Two weeks ago, on 23 April 2014, Scottish Land and Estates (the body that represents some of Scotland’s landowners) held its Spring conference at which it published a report on the economic contribution of estates in Scotland. (1) A week before that, on 16 April, it issued a Press Release headlined “New Research Reveals Significant Annual Investment on Tenanted Farms and Crofts by Estates”

It included the results from 143 estates surveyed that were involved in renting land for farming and stated that these had, on average, 11 tenants per estate covering, on average, 221 hectares. Total annual expenditure on agricultural and crofting tenancies amounted to £10.8 million, primarily on repairs and capital costs, equating to £26.58 per hectare and an average total annual expenditure per estate of £69,145. Average income amounted to £101,422.

Douglas McAdam, the Chief Executive of SLE said that,

The figures clearly demonstrate that there is significant investment by estates and our members are willing to invest further if we can create a stable climate that encourages investment. These are averages and investment does of course vary …. However, we are being told by members who do invest substantially that their continuing commitment is being jeopardised by the re-emergence of a potential absolute right to buy for tenants.”

It was clear that SLE wished to emphasise a) how much estates were investing and b) that possible land reform would jeopardise this in the future.

Fair comment.

So it was with some interest that when I came to read the relevant section of the Economic  Assessment report (4.2.2 pg. 39) and saw these figures, I also read a note of caution. The authors of the report write that, “It should, however, be stressed that the overall average values are very heavily influenced by the large and very large estates and the median figures for average income and investment are significantly lower.” (2)

Today, SLE published a series of videos of the various presentations given at its conference. Among them was one given by Rob Hindle (on YouTube here) who was the lead researcher for the economic study. (3) In a couple of slides (around 40min in) he describes the caveats on using economic figures including that the sample is “weighted towards larger estates”, that users should “be confident in the report but use with care” and that the “median is more representative of the sample”.

In particular, he warns that, “the mean average [is] significantly skewed by the bigger numbers at one end of the spectrum – so don’t do it – it’s not helpful. You need to start looking for the middle point but be aware even so that the middle point ..there are very big differences between the numbers at one end and the numbers at the other end so the middle point is again to be treated with caution

So what are the median values?

They are not published in the report. But I spoke to someone who was at the conference who remembered seeing a slide that had shown the difference – the “significantly lower” figures – contrasted in blue and red as an example of why the “median is more representative of the sample”. So I looked for this slide in SLE’s video.

It’s not there.

Did my friend mis-remember? I phoned him up and asked. “No, definitely – it was there. The difference was very stark – not just for tenancy figures but other expenditures as well.”

How stark?”, I asked.

I don’t remember exactly – much lower though – less than a quarter – even less I think in some cases.”

In the video there is one slide (at around 40min) that shows the differences for some of the data. The median number of tenants is 3 compared with a mean of 11, for example. But there’s no information on expenditure and revenue figures.

So was this information in the presentation given at the conference? If it was, why does it not appear in the video presentation?

Maybe it doesn’t really matter. What is important is that SLE misrepresented the levels of investment in its press release by picking the “mean” figure when it knew that the median was more appropriate.

I  have contacted the researchers and asked if they could send me a copy of the presentation. They may, of course need to ask the permission of their client, SLE, who commissioned the report. I will keep folk posted on what transpires.

NOTES

(1) I should emphasise that the report is an excellent report and I plan to blog at greater length on its findings.

(2)  the mean of a sample is the total of all the values divided by the number of values. The median is the middle value in a distribution of values. So, for example in a town with 100 houses where 99 were worth £100 each and one was worth £1 million, the mean would be £10,099 (1,009,900 divided by 100). But describing the average house price in town as being £10,999 is obviously misleading. In a skewed distribution, the median is more useful and in this case is £100 (the middle value when all values are lined up from smallest to largest) – in this case a far better representation of the average or typical price of a house.

(3) I have downloaded a copy of the video for reference.

My previous blog on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farming subsidies attracted a bit of interest in The Herald today and a number of people have been in touch to ask what can be done to ensure a fair distribution of EU farming subsidies. This question of course is exercising Richard Lochhead as he finalises the details of the subsidy system that will kick in in 2015 and run until 2020. There are a number of competing interests to be squared and his task is unenviable.

I have blogged in the past about “capping the CAP” here, here and here. Capping involves placing a ceiling or cap on the amount of subsidy given to any one farming business. The European Parliament voted that capping be mandatory but the Council of Minsters took the view that it should be left to Member States to decide for themselves and that means, in the UK, that the devolved administrations have complete discretion as to if and how they apply such a measure.

During negotiations of the CAP, the UK and Scottish Governments were opposed to a cap but back in 2011, Richard Lochhead admitted thatthe public did not like the idea of very big payments going to individual farm businesses and many of the farmers he had spoken to across Scotland had acknowledged that.”

