Despite a well established Land Registry the question “Who owns England?” is one for which there is no transparent answer. It has taken www.private-eye.co.uk and whoownsengland.org to start answering it but it is a gargantuan task and the data are simply not yet publically available in a readily accessible form to complete the job. Whilst there are rumblings of the Land Registry opening up its data further it hasn’t happened yet. This begs the question as to why isn’t this information already transparently available? A recent article in The Land put it thus – “who owns this country has been a closely-guarded secret for most of the last thousand years“, adding that “landowners have successfully hidden their wealth and power from prying eyes“.
Data that are available from the Land Registry(/ Private Eye/ WhoOwnsEngland) includes commercial and corporate ownership, including overseas ownership. If you look carefully on the whoownsengland.org map then you will find this odd looking parcel of land between Stowey and Clutton in North East Somerset, registered to a company called Rutherford Ross Ltd, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands – a tax haven. The Virgin Islands are a British Overseas Territory and the Queen is the Head of State.[This page Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0, 2017].
Wikipedia describes the Virgin Islands as a British Overseas Territory “with an opaque banking system”. Why would you want to register a company somewhere with an opaque banking system? Well, confidentiality is a popular reason, with a leading City law firm saying that “Most wealthy and sophisticated buyers do not want their names as owners publicly available”. One has to ask the question why not? There might be valid reasons but there are also other possibilities. Private Eye put it this way: “Most are held in this way for tax avoidance and often to conceal dubious wealth”, adding “Using this data the Eye published a series of exposes of the companies, arms dealers, oligarchs, money launderers and others who use offshore companies”.
Land Banking Scam in Somerset (Kent, Devon & Mendip)
In October 2009 the BBC reported that an “offshore firm Rutherford Ross has been selling plots of land in Somerset at vastly invlated prices“, including that odd shaped plot between Stowey and Clutton. It is agricultural land just outside the greenbelt but which has no prospect for planning permission for development.
The land was part of a land holding/ land banking scam which involved buying land at the market price and then selling it on at inflated prices under the pretext that it was ripe for development when actually it wasn’t. The company’s web site (still archived by http//:web.archive.org ) says that land holding “Is the strategic acquisition of a piece of land in advance of expanding urbanisation” promising “genuine potential to deliver significant returns to investors and Rutherford Ross Ltd alike“. However, there was and is no prospect or “genuine potential” for the plot at Stowey to be developed. Rutherford Ross Ltd purchased the land at Stowey in 2006 for £40,000. Some 96 individual plots were then sold off to unsuspecting members of the public (apparently in UK, Ireland and South Africa) for approximately 20 times the market value. The investors made a bad investment.
The imaginary road layout of “Chestnut Green” near Stowey is still legally registered with the Land Registry to Rutherford Ross Ltd, but the company was struck off the Virgin Islands Register of Companies in 2010 for non-payment of annual fees. This is a case of registered land with a non existant owner, as opposed the more common case of legally owned land that is not registered.
The resulting ownership is a complex mess of small grassy plots owned by a disperate set of people who have nothing in common, other than having been scammed.
The owners of each plot can easily be looked up (for a £3 fee) using the INSPIRE ID on the above map and entering it into the Land Registry web site.
This scam was set up by someone based in London hiding behind an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. In this case the reason for using an offshore company was not ‘sophistication‘ but rather to hide something, i.e. money. It beggars belief that so many parcels of land can be sold off by an opaque offshore legal entity, using onshore legal services to register them without suspicions being raised. This scam is a compelling example of why the British Virgin Islands Company Register and why Land Registry in England should be open and transparent. The company register has been opened up a little but it still takes a court order to gain access to it.
The site at Stowey/ Clutton is just one of a network of imaginary developments to be cut up and sold off by Rutherford Ross Ltd to unsuspecting people. Rutherford Ross Ltd no longer exists but the legally registered land parcels do exist in the Land Registry, including the one registered to the company. The parcels are owned by people, many of whom live overseas, who will likely never see their parcel and who will certainly not get their investment back.
It is hard to imagine why it is really necessary to hide the ownership of land in England or company officials in the British Virgin Islands.
You can watch the 2009 BBC investigation into this scam here: https://vimeo.com/47709802
The mess created by the scam appears to be still extant.
This is not the only “development” undertaken by Rutherford Ross Ltd, they also bought and sold plots land at the following sites:
|Stowey, Bath & North East Somerset|
|Near Ashford, Kent|
|Shepton Mallet, Mendip|
|Hittisleigh, Devon [Graphics in table grabbed from whoownsengland.org, not to scale. Land Registry, OGL.]|