Why does who owns Scottish land and property really matter?

June 14, 2023
Posted in News
June 14, 2023 veps

Our series – Scotland’s Secret Owners – is the product of an exclusive Ferret analysis of a new register which reveals for the first time who really owns assets held by companies located in tax havens.

But why do our findings matter? We asked Steve Goodrich from Transparency International – which campaigns against corruption across the world – to explain.

Why is transparency about ownership important?
Knowing who owns property and land is an important and long-standing tenet of our economy and society.

Most people tend to know their neighbours and, for a small fee, can quite easily access documents showing who owns the homes they live in. This may come in handy when discussing border disputes or similar. For renters, knowing your landlord (and not just their agents) could prove beneficial if they need holding to account for poor maintenance or tenancy disputes. And for buyers, this kind of detail gives you an idea about who’s selling the house of your dreams.

Property transparency is the norm in Scotland and has been so for hundreds of years. Even when these assets are held through companies, the overwhelming majority tend to be businesses in the UK who have open ownership structures. This openness provides some of the glue that binds our economy and society together.

It also helps in the pursuit of justice and upholding the rule of law. If you have the family of a politician or public official, whose income is modest but owns a substantial property portfolio, it raises significant questions about the provenance of funds. Similarly, given the gamut of sanctions imposed on Russian elites, many of whom hold vast amounts of UK real estate, it’s more important than ever we know who owns our country.

What kind of behaviour can financial secrecy enable?
Bricks and mortar are a renowned store for criminal funds. With just one transaction, it’s possible to shift large amounts of suspect wealth into an asset that invariably gains value, and could provide a profitable income stream of laundered cash. It’s no surprise, then, that real estate has proven popular amongst a range of criminals from corrupt politicians and oligarchs to organised crime gangs.

For those with money to hide, the challenge is keeping their ownership of this property secret. Holding land deeds in their own name could be high-risk and easy enough for a curious neighbour or diligent detective to spot. That’s why many have looked for help from the murky world of offshore finance.

The last vestiges of the Empire – Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – specialises in secrecy. For a price, they’ll offer a range of services to help keep your identity secret. Unlike the UK, most of these territories do not publish information about the owners of companies governed by their laws. Our research has found this opacity has provided anonymity and impunity to kleptocrats and oligarchs from around the world, especially Russia.

Until recently, owning property via a company based in one of these offshore financial centres hid them from prying eyes. Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine prompted the Westminster government to introduce a long-standing commitment that would lift the veil of secrecy provided by offshore corporations holding land in the UK. While our research and this new investigation by The Ferret show the new law is starting to show its worth, there remain several loopholes that need closing before we really know who owns Scotland.

Where can you access this new information?
Offshore companies holding UK property must register and report information to Companies House. If you know the name of the company you are investigating, just type it into the search box and it should pop-up. Click through to the ‘People’ tab and the ‘Beneficial owners’ one and it shows the reported owner.

If you also know the property they hold, you can buy a copy of the ownership documents from Registers of Scotland for a small fee. This provides helpful information about when it was bought, by whom, and for how much. If you know the offshore company but don’t know what properties it holds, or suspect it owns more than one, you can buy a spreadsheet containing details of all overseas entities holding land in Scotland. However, unlike the Land Registry for England and Wales that provides this data for free and updates it on a monthly basis, Register of Scotland charges £300 + VAT for an annual snapshot.

Next year, Scotland will also launch the complementary Register of Persons Holding a Controlled Interest in Land (RCI), which applies to all property in Scotland – both that on the Land Register and the Register of Sasines. Given the new UK-wide transparency register on Companies House only covers properties in the Land Register (therefore acquired after 8 December 2014), the RCI should fill some of the holes left by the current system.

source: theferret