I argued in February 2013 that existing payments were very unevenly distributed. The graph below shows the total for 2011 (the distribution for 2013 is very similar).

If payments were capped at £100,000 per farm business, then this would, in 2011, have enabled the redistribution of £53.9 million paid to 813 farmers.

On the basis of the 2013 data, over two-thirds of the total direct payments went to 21% of the recipients (3962 farm businesses). A total of 642 farm businesses received payments of over £100,000 and capping the basic payments at this level would recover £66.2 million per year for redistribution.

No farm business needs a subsidy of more than £100,000 or, if it does, it does not deserve to be in business. I would, in fact place the cap much lower – at £50,000. The Scottish Government consultation noted (page 13) that,

If we wish we can decide that there should be a bigger reduction on Basic Payments than the 5% which is required by Europe, including a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments. Reducing the potential size of future payments in this way might also help tackle slipper farming where entitlements to high value SFPs have been transferred and are currently being claimed on rough grazing. Imposing higher levels of degressive reduction or even a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments could be one way to limit the future size of payments to slipper farmers who meet any minimum activity requirement. Without a tool such as this, these claimants could continue to claim a relatively large share of future support until payments become fully area-based. (my emphasis)

Consultees were invited to express a preference for one of four options but none included a total cap of less than €500,000.

Most people understand the concept of a cap and, whilst the the £26,000 per year benefits cap is controversial because it relates to some of the poorest members of society, the same cannot be said, generally speaking, of farmers. There are some poor farmers of course. There are many who work long hours for poor rewards. There may well be some who rely on benefits to feed their family. But this need does not extend to Sheik bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Earl of Moray or Viscount Cowdray.(1)

There is no justification for paying any farm business, including (as the previous blog noted) large landowners, much more than twice the cap on benefits received by the poorest in society. Furthermore, the current system of subsidies is contributing to a growing concentration of ownership and occupancy of land when the Scottish Government’s land reform policy is to see more diversity and have many more people owning land. Excessive subsidy (indeed any subsidy) also pushes up the price of land. Subsidies, in general are a bad policy but we are stuck with them.

So.

£50,000 a year. What do you think?

NOTES

(1) See previous blog to download Excel file of 2013 recipients of farm subsidies.

Image: Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wins the 2012 St James’ Palace Stakes, Royal Ascot

It’s hard to imagine the Government devising a new system of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Housing Benefit where the claimant is told they that their entitlement to such payments is just about to quadruple whether they like it or not. Indeed, with the total benefits cap set at £26,000 per year, the trend is in the opposite direction. It has long eluded me why, when the poorest in society suffer cuts and caps, some of the wealthiest (like the individual pictured above) not only appear to suffer no such pain, but are rewarded with largesse.

I met a tenant farmer recently who told me that under the existing system of farming subsidies he receives £18,000 per year. That’s a fairly generous allocation. But under current proposals for the new system (to be introduced in 2015) he will receive £80,000. “I don’t need it”, he told me. He is not particularly wealthy but he doesn’t need the money. So why does it look likely that he will get it?

The existing system of farm subsidies is coming to an end in December 2015 and the Scottish Government is currently finalising the details of the new system that will take its place and run until 2020. The existing (historic) system awarded subsidy (single farm payments – SFP) to farmers on the basis of what they received in 2000-2002. This is rather like paying tax this year on the basis of what you earned 14 years ago.

Some farmers “gamed” the system by increasing their farming activity in those years and thus have done very well out of it over the past decade. Others have bought “entitlements” to subsidy from farmers who, for example, retire from farming, and have “attached” those “entitlements” to poor quality land. They rent this land very cheaply and have thus been paid substantial sums of public money for doing nothing. They are the slipper farmers (so-called because they sit in front of the fire in their slippers being paid for doing nothing). Young farmers who entered farming over the past ten years have typically received no subsidy because the Scottish Executive back in 2003 conveniently omitted to make any allowance for them.

From next year, a new Basic Payments System (BPS) of farming subsidies will be introduced on the basis of a straightforward fixed payment per hectare of land farmed. The current proposal is that this payment should be made over two separate “regions” of land – €20-25 for rough grazing land and €200-€250 for better quality land. This means that the more land you own or rent, the more subsidy you will receive. This explains the pleasant dilemma faced by my farming friend above.

So, will the new system eliminate slipper farmers, support new entrants and direct subsidy where it is most needed? There will be support for new entrants although how much and how soon remains to be seen. But on the first and third points the jury is still out.

Scottish farmers do well out of the CAP – they receive the second highest average payments in the EU (€31,955). But that figure masks a few who do very well and the great majority who receive much less. In the latest data for 2013, the recipient of the largest payment was the King of the slipper farmers, Frank A Smart who was awarded the tidy sum of £3,226,492 for 35,379ha of land that he “farmed”. (1)

That’s right – over three million pounds.

The recipient of the least got £0.22.

Of the £439.8 million handed out in 2013, 45% (£198 million) went to the top 10% of farmers and the top third received over 81% of the total pot. This distribution is thanks to the system of historic payments and the scandal of slipper farming which, according to the farming journalist Andrew Arbuckle, has been responsible for between £50 – £100 million of payments each year – almost 20% of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture. His article is worth a read. So will the new system be any fairer? That depends on a number of factors including how much land is eligible for the BPS and how the new system is phased in. And this is where things get interesting.

Under the old scheme, some owners of very large tracts of land undertook very little farming and so have received relatively small payments. But under the new scheme their estates are all eligible for the basic payment. In 2013, there were 4,480,561 hectares against which subsidy claims were made. However, there are a total of 5,744,610 hectares  of land registered and eligible for subsidy – an additional 1,264,049 hectares. The Scottish Government intends, under EU rules, to restrict the land that can trigger payments by applying an “active farmer” test. It is unclear what this will mean in practice and in any event, it is not likely to be difficult to hire a shepherd and run a few sheep over the hills and qualify for subsidy.

Image: Extract from Scottish Government’s IACS Field Boundary dataset for Highland and Aberdeenshire

Smech Properties Ltd. for example, is a company registered in Guernsey and owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (pictured above). It owns the Killilan, Inverinate, West Benula and Glomach Estate in Wester Ross which has 21,424 ha of eligible land registered, received £26,406 in 2013 and could be eligible for £439,192 paid straight to a tax haven every year until 2020.

The Duke of Westminster owns 37,303 hectares of eligible land and could be eligible for £764,712 of public assistance for each of the next six years.

Braulen and Glenavon Estate, owned by a company in Grand Cayman (beneficial owner unknown) consists of 26,632 hectares of land potentially eligible for £545,956 of state handouts for doing next to nothing.

The Duke of Roxburgh received £204,374 in 2013 and his 4637 of claimed hectares would be eligible for £950,585 per year over the next six years

Letterewe Estate is owned by a company in the Dutch Antilles and could be eligible for £372,280 every year until 2020.

Even the Queen could claim over half a million pounds over the 25,000 hectares of Balmoral Estate.

In addition, there is a distinct possibility that, instead of the new system being introduced in 2015, it will be phased in over the next six years. And that would mean that Frank Smart (and the rest of Scotland’s slipper farmers) would continue to receive a substantial proportion of his £3,226,492 until 2020 for doing next to nothing.

The existing system of farm subsidies has been extensively abused. The new system must not be. And that is why I and others will be paying close attention to whether Sheik Mohammed is going to be allowed to pretend that he is a farmer and whether Frank Smart continues to get given millions of pounds for doing next to nothing.

NOTES

(1) The matrix files for 2012 and 2013 in Microsoft Excel format

WR1826_SFPS_2012_Natural_Person_Obfuscated_Town_Removed.xlsx

WR1826_SFPS_2013_Natural_Person_Obfuscated_Town_Removed.xlsx

The files provide the following information

Name of the claimant for legal persons only. Natural persons names are redacted. See here for details.

Postcode District where the claimant’s business is registered.

2013 SFPS Payment – the sum in Euros (all sums been converted to £ for this blog)

Ha Paid is hectares over which payment was claimed

Person Type – Natural or Legal

UPDATE 7 May

Figures in the original blog for 2013 payments were expressed in Pounds Sterling when they were in fact Euros (this includes payment made in 2013 to Frank A Smart). All now been corrected. This does not affect the projected sums which were converted already.

This above 30-minute has been commissioned by the Coalition for Economic Justice and was premiered at the RSA in London on 3 September 2013. A panel discussion followed the screening. On the panel were,

Rt Hon Vince Cable MP, Business Secretary of State and President of ALTER, who spoke about the ideals of LVT as a sensible tax shift and also as a driver for the economy;

Molly Scott-Cato, Finance Speaker for the Green Party and Professor of Green Economics at Roehampton University who discussed the value of community planning decisions and how LVT could support that model;

Director of the Tax Justice Network John Christensen who discussed the facts that most economists agree with LVT and;

Yoni Higgismith, the Director & Producer of the film.

You can hear the 30 minute panel discussion below.

[audio http://www.andywightman.com/audio/Roehampton_University_LVT_Discussion_September_2013.mp3]

See The Taxing Question of Land for further details.

“Price of farmland hits record high” scream the headlines today across all the media. The BBC, Scotsman, Herald, and local media from the Deeside Piper to the Kilmarnock Standard.

