The Guardian are running a series of investigative articles on the use of offshore tax havens to acquire land & property in London. It was timely, therefore to see Steven Vaas’s article in the Herald on Monday which revealed that seven parcels of land at Granton Harbour and Western Harbour – part of the Waterfront development – in Edinburgh have been sold to a company called Sapphire Land Ltd., PO Box 957, Offshore Incorporations Centre, Road Town, Tortola, BRITiSH VIRGIN ISLANDS.

One parcel alone, (pictured below) was bought by FM Homes Ltd in January 2008 for £3,075,000 and sold to Sapphire for £327,916 in August 2012.

This sale of land adds to a growing list of land and property in Edinburgh and across Scotland including much of Charlotte Square which is now owned by companies operating out of offshore tax havens.

I argued during the passage of the Land Registration (Scotland) Bill that we need to make sure that there is transparency in landownership. The simple legal answer is that there is. After all, I have just consulted the Registers of Scotland and note that this land is owned by Sapphire Land Ltd. – what more do I need to know? But this analysis goes to the heart of the debate over the Bill which was regarded as merely a legalistic reform by the Scottish Government and arguments from myself and others that it should be seen as part of a wider public land information system were rejected by Ministers.

In my 4th blog on the Bill (click on “Land Registration” category on right side for all of them), I cited the growing evidence that registering land in tax havens frustrates the administration of the criminal law, the collection of taxes, and good governance by concealing the true beneficial owners of land. Specifically, my proposal for transparency on offshore landownership was rejected (despite having been called for by the SNP when in opposition). My written evidence is here.

There are now over 750,000 acres of land in Scotland owned by companies in offshore tax havens. We know nothing about who is behind these companies and they are probably avoiding a lot of tax. Why, oh why does the Scottish Parliament not feel able to do the simple things it can to make Scotland a fairer and more equitable society? What possible public benefit can there be in allowing the public registration of land in the name of companies located in tax havens?

Anyone?

Today, the Scottish Government announced the establishment of a “Land Reform Review Group” that will oversee a “wide ranging review of land reform in Scotland”. If this happens it will be very worthwhile.

However, the remit and membership of this group are yet to be agreed with Scottish Ministers and it is unclear how wide the remit will be. If it is simply to undertake a technical review of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it will be of very limited value when the real issues concern inflated land values, affordability of housing, succession law, tax avoidance, secrecy, absentee landlordism, theft of common land, land registration laws, common good etc. etc. etc.

Whether any of this gets looked at depends on two things.

The definition of the term “land reform” and the remit for the group. Let’s crowdsource ideas on both of these. Please leave comments on:-

1. a definition of land reform and

2. a remit for the Land Reform Review Group.

I will moderate comments strictly to these two questions.

My interview on Radio Scotland Newsdrive at 1750 today 24 July 2012.

UPDATE 25 July 2012 Rob Gibson MSP has issued a press release welcoming the establishment of the Group. From his comments it appears that the review will focus on community land issues. The “Overview of Evidence on Land Reform in Scotland” published by the Scottish government also restricts itself to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Given too that a review of the Act was the focus of the SNP manifesto commitment, this all suggests that the remit of the Review group is not going to be a review of land reform but a review of one piece of legislation. Since the remit has yet to be published, however, it is still impossible to be sure.

UPDATE 27 JULY 2012 Professor Peter Dale OBE who is a past President of the International Federation of Surveyors 1995-99 and currently their Honorary President has contributed a useful summary of what land reform means. It is an analysis that I agree with. In my view land reform is about the reform of power relations and how that power is derived, distributed and exercised form the core of any serious land reform project. Here is what Peter has to say.

“The words ‘land reform’ often mean almost whatever you want them to mean and depend on to whom you are talking.

Unless I have missed it, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 does not define the term, it merely lists those examples of land reform that the Act addresses. It is as if you had a Health Reform Bill that didn’t address health, only some service delivery such as patient waiting times.

Land is a diverse concept that depends on whether you are looking at it from a legal, financial, land use or social perspective i.e. its ownership, value or use. Reform may concern the changing of land rights (land tenure reform), the redistribution of ownership or use rights (including land consolidation and land reallocation, i.e. reforms to the pattern of ownership), alterations to land use (e.g. physical changes in agricultural practice or through inner city development), changes to land tax (that bring about changes in land ownership, value or use), or changes in how land is managed, etc.

In summary, the term ‘land reform’ embraces all those processes that alter the pattern of land ownership, land rights, land values or land use within a specified area.

Professor Peter Dale 26 July 2012

 

01. May 2012 · Comments Off on Dividing the commons in 2012 · Categories: Democracy, Environment, Land Reform, Land Registration, Land Rights, Legal affairs, Politics, Poor had no Lawyers

A number of people in the SNP have been trying to persuade me that the Scottish Government is serious about getting land reform back on track. I am prepared to accept this once I see the evidence. Meanwhile events suggest that I may have to wait some time. Take the following, for example.

The Land Registration Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. It’s the first time a democratically elected Parliament in Scotland has ever had the opportunity to debate important questions around how rights in land are recorded and secured. I provided written and oral evidence in an attempt to broaden out what was a narrow and rather legalistic piece of legislation in order to incorporate some important reforms. See previous posts on topic.

The Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee has been scrutinising the Bill and published its Stage 1 Report on 6 March 2012. This was followed by a debate in Parliament on 14 March. Last week, the Scottish Government responded to the Committee’s report and one item in particular caught my eye.

It concerns the Committee’s suggestion that the opportunity might be taken in the Bill to repeal the Division of the Commonties Act of 1695. (1) This Act was passed by the nobility as a means of dividing and appropriating Scotland’s parish commons for themselves. The introduction of feudal tenure led to the legal view that what were originally genuine commons were now the undivided common property of the landowners in the parish and the 1695 Act allowed them to be divided. The Act was simple and straightforward and was extensively used such that today only very few commonties remain undivided.

The argument for repeal is unanswerable. Feudal tenure is dead and these commons should revert to their pre-feudal status. The 1695 Act was passed by a undemocratic Scots Parliament to increase the power and wealth of the nobility.

So what has the Scottish Government said?

“The Scottish Government does not think there is merit in doing so. The Act allows an area of commonty to be divided among the owners either (1) where holding the land as Commonty no longer suits the parties or (2) to allow enclosure and cultivation of the land. In modern common ownership, a similar end may be achieved by an action of division or sale. It is not desirable to remove this right from the owners of Commonty.” (2)

Now, there is a question over whether this Bill is a legitimate place to be repealing the 1695 Act but the Government are not making that case. They are making the case in defence of continuing to allow landowners to divide common land. In other words they are defending the legitimacy of a 17th century statute designed to grab common land from the people. I find that quite astonishing.

The Scottish Government should be repealing such manifestly illegitimate legislation, speaking out against land grabbing and returning what little is left of common land to the people. Instead, it is entrapped by a conservative legal establishment into legitimising corrupt laws the have no place in a modern democratic Scotland.

(1) See Chapter 7 in The Poor Had No Lawyers for further details of what I term the 4th land grab.

(2) para 24a in Scottish Government response.