A quarter of property in England and Wales owned by overseas firms is held by entities registered in the British Virgin Islands, according to new BBC analysis.
The Caribbean archipelago is the official home of companies that own 23,000 properties – more than any other country. They are owned by 11,700 firms registered in the overseas territory. The finding emerged from BBC analysis conducted of Land Registry data on overseas property ownership.
The research found there are around 97,000 properties in England and Wales held by overseas firms, as of January 2018. It adds to concerns that companies registered in British-controlled tax havens have been used to avoid tax.
The government of the British Virgin Islands said it was incorrect to label the country as a tax haven.
It said that there were many practical reasons why UK properties might be owned by companies incorporated in the BVI.
It argued that BVI companies can bring together multiple investors and owners, which is useful for big commercial property deals that have investors in more than one country.
The BVI also said that it shared “necessary information” including ownership details with relevant authorities.
Among those entries in the database that disclosed a price, the most expensive was the former headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, at 8-10 Broadway.
The site was purchased by the Abu Dhabi Financial Group in 2014 for £370m from the Mayor of London’s office. But it is officially owned by a Jersey-based company called BL Development.
The 1967 multi-storey block has now been demolished to make way for “a luxury collection of one to five bedroom apartments across six architecturally striking towers”. These range in price from £1.5m to more than £10m.
The leasehold of Admiralty Arch, the former government building off Trafalgar Square that straddles one end of The Mall, was sold to hotel developer Prime Investments for £141m. It is registered to a Guernsey-based entity, Admiralty Arch Hotels Ltd.
While the most expensive buildings are commercial properties such as hotels and office blocks in prime central London locations, many are residential properties rather than business premises.
Take Green Street, London W1 – a residential street of highly-desirable four-storey redbrick Victorian terraces, fronted by smart wrought-iron railings.
Walking east to west you’ll pass one terraced residence owned, according to the latest records, from the Turks and Caicos Islands by a company called Alliance Property Ltd. Next door is another residence owned by Lily Holding & Finance Inc, registered in BVI.
In all, 15 properties on the street are owned by companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, four in Jersey and one in the Isle of Man. Others have owners in Italy, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Accountants used to recommend using an offshore company to overseas buyers of property in the UK as a means of avoiding inheritance tax when the owner passed away.
“Until April 2017, if you weren’t resident in the UK and held a residential property via a company it was not counted as being an asset for UK-based inheritance tax purposes. So having a property through an offshore company meant you escaped inheritance tax,” says Mark Giddens, of accountants and consultants UHY Hacker Young.
However, since last year the government announced plans to close the loophole, dramatically reducing the attractions of offshore ownership of residential property.
Offshore jurisdictions such as BVI still offer buyers who wish to keep their names out of the public realm greater privacy than they would enjoy if they purchased their property as an individual.
While most tax havens have agreed to take part in automatic information exchange, allowing law enforcement agencies to discover the individuals who enjoy beneficial ownership of an offshore company, their names will not appear in the published data.
Only about a third of the properties in the dataset have figures for the “price paid” by the company. This is because HM Land Registry has only been collecting this information since October 2013, so information on properties sold overseas before then will not have been recorded.
Adding up the 27,835 properties whose most recent sale prices we know, the price paid was just over £55 billion.