All these stories have two things in common. First, they are virtually identical. Journalists have simply reproduced a press release. Second, they are all inaccurate. What is going on? The answer is that vested interests are successfully capturing the news agenda. In this case it is the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and they are on a roll.

Ten days ago, RICS issued a media statement entitled “RICS July 2013 Residential Market Survey” which was widely reported in the press as a recovery in the housing market with rising prices and more buyers entering the market. In reality, the survey (copy here) was a “sentiment” survey based on asking RICS members for their opinion. This is analysed as a “net balance” – a figure between -100 and 100 where -100 means all members think that a variable will decrease and +100 means they all think it will increase. As the small print makes clear, “Net balance data is opinion based; it does not quantify actual changes in an underlying variable”

The vested interest is relevant here because of course members of RICS earn their living by charging fees. In the case of land and property transactions, they typically charge a percentage of the selling price. So the opinion of RICS members is not an objective opinion.

Nevertheless, their Residential Market Survey received massive coverage. So much, in fact that two days ago, the RICS proudly announced that it had generated “our greatest number of media hits ever in one day“. I am sure their members are delighted that their membership fees are buying such good coverage of their own opinions.

So to today’s reports in the media about farmland prices. The BBC report claims that,

“The price of farmland in Scotland hit a record high in the first half of 2013, according to research by surveyors.

“The Land Market Survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) indicated land values had trebled in less than a decade.

“It calculated the average price of land in Scotland was now £4,438 per acre.

“Surveyors reported the price was being supported by demand from farmers and investors.

“Their report predicted further price increases were likely, with the market “far from finding its level”.

The press release from RICS claims that,

“£7,440* per acre across the UK, hitting a record high for the eighth consecutive period. The cost of land is now more than three times that of the same period in 2004 when an acre cost just over £2,400.”

That asterisk is important. It was not there when I first looked at the press release but was added after I phoned the RICS press office to ask what the following footnote referred to. The footnote says,

* Opinion based measure, £ per acre (based on median surveyor estimates of bare land only containing no residential component, not subject to revision).

Looking at the Rural Market Survey report, itself (which is only available if you register as a RICS site user), things become clearer. The basis for the claim that “prices had trebled in less than a decade” is based upon “an opinions based measure (which is a hypothetical estimate by surveyors of the value of pure bare land).”

It is also a UK wide figure and thus says nothing about the farmland market in Scotland.

The “RICS spokesperson” states, in the RICS media release that,

“The growth in farmland prices in recent times has been nothing short of staggering. In less than ten years we’ve seen the cost of an acre of farmland grow to such an extent that investors – not just farmers – are entering the market. If the relatively tight supply and high demand continues,  we could experience the cost per acre going through the ten thousand pound barrier in the next two to three years.”

What she really means is that the cost of an acre of land according to the opinion of her members. And when she speculates that the cost per acre could go through the £10,000 barrier in the next two or three years – that too is simply the opinion of those with a vested interest in precisely that outcome.

And that trebling only relates to England and Wales, not to Scotland.

Oh, and finally, that £4438 per acre price that the BBC reports the RICS “calculated”?

That’s just an opinion too but reading the press reports today you would not know.

So why does the media give such prominence to the self-promotional opinions of vested interests?

In this Guest Blog, Bill Chisholm reveals the extraordinary story of how one former burgh in the Borders has outperformed all the rest in terms of its common good funds. That burgh is Berwick and it is now, of course, part of England.

Bill Chisholm was The Scotsman’s Borders correspondent from 1969 to 2005. He has taken a keen interest in the fate of the eight common good funds in the Borders burghs.

Scotland’s oldest and wealthiest burgh is thriving (in England)

Bill Chisholm 20 August 2013

Scotland has a very long history of community ownership of land and assets dating back to the founding of the Royal Burghs. The common good consisted originally of common land and grants of land by Royal Charter. Later in the 19th and 20th centuries additional land was acquired from neighbouring landowners and gifts of land were made by wealthy industrialists to form some of the famous parks in our towns and cities. In addition, a wide range of furnishings, paintings, regalia and other moveable property accumulated as part of the assets of the Common Good Fund.

The Common Good Act of 1491 remains on the statute book and states that the common good of all the Royal Burghs be observed and kept for the common good of the town and spent on the common and necessary things of the burgh.

Over hundreds of years, Scotland’s common good has been subject to poor management primarily due to the rampant municipal corruption and nepotism that prevailed as a consequence of town councils being responsible for electing their successors – a state of affairs that continued until the Burgh Reform Act of 1833. Genuine “local government” in Scotland was eventually abolished in Scotland in 1930 (parish councils) and 1975 (town councils) and responsibility for managing the common good passed first to District Councils in 1975 and then to the existing local authorities in 1996.

Scottish Borders Common Good Funds

Many people who take an interest in the status and performance of Scottish Borders Council Common Good Funds find it difficult to understand why an organisation with significant  land, investments and other assets consistently fails to achieve healthy annual profits. (1) This failure to secure a worthwhile financial return from the potentially lucrative commons means residents in the eight former burghs where the Common Good survives are missing out on their rightful inheritance. I thought it was perhaps a good time to take look at what has happened to these funds and as I did so, I made a remarkable discovery.

The unaudited accounts (1.3Mb pdf here) of the Council for 2012/13 reveal that the eight funds (Duns, Galashiels, Hawick, Jedburgh, Kelso, Lauder, Peebles and Selkirk) have combined net assets of £9.8 million and generated a collective deficit of £90,000. Of the eight, only Duns (£2000) and Lauder (£95,000) generated a positive return. By way of comparison, were the funds to generate a rate of return of 5%, this figure should be £490,000.

Burgh Income Expenditure Surplus/Deficit Net assets
Duns 2000 5000 -3000 30,000
Galashiels 2000 0  2000 26,000
Hawick 112,000 154,000 -42,000 3,032,000
Jedburgh 28,000 76,000 -48,000 1,371,000
Kelso 5000 35,000 -30,000 950,000
Lauder 269,000 174,000  95,000 1,031,000
Peebles 67,000 73,000 -6000 1,063,000
Selkirk 72,000 130,000 -58,000 2,336,000
TOTAL 557,000 647,000 -90,000 9,83,9000
No figures are reported by Scottish Borders Council for Coldstream, Eyemouth, Innerleithen and Melrose.
Income, Expenditure & Assets for 8 Border burghs
Source: Unaudited accounts 2012/13

It should be borne in mind that the sizeable areas of land held by the Borders Common Good Funds are, when taken together, equal in acreage to some of the larger privately owned estates in the region. Hawick has over 800 acres of farm land plus an unspecified acreage for the golf course and woodlands, Selkirk’s three farms alone cover 1300 acres while Lauder Common, one of the largest in Scotland, extends to some 1700 acres. The overall total possibly exceeds 5,000 acres.

Unfortunately, despite previous promises and pledges, there is still no sign of a public asset register clearly setting out everything that is included in the eight funds. However in February 2013 the council did, in response to a Freedom of Information request, provide details of the fixed assets (buildings and properties) and moveable assets (e.g. provost’s chains) in each of the funds. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this revelation was the fact that many of the items listed have been given no book value whatsoever, including Selkirk Town Clock, a number of common good open spaces, fishing rights on the Tweed at Peebles, and virtually all of the moveable assets.

Given the dearth of public information concerning millions of pounds worth of land holdings, investments and buildings, and the lack of detail of the charges levied on the funds by council officials, it is difficult to pinpoint what has gone wrong. But it would certainly seem elected councillors have played their part in allowing the Common Good estate to decline. It seems clear that the administration and development of Common Good assets is nowhere near the top of SBC’s list of priorities. That means the true potential of the multi-million pound operation will never be realised even at a time of austerity when every last penny is vital in sustaining local economies. Just this week, it was revealed that the £2 million cash balance was to be transferred to a “private firm of global fund managers.”

A similar regrettable pattern of Common Good neglect appears to have been developing right across Scotland ever since the abolition of town councils in 1975. A 2009 account of Common Good Funds in Scotland included some 1,600 assets in 144 separate funds with a reported value of £2.5 billion. Yet at national level too these huge assets failed to break even on the income and expenditure front. The Scottish Government’s official financial statistics for local government in 2011/12 showed gross expenditure on Common Good Funds to be £13,696,000 as against income totalling £11,540,000. That equates to an operating loss of £2,156,000.

Would these valuable assets have been better looked after had they remained in local control over the past 38 years? it is impossible to say for sure but it is fascinating to look at what has happened in one instance where that has happened.

Scotland’s first burghs four burghs – Roxburgh, Berwick, Stirling and Edinburgh – were established in 1125.

Roxburgh now lies in ruins.

Stirling and Edinburgh’s common good funds are, in the words of Thomas Johnston, “mere miserable starved caricatures of their former greatness.”

But Berwick is interesting and it is possible to compare the performance and fortunes of the region’s funds with a nearby charitable trust which administers the Common lands presented to this former Scottish burgh more than 600 years ago.

Berwick-upon-Tweed

The burgesses of Berwick-on-Tweed together with their contemporaries in Peebles, Hawick, Selkirk and the other Borders burghs received their Common lands from the Scottish king at around the same time. Today, the acreage under the control of the Berwick-upon-Tweed Freemen Trustees (Charity Commission No. 222154) is 2250 acres.

