row, London. No contact details could be found for the company.
But the company's director is a man called Graham Robeson who is also the chief executive of a firm called Rowland Capital Ltd, which is the UK investment arm of the billionaire Rowland family, according to Bloomberg.
Rowland Capital has been contacted for comment, but we are no closer to finding out who the ultimate owner of the Sculthorpe land is.
Sculthorpe villager Gillian Gray, who has protested against the development, said: 'The main reason I'm so against this development is that these developers do not care about the communities and countryside.'
One of the most controversial and high profile housing developments around Norwich in recent years, Pinebanks also came about through an offshore company which purchased the former sports ground on Yarmouth Road.
A firm called Berliet Ltd, registered in Jersey, bought up the land in parcels in 2010. Berliet formed in 2009, a few months before buying the land. Its sole shareholder is billionaire
Jonathan Hunt, according to documents at Jersey Companies House. He is one of Britain's richest men and former owner of estate agents Foxtons.
A spokesman for developer Ocubis, which acts for Berliet and where Mr Hunt is the chief execu-tive, said the land had been bought by
Berliet 'in line with normal practice to acquire property investments and possible development opportunities from international funds'.
'All UK taxes required to be paid by Berliet in respect of its purchase of Pinebanks have been and continue to be paid in full,' he added.
He said Berliet's plan for Pinebanks would bring 300 'much-needed' homes.
Meanwhile, Argola Holdings, a company registered in Panama, spent £1.7m on farmland around Mulbarton in 2011. The land, at Lodge Farm off Brick Kiln Lane, has not been developed and continues to be farmed. No further information could be found about Argola Holdings.
Who owns Millers Walk?
Fakenham's retail heart, Millers Walk Shopping Centre, was bought by a Guernsey firm called Fakenham Properties Ltd in 2013.
Fakenham Properties Ltd was set up as a company in Guernsey in December 2012 and has put in planning applications to develop the shop-ping centre. No further information could be found about the company, meaning we don't know who is really behind one of the most important developments in Fakenham.
Fakenham Properties Ltd is listed as the applicant on planning applications but its address is given as estate agent Cockertons in Holt.
Cockertons said they were not at liberty to disclose who the owner was other than that they were experienced property investors from outside of Norfolk.
Offshore sales: From a beach hut to a mooring plot
Other properties bought through offshore companies in Norfolk and Waveney and Fenland according to data obtained by magazine Private Eye, include:
?Broome Fruit Farm was bought in 2011 by a Jersey based company called Broome Fruit Farm Holdings.
?The pharmacy at Wymondham Medical Centre was bought for £400,000 in 2012 through a firm in the Isle of Man called Property Partnerships.
?Foulden Hall in Foulden, near Thetford, was purchased for £2.45m by a firm in the British Virgin Islands called Providus Group Ltd in 2011.
?A BNP Paribas Jersey registered company spent £4.2m on land on Burrell Way in Thetford in 2012.
?A British Virgin Islands company called Azalea Group Ltd spent £2m on Breccles Hall near Attleborough in 2008.
?A mooring plot at Horning was bought for £247,5000 by a Guernsey firm called Creative Energy Ltd in 2013.
?The Tuesday Market Place in King's Lynn, numbers 1 to 3, were bought by a firm registered in the British Virgin islands called Cirencester Investment Ltd in 2009.
?The biggest sale in Waveney was buildings at Newgate in Beccles which sold for £3.5m in 2011 to a company in the British Virgin Islands called Etto Property Holdings Ltd.
?The other big Waveney sale was Southwold House in Queens Road, Southwold which sold for £2.75m in 2014 to a Bermuda firm called Fiduciary Partners Trust Company Ltd.
?A beach hut in Southwold was sold through the British Virgin Islands in 2013.
?In Fenland, the biggest sale was land on the north side of Wisbech Road, in March, which was bought for £3.1m in 2014 by French bank BNP through Jersey
An investor's view: 'We can bring renewal'
Great Yarmouth's Market Gates Shopping Centre was sold in 2013 for £24.5m to a firm called
Baymount Overseas Ltd, according to the Private Eye data. Baymount was set up in June 2013 in the Isle of Man.
A UK investment management firm called Ellandi set up the sale through Baymount on behalf of the offshore investors who bought Market Gates.
Morgan Garfield, managing director of Ellandi, said the firm 'coordinates investment into community shopping centres across the UK'.
'A large proportion of this investment has come from international investors,' he said.
'Our ability to tap into international capital facilitates investment in ordinary towns the length and breadth of the UK bringing urban renewal, improvement to local amenities and new jobs.
'Over the past few years there has been a limited amount of domestic capital interested in investing in regional UK property, as such, the capacity to source international investment has been critical to the prosperity of many towns in the UK.
'This is well illustrated in Great Yarmouth. Our investors bought the Market Gates Shopping Centre out of administration in 2013 and have subsequently invested capital expenditure to attracted new retailers.'
He said they had also upgraded the shopping centre.
'Overseas investors often invest in the UK through off-shore structures, however, in our experience they still pay UK tax. This is made up of Stamp Duty Land Tax on acquisition of a property, tax on rental income and VAT.'
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