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INVESTIGATION: Ministers under pressure to end charges for property checks after The Sunday Post reveals off-shore owners of swathes of Scotland

The Vanterpool plaza office, in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), which is a brass plate office registering multiple companies for tax avoidance purposes
The Vanterpool plaza office, in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), which is a brass plate office registering multiple companies for tax avoidance purposes

MINISTERS are under increasing political pressure to scrap fees for property searches in Scotland.

Politicians from all opposition parties last week called for greater transparency after The Sunday Post revealed how property worth £2.9bn is being held by companies based in foreign tax havens.

They are demanding that information held by Registers of Scotland, a government body, detailing the companies that own land and property, is revealed for free.

Earlier this month, Registers of Scotland made available for the first time, details of the 1700 property transactions involving overseas firms here in Scotland since the 1990s. The information cost £1560 to buy but the same data is free in England and Wales.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has insisted the Scottish Government is “committed to increasing the transparency of land ownership in Scotland” but refused to commit to free access to the Registers’ report.

Our investigation revealed that Scottish property – including pubs, shopping centres, care homes, Highland shooting estates and even ex-council houses – is held in 22 different tax havens around the world by 776 companies.

Scottish Labour’s land reform spokesperson Claudia Beamish raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions this week. She said: “The Sunday Post investigation has revealed the true extent of land ownership inequality and tax avoidance in Scotland.

“The public deserves to have full transparency of land ownership, and in First Minister’s Questions I asked what action the Scottish Government is taking to achieve this.”

MSP Claudia Beamish asking Nicola Sturgeon about a Sunday Post story on tax dodgers.

Land reform campaigner and Green MSP Andy Wightman, who called for the register to be made free when we published our investigation last week, said: “The overseas report, which formed the basis of The Sunday Post story, cost more than £1500 to obtain but the same data is free in England and Wales. This Government does not like being told when England and Wales perform better than it does but that is the case in this instance.”

When quizzed at Holyrood, SNP leader Ms Sturgeon refused to back the call for greater public access.

And she praised our article for having “highlighted the extent of land ownership in Scotland by overseas companies, and raised concerns about tax avoidance.”

Ms Sturgeon was less enthusiastic, however, when pushed by Mr Wightman on the cost of obtaining data.

She told MSPs: “It is true that Registers of Scotland operates as a trading fund and relies on incomes from fees but, as an open register, information on individual properties is available to all for between £3 and £24 per transaction.

“Last October, Registers of Scotland launched the Scottish land information service – ScotLIS – which is a new map-based online land information service, which means that anybody can access information about land or property in Scotland. Initial searches are free of charge. ScotLIS will continue to be developed and improved based on customer feedback.”

Holyrood’s other parties came together to demand that people don’t have to pay through the nose to see who owns Scottish land.

Owning Scottish property through offshore companies is perfectly legal and there is no suggestion of any illegality by any of the companies involved.

Scottish Conservative shadow environment secretary Donald Cameron said: “Transparency is key when it comes to things like the Land Register.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesperson Mike Rumbles said: “People will want to know who owns the land and property that neighbours them without paying thousands of pounds for the privilege. This information should be accessible, either for free or at a much more accessible price.”

The windows are boarded and the roof has been blown away by a hurricane but, we can reveal, £11m of land and property in Scotland is registered to this derelict office in the Caribbean

A hurricane-ravaged office above a chemist’s shop in the tropical  tax haven of the British Virgin Islands can today be revealed as the registered base of three firms owning £10m of Scottish property.

The companies are among those based out of the Vanterpool Plaza office in Road Town, the capital of Tortola – the largest of the 60 land clusters which make up the BVIs.

The nondescript building was battered by Hurricane Irma last year and is the listed HQ of hundreds of multi-million-pound companies across the globe.

It is the registered office of law firm Icaza, González-Ruiz & Alemán, which acts as agents
for throngs of off-shore companies.

The partially boarded up pharmacy below the Vanterpool office has run on a reduced schedule since the passage of Hurricane Irma in September.

Vanterpool plaza office door

In the days following the storm, looters raided the shop. Upstairs, a notice on the office door read “Icaza Trust (BVI) Temporarily Moved To Maria’s By the Sea” – a waterfront hotel in the town.
Documents obtained by The Sunday Post show the trust connections to dozens of Scottish properties.

