UK crackdown on shell companies to affect Gulf property owners

A crackdown by the UK government on property ownership through shell companies could hit Arabian Gulf landlords.

The UK prime minister David Cameron is expected to announce plans to require all foreign companies purchasing UK property to provide details of their ownership in a publicly accessible register, according to UK media reports.

Officials are debating whether the new rules should apply to 100,000 existing offshore companies which currently own UK property as well as to new ones, The Times reported, citing a consultation document.


While Gulf property purchasers have long been active in the UK real estate market, especially in central London, they have been able to operate anonymously through offshore shell companies.

The announcement, which is expected to be made at an anti-corruption summit to be held in London on May 12, is just the latest in a series of moves by the British government to bring more transparency to the property market and encourage more people to buy in their own names.

Last year the UK government said that from 2017, non-domiciled investors owning UK residential property via an offshore company would be liable to pay inheritance tax.

In 2013 it said that owners of property bought through offshore companies would have to pay an annual charge of at least £15,000 (Dh80,492).

From June, all companies incorporated in the UK will be required to reveal their beneficial owners to Companies House.

And from April 1 this year, anyone buying a second home in the UK must pay a higher rate of stamp duty.

“The vast majority of London property bought through an offshore company is because transactions are currently exempt from inheritance tax, rather than reasons of anonymity,” said Tom Bill, head of London residential research at Knight Frank. “This exemption is likely to disappear next year and along with it the key reason to use an offshore company. We therefore expect a growing number of buyers will purchase property in their own name.”

Property brokers said that investors from the GCC were already starting to buy London property in their own names rather than through offshore companies.

“Over the last 10 to 20 years we would probably have seen around 40 or 50 per cent of our GCC buyers purchasing London property through offshore based companies,” said Will McKintosh, director and joint head of residential for the Middle East and North Africa at JLL. “But these days since the tax on buying this has increased, the proportion is probably more like 10 or 20 per cent,” he said.

He added: “I think that even if a register of the existing companies used to buy London property were made public, the UAE appