Highland Titles Ltd. is one of those websites that offers you a small plot of land as a souvenir purchase. Yesterday, on twitter, some merriment was had by challenging the claim that such plots conferred any ownership of the land. Highland Titles Ltd. claims that you will become a landowner in the absence of any recording of title in the Land Register. It backs up this assertion by reference to this legal advice from J&H Mitchell WS. But a series of lawyers on twitter challenged this. See this Storify by Malcolm Combe, his subsequent blog, and this lengthy legal explanation by @loveandgarbage.

So if these “plot-owners” don’t own the land, who does? The answer is Highland Titles Ltd. It owns two parcels of land – Keil Wood near Duror extending (originally) to 90.7ha (see map below) and Paitna Green Wood, near Invergarry (to west of A87 above Loch Loyne), extending to 75.1ha. Keil Wood was acquired in 2007 by a company called Lochaber Highland Estates (CI) Ltd. This company changed its name in February 2012 to Highland Titles Ltd. See here for a Scotsman Business video.

Keil Wood title here and plan here.

Paitna Green Wood title here and plan here.

Several half-acre plots have been sold at Keil Wood reducing the extent owned by Highland Titles Ltd. to approximately 75ha meaning that the company owns around 150ha of land which it is offering “for sale” in plots from 1 square foot to 1000 square feet in extent.

What makes this story that little bit more interesting is that Highland Titles Ltd. is a company registered in Alderney and, in a phone call today to the Greffier of the Court of Alderney, it was confirmed that Highland Titles is owned by Douglas Wilson and Helen McGregor as Trustees for The Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, a charity registered in Guernsey.

According to the five-year plan of Highland Titles Ltd., over 100,000 plots have been sold. Each plot costs anything from £29.99 to £499.99. The larger plots are all in Paitna Green (or BumbleBee Haven as Highland Titles calls it) which is little more than a high altitude sitka spruce plantation on the A87 from Invergarry over the hill to Cluanie (see below)

The revenue from over 100,000 plots is at least £2,999,000 and probably a good deal more. This revenue is paid into a company registered in Alderney but as no accounts are published, it is impossible to be sure. The sole share is held by Wilson and McGregor as Trustees for the Guernsey charity. Under the law of Guernsey, no charity is obliged to provide accounts for public inspection and it need only file accounts under certain circumstances.

Thus nobody knows if in fact the charity is in receipt of any funds whatsoever. As the sole shareholder it is not entitled to have any of the revenues of Highland Titles Ltd. transferred to it. These revenues may well be paid out by the Alderney company as management fees or any manner of other payments to third parties.

The 150ha owned by Highland Titles is enough to provide over 16 million square foot plots which, at £29,99 per plot is a potential gross revenue of over £479 million. And, because the “plot-owners” do not legally own their plots (their ownership is limited to a few bits of paper and perhaps a tartan teddy), these plots can, in theory be sold multiple times.

I find it odd that such an arrangement appears to be lawful in Scotland. Because the charity does not technically operate in Scotland, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has no role (see ruling from May 2014). And, because the company that owns the land is registered in Alderney, it pays no taxes to HMRC.

In December 2014, another company by the same name – Highland Titles Ltd. – was registered in Scotland. it is unclear what role this company plays.

Finally, the Directors of this Scottish company are Peter Bevis and Helen McGregor who live at Tulloch Farm, Spean Bridge.

Tulloch Farm is owned by Quexus Ltd., a company registered at Trident Chambers, PO Box 146, Road Town, Tortola, British VIrgin Islands.

Which leaves an obvious question. Where is all the money going?

Image: Chart from OBR Economic & Fiscal Outlook December 2014. Click for larger image.

Following the changes to stamp duty announced by George Osborne in the Autumn Statement, the Scottish Conservative Party has published proposals to change the proposed Scottish replacement – Land and Buildings Transaction Tax – due to be introduced in April 2015. The topic was raised at First Ministers Questions today (col. 14)

The Tory proposals include halving the rate between purchases of between £250,000 and £500,000 from 10% to 5%. The party claims that its proposals “would mean 97 per cent of transactions, including all those below £500,000, will leave house-buyers better off.”

This claim (and similar claims by the Scottish Government) that cuts in stamp duty rates represent a saving to housebuyers is misleading and wrong. It is a symptom of widespread illiteracy around the fiscal dimensions of land and property.

In broad terms, people have a fixed budget when they buy a house. They can, perhaps afford £150,000 made up of a loan and capital of their own. This sum has to cover the costs of acquisition (fees and stamp duty) and the sum paid to the seller for the house. If stamp duty rates are reduced it follows that more money is available for the other costs (fees and the price paid). Assuming that fees remain fixed (such as land registration fees) and others (survey fees and conveyancing costs) remain unchanged (either as a fixed sum or as a percentage of purchase price), the money saved in stamp duty will be available to bid up prices.(1)

This is a straightforward economic principle that was the subject of this useful analysis by Shelter and is noted by the Office of Budget responsibility in its Economic and Fiscal Outlook December 2014 on page 126 as follows.

The OBR analysis makes clear that the cuts proposed by George Osborne and the Scottish Conservatives will be more than offset by higher house prices. Those higher prices will, in many cases be financed by loans, the interest on which will be higher over many decades. A small saving in a one-off transaction tax will not simply be more than offset by higher house prices but by ongoing, compounded and volatile interest payments to financial corporations.

The best solution (and the one I advocated two years ago and is recommended by one of the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers – Sir James Mirrlees) is to abolish this transaction tax in its entirety and replace the volatile yield with a better-designed system of recurrent taxation of land and property. The Mirrlees Review (Chapter 16 pg 404) noted that,

If the Scottish Conservative (and indeed other parties) want to be truly radical, they would be well-advised to stop tinkering with rates (that will not have the claimed effects), abolish stamp duty and its associated bureaucracy, and agree to far more fundamental reform in fiscal policy relating to land and property.

(1) Of course, buyers are often sellers and will receive higher bids for the property that they are selling. But given that most buyers who are sellers are trading up, this merely exacerbates the inflation in prices.

The comedian and TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones is reported today to be ready to quit the UK in protest at plans by the Labour Party to introduce a mansion tax if it wins the 2015 General Election. As the Telegraph reports,

He himself lives in a “gigantic” house in a part of central London that was, when he bought it 15 years ago, a “slum”. He has a track record of buying large, run-down properties and turning them into homes for himself and his wife, Jo. His Fitzrovia house has appreciated so significantly that he is contemplating moving overseas if Labour win the election and introduce a mansion tax.

“It would mean I’d be paying the most colossal tax, which is obviously aimed at foreigners who have apparently come in and bought up all the property in London,” he says. “That sounds about as fatuous an idea as that immigrants are stealing all the jobs. I’d probably go and live abroad because I could get some massive palace which I could restore there.”

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the mansion tax. This, from the Chief Executive of Legal & General, is typical.

“People who choose to prioritise buying a home have typically made sacrifices to do so: fewer foreign holidays, meals out or other luxuries. Through no fault of their own, their prudence would be punished by a Mansion Tax.” (Telegraph 27 October 2014).

The idea that folk who own houses worth in the millions have made sacrifices, saved hard or been prudent may well be true (at least for some). But that sacrifice, saving and prudence is not what has been responsible for their homes being worth so much money. The inflated price of houses in many parts of the UK is a consequence of scarcity and a lax fiscal regime. The financial gains made by homeowners are only in very small part due to their own efforts (for example, insulating or other improvements). The vast majority of the gains are as a consequence of rising land values.

Labour has yet to spell out the details of its plans but they involve a levy on properties worth over £2 million. Ed Balls announced the policy in an article in the Evening Standard on 20 October 2014. The Financial Times calculated that on average, the owners of properties worth over £3 million would pay an average of £19,000 per year.

Griff Rhys Jones and his partner Joanna own 2 Fitzroy Square (shaded red above) in the London borough of Camden. They bought the property for £1,450,000 in 1998 after Camden Council granted planning consent for a change of use from offices to a residential home (see Land register title). The couple then undertook the renovations and the property is now a domestic dwelling with 7 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and 4 reception rooms.

Image: Extract from Title Plan for 2 Fitzroy Square.

According to Zoopla, the property is currently worth £7,012.156 and has risen in value by £3,015,251 over the past 5 years. The rental value is estimated at £16,167 per month (£194,004 per year). Rhys Jones currently pays £2640.96 in Council Tax to Camden Council.

Assuming that £1 million was spent undertaking renovations, the Rhys Joneses have seen their property rise in value by around £4.5 million. That sum is unearned increment (economic rent in economic theory) and, since principal residential properties are exempt from capital gains tax, the gain is entirely tax-free. This tax relief is worth an estimated £10.4 billion per year to homeowners according to the National Audit Office.(1)

Successive governments have put in place a fiscal regime for domestic property that allows Rhys Jones to make a £4.5 million tax-free capital gain without any effort on his part.

A sensible system of recurrent taxation would be designed to curtail such asset inflation by socialising this rent rather than allowing it to be appropriated tax-free by private interests. The mansion tax is a badly designed tax. As the Institute of Fiscal Studies commented in February 2013,

Rather than adding a mansion tax on top of an unreformed and deficient council tax, it would be better to reform council tax itself to make it proportional to current property values.”

If property taxation was properly proportional and the Rhys Joneses paid the percentage rate (1.85%) that a mid-point English Band D property is liable for, then they would be paying £129,724 per year. The Mansion tax is liable to be about a tenth of that.

That kind of liability would deter most buyers who, as a consequence would offer less for the property so as to pay less in annual holding costs – which is precisely what a well-designed system of recurrent property taxation would do. Lower property prices means less indebtedness and more resources invested in the productive economy. But that is not the kind of economy that either Labour or the Tories appear to be interested in.

In the meantime perhaps Rhys Jones should be grateful.

NOTES

(1) See Figure 6 in Tax Reliefs.