From the accounts (which can easily be downloaded from the Charity Commission’s website), we can see that the capital value of the investments at March 2011 stood at £4.896 million, and the total funds stood at £17,927,611. That’s almost double the £9.8 million valuation of the combined eight Borders Common Good funds.

Total income for 2010/11 was £437,448 (2009/10 £411,678). Rents yielded £280,853 while investments brought in £147,676. The Trustees generated a 2.4% return on capital

At the same time, the total income of the combined eight Scottish Borders funds in 2012/13 was £557,000 while expenditure totalled £647,000 – a deficit of £90,000.

As stated earlier, the common lands at Berwick-upon-Tweed were transferred to the burgesses and freemen of the then Scottish Royal Burgh at around the same time as the lands which now form part of the eight Borders common good funds.

The 3,280 acres of Common conveyed by a special Berwick Royal Charter of 1604 following the Union of the Crowns was vested with the freemen of the now English borough in perpetuity, although the acreage had gone down to 2,250 by the early years of the 20th century, thanks in part to the involvement of the town council which took control of the lands in 1843. The 1604 Charter had “granted to the burgesses the fee simple of certain lands over which the inhabitants had for centuries previously exercised rights of Common, grazing and other rights”.

But the introduction of statutory local government did nothing for the fortunes of the Berwick estate. The first elected town council melted down all of Berwick’s historic collection of silver, including the town mace…a sign of things to come.

During the 19th century the council often failed to pay the income from the estate to the freemen; financial accounts were not made available for public inspection; the town council attempted to alter some of the farm leases, and even leased farmland without advertising the leases.

By 1909 income was reduced and by now the local authority was spending all of the money it collected from the estate on council matters. The history of the estate also records that in 1916 the council wanted to lease the town’s ancient market rights to themselves at a rent of £5 per annum although the annual profit to the estate was £150. Such was the scale of council mismanagement that the estate fell into debt and by the 1950s the financial position was so dire one of the farms had to be sold for £9,000.

The local authority and the freemen were engaged in numerous legal disputes in the 20 years up to 1994 as the Borough Council attempted to plunder estate assets and proposed radical increases in annual administration fees from £5,000 to £18,000. Since 1994 the freemen Trustees and the Borough Council and Town Council have worked well together and as a result the estate has flourished. (2)

The retiring and new Town Mayor of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Note the “Scottish”purple ceremonial robes dating back to granting of Royal Charter by David I in contrast to English red robes.
© 
All rights reserved by Berwick-upon-Tweed Town Council

Map of Town Council of Berwick-upon-Tweed which includes the 2250 acres of land owned by the Freemen Trustees.

Concluding thoughts

What is fascinating about the above is the fact that one of Scotland’s oldest burghs survives today with a self-governing town council, £17 million of assets and an annual income of £437,000. At the same time, eight neighbouring burghs have half the assets and lost money last year.

The difference between this successful and relatively prosperous burgh (or borough) and the burghs of the Scottish Borders is that Berwick-upon-Tweed is in England. That simple fact raises all sorts of interesting questions about how local democracy and the commons have survived on both sides of the border.

So, perhaps as the Scottish Government holds one of its summer cabinets in Hawick, it might reflect on 900 years of Scottish history and ponder how to rebuild democracy in Scotland’s communities.

(1) All 8 Scottish Borders Common Good Funds are administered collectively as a charity No. SC031538

(2) Following the abolition of the Borough Council in 2009, a new Town Council was established.

On 3 June this year, in response to a question from Ian Davidson MP, the Prime Minister David Cameron announced in the House of Commons that he would co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Committee in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland (see previous post for further details).

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement from the European Council and the Government, which says that proper information on “who really owns and controls each and every company” will be provided. Will the Government co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Committee in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy milking?

The Prime MinisterThat is the intention of this move. Having all countries sign up to an action plan for putting together registers of beneficial ownership by companies and the rest of it will help tax authorities to make sure that people are paying tax appropriately. That is a debate that we are leading at the G8 and in the European Union, and that should apply—we hope—to every country.

Tarbert Estate on Jura is popularly believed to be owned by Mr Cameron’s stepfather-in-law, William Astor. In fact, it is owned by Ginge Manor Estates Ltd., a company registered at PMB 58, Nassau, Bahamas. [SEE UPDATE] The name is a bit of a giveaway – Ginge Manor is a manor house in Oxfordshire and the home of William Astor. Indeed it is where David Cameron married Samantha Gwendoline Sheffield on 1 June 1996.