Hotel Marias by the Sea (Khaptured)

The estate which houses the Kilwinnie mansion, once featured in TV drama Monarch Of The Glen, is owned by Balavil Estates Limited, registered at the Vanterpool office.

Dutch wine mogul Eric Heerema and his wife Hannah – daughter of Scottish singer Fiona Kennedy and businessman Francis Clark – confirmed they bought the property for an undisclosed sum in 2015. We can now reveal they paid £4.7m through the Balavil Estates company.

Hannah and Eric Heerema. (Deadline News)

Also on the books at Vanterpool is Shabondy Corporation, the parent company of UK-based Beldorney Estates Limited, run by Inverness solicitor Jonathan Lawrence Edwards Wotherspoon.

Law firm Macandrew & Jenkins Ws LLP, which he runs with his brother James Edwards Wotherspoon is the Beldorney Estates secretary.

Shabondy paid more than £5m for property near Beldorney castle in Aberdeenshire, and a property in North Kessock, Inverness-shire between 2012 and 2017.

Oban cottages Kilchurn Mews and Stalker Mews were bought in 2004 for £59,500 each through BVI firm Melvern Holdings Corporation.

The landlords register lists the owner of both cottages as a Ms Susan Clark, with Oban law firm MacArthur Legal acting as agent.

A fourth BVI firm run by Irish property developer Robert Keane owned more than 30 rental properties worth more than £3m until late last year.

The 31 flats in Campbeltown, Cumbernauld, Paisley, Aberdeen and Glasgow were bought between 2002 and 2009, and were owned by offshore firm Caversham Management Limited until November 2017, when they transferred to Mr Keane’s Aberdeen-based company Adelphi Scott Ltd.

Mr Keane said: “The company doesn’t trade anymore and doesn’t have any assets in the UK or anywhere else.

“It is a dormant company and everything we do now is all on-shore.

“It was set up before we came to the UK, with the possibility of doing something, but on advice we were told that what we needed it for wouldn’t work.

“The [properties] were taken over by Adelphi Scott, Adelphi Scott is the owner.”

Balavil Estate (Deadline News)

A spokesperson for Balavil Estate said: “Balavil Estate Ltd adheres to all relevant business and tax regulations. In fact the company makes a significant loss, so would have no tax liabilities wherever it was registered.”

Icaza, Gonzalez-Ruiz and Aleman, Susan Clark, Macandrew and Jenkins and Macarthur Legal failed to respond to a request for comment when contacted by The Sunday Post.

Panama Papers law firm to close

Mossack Fonseca, the top law firm at the heart of the Panama papers leak, is to close down at the end of the month.

The company, whose 11.5 million leaked files caused scandal across the globe, had reduced its 600 staff to around 50 following the publication of the files in 2016.

In a statement it announced a “total cessation of operations to the public at the end of this month after 40 years.”

The firm insists it was a “victim of a  cyber attack on a  global scale”, but said  it could not operate due to the attention brought by the leak. P

oliticians, celebrities and entrepreneurs, including David Cameron’s father Ian Cameron, all came under fire following the publication of details which revealed complex company structures set up in off-shore tax havens.

Dundee Waterfront tycoon’s Liberian connection

The property portfolio of a tycoon developer involved in the  £1 billion transformation of Dundee’s Waterfront is based in Liberia, according to our dossier.

Hassan Al-Saffar, who leads H&H Properties, claimed his links to the West African country had ended three years ago.

His firm is one of six companies who own Scottish residential property via firms based in Liberia, which has low levels of tax and high levels of secrecy. There is nothing to suggest any of the firms have acted illegally.

In 2015, we highlighted how H&H Properties Limited, based in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia had ties to H&H Properties UK Limited, who are based in Dundee.

Hassan Al-Saffar, 64, admitted there was a connection but said the Liberian firm no longer traded and that “to the best of my knowledge there are no property assets of any kind within the company”.

But documents lodged with Registers of Scotland show, as of last December, Liberian-based H&H Properties Ltd still owned several properties in the city, including 11 homes on Blackness Road and another unspecified property on Larch Street.

Al-Saffar declined our requests for comment last week.

As part of a £1 billion plan to redevelop Dundee’s Waterfront, his firm developed 202 luxury flats, selling for up to £400,000 each, on Riverside Drive.

The regeneration is funded by Dundee City Council, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government but does not include the properties owned in Liberia.

The other Liberian firms who own Scottish property are Marga Investments Inc, Banos Investment Limited, Greenfield Investment Limited and the European and International Investment Inc.