Now, William Astor is a member of the House of Lords. He legislates on matters to do with tax and corporate affairs. So I was sure that he would declare his interests (if he had any) in his Jura estate. In the House of Lords Register of Lords’ Interests, he declares no interest in Tarbert Estate although he is a Partner in Tarbert Estate Partnership (farm and sporting).

I contacted the officials responsible for maintaining the Register to check that, in fact Mr Astor had no further interest in the estate. They said that the matter would be investigated. Meanwhile I emailed him directly and he replied that his children, Flora, William and James, owned the beneficial interest in the Bahamas company.

Now that he is spending some time on the island of Jura, Mr Cameron has the opportunity to do a little investigation for himself and confirm, as the EU Council proposes, who really owns and controls Ginge Manor Estate Ltd.  Given that he is renting property owned by a company in the Bahamas, he might also ensure that the company is following the rules of the HMRC Non-resident Landlord Scheme.

Other than that, I hope he and his family enjoy their holiday. Jura is a fine place.

UPDATE 3 February 2015

On 24 November 2014, ownership of the estate transferred to Altar Properties Ltd. in the British Virgin Islands.

Yesterday in the UK Parliament, the Prime Minister confirmed that he would co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to establish “who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy milking.”

In a debate following a statement on the recent European Council meeting called to discuss energy policy and tax evasion, Ian Davidson MP, the Chair of the Scottish Affair Committee raised the topic of transparency in landownership in Scotland (Column 1254 Hansard)

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The draft Bill that we produced also had huge amounts of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have to recognise that there will always be civil liberties concerns about this issue, so we should look at how we can start moving the debate on, recognising that there is a block of telephony covered by fixed and mobile telephony that is dealt with. As we move to more internet-based telephony, how are we going to help the police deal with that? We may have to take this in short steps, so that we can take the House with us and listen to concerns about civil liberties, but I am convinced that we have to take some steps, otherwise we will not be doing our job.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement from the European Council and the Government, which says that proper information on “who really owns and controls each and every company” will be provided. Will the Government co-operate with the Scottish Affairs Committee in establishing who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order that they can minimise both tax avoidance and subsidy milking?

The Prime Minister: That is the intention of this move. Having all countries sign up to an action plan for putting together registers of beneficial ownership by companies and the rest of it will help tax authorities to make sure that people are paying tax appropriately. That is a debate that we are leading at the G8 and in the European Union, and that should apply—we hope—to every country.

This is a topic I raised with the Scottish Government in my evidence to the Land Registration Bill last year in which I argued that we should simply make it incompetent to register a title in the name of any corporate entity incorporated in a tax haven. This was rejected by Fergus Ewing on the basis that it would deter inward investment.

Given that the Land Reform Policy Group has decided to rename itself the Community Ownership Review Group, lets hope that David Cameron and Ian Davidson might be able to advance matters.

 

The Mirror carries a report today (13 April 2013) that the house that Margaret Thatcher lived in for the past 20 years is “owned” by a company called Bakeland Property Company Ltd. registered in the British Virgin Islands. The story is a little confusing and conflates ownership with leasehold. The fact that the house is owned offshore was first reported by Rob Evans and David Hencke in the Guardian in 2002.

In England and Wales, land is owned on a system of Freehold and Leasehold whereby Party A may be the Freeholder but may grant a lease to Party B (the leaseholder) of, for example 100 years. The property is thus “owned” by both parties simultaneously. In the case of 73 Chester Square (pictured above on Google Streetview) there are actually three parties with an interest in the property. (1)

1. The Freehold is owned by the Trustees of the Will of the Most Noble The 2nd Duke of Westminster.

2. There is a lease (Title NGL534189) for 200 years from 25 March 1984 of No.73 Chester Square and other land in favour of Grosvenor Estate Belgravia, 70 Grosvenor Street, London, Company No. 01138134.

3. There is a sub-lease (Title NGL688804) from Grosvenor Estate Belgravia to Bakeland Property Company Ltd. from 18 October to 25 December 2030 and a further sub-lease (Title NGL740241) from Grosvenor Estate Belgravia to Bakeland Property Company Limited for 59 years and 167 days from 12 July 1996 to 26 November 2055. (2)

Bakeland Property Company Limited is a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands with its Registered Office at Essanestrasse 91, Po Box 341, L1-9492, Eschen, Liechtenstein and c/o Collyer-Bristow, 4 Bedford Row, London WC1R 4DF.

Assuming that the leasehold interest was held by Bakeland Property Company Limited on behalf of the late Mrs Thatcher (who thus had a proprietorial interest in the house as opposed to simply being a tenant and having no connection with Bakeland), that the beneficial interest is inherited by her children Mark and Carol, and that, as the Mirror claims, the house is currently worth £6 million, then both inheritance tax at 40% (£2.4 million) as well as Stamp Duty Land Tax at 7% on any subsequent sale (£420,000) will be avoided.

The new Stamp Duty Land Tax rate for residential properties owned by corporate bodies of 15% only applies to properties acquired since 21 March 2012 and will not apply where the legal title remains in the same name and only the beneficial ownership of an offshore trust or company changes.(3) It may well be the case that Bakeland is owned by trusts whose beneficiaries are people other that the late Mrs Thatcher but because offshore companies are usually run by nominee Directors and owned by at least one offshore trust, the identification of the precise beneficial interest is extremely difficult.

And that is one of the legacies of Mrs Thatcher’s property-owning democracy. (4)

 

(1) There are 4 parties if you include the fact that Freeholders are not absolute owners but hold their land from the Monarch who is the only person capable of owning land “absolutely” in England and Wales as this entertaining exchange of emails with the Land Registry demonstrates.

(2) Thanks to @MrsTrevithick for alerting me to fact that Bakeland was, until 1996 registered in Jersey. This explains why there are two leasehold titles in the name of the same company – actually two different companies with the same name.

(3) See Treasury Consultation “Ensuring the fair taxation of residential property transactions” for details of proposed changes in the taxation of residential property owned by non-natural persons (e.g. offshore companies).

(4) In searching for the titles to 72 Chester Square I mistakenly typed 73 and obtained the title of No. 73 next door (Title NGL889003). It is owned by 72 Chester Square Limited incorporated in Liberia.

 

When I was at University in 1980s studying forestry, Forestry Commission land was being sold off and the private sector was booming with generous tax breaks on offer to investors to plant trees. Particular controversy erupted over the rapid expansion of afforestation in the so-called “flow country” of Caithness and Sutherland where one company in particular, Fountain Forestry, was recruiting wealthy investors such as Shirley Porter and Terry Wogan to buy land and plant trees. The tax incentives were significant and on one occasion when the Director of Fountain Forestry came to Aberdeen to give a lecture I asked a question at the end hits talk. “Why“, I asked, “is the government giving millions of pounds in tax relief to very wealthy pop stars and celebrities in London to buy and afforest land 500 miles away in Caithness and Sutherland. Why does the government not simply give this money as grants to the landowners and farmers in the north of Scotland?”

I don’t remember his answer but I do remember being asked afterwards by my Professor why I had asked such a “provocative” question. I had not realised that it was anything other than a straightforward question about forestry policy but I quickly realised that any question about power, land and money made a lot of people rather uncomfortable. For me this was all the encouragement I needed to find out more. My activism on this and other issues at the time probably cost me a career in forestry which was at that time dominated by the aristocracy and big landowners.

So when, 25 years ago today, Nigel Lawson stood up in the House of Commons and abolished this tax dodge I was delighted. The announcement was a shock to the forestry world and a reminder that gravy trains don’t last forever. The budget was memorable also as the occasion when Alex Salmond got thrown out of the Chamber for interrupting Lawson’s speech. Anyway, here is the relevant passage (the whole speech is available on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website).

I now turn to income tax.

The way to a strong economy is to boost incentives and enterprise. And that means, among other things, keeping income tax as low as possible.

Income tax has now been reduced in each of the last six Budgets—the first time this has ever occurred. And the strength of the economy over that period speaks for itself.

However, reforming income tax is not simply a matter of cutting the rates. I also have to look at all the various allowances and reliefs to ensure that they are still justified. With this in mind, I have a number of proposals to announce.

First, forestry. I accept that the tax system should recognise the special characteristics of forestry, where there can be anything up to 100 years between the costs of planting and the income from selling the felled timber.

But the present system cannot be justified. It enables top rate taxpayers in particular to shelter other income from tax, by setting it against expenditure on forestry, while the proceeds from any eventual sale are almost tax free.

The time has come to bring it to an end. I propose to do so by the simple expedient of taking commercial woodlands out of the income tax system altogether. That is to say, as from today, and subject to transitional provisions, expenditure on commercial woodlands will no longer be allowed as a deduction for income tax and corporation tax. But, equally, receipts from the sale of trees or felled timber will no longer be liable to tax.

It is, perhaps, a measure of the absurdity of the present system that the total exemption of commercial woodlands from tax will, in time, actually increase tax revenues by over £10 million a year.

At the same time, in order to further the Government’s objectives for the rural areas, I have agreed with my right hon. Friends who have responsibilities for forestry and for the environment that, in parallel, there should be increases in planting grants. Full details of the new grant scheme will be announced next week.

The net effect of these changes will be to end an unacceptable form of tax shelter; to simplify the tax system, abolishing the archaic schedule B in its entirety; and to enable the Government to secure its forestry objectives with proper regard for the environment, including a better balance between broad-leaved trees and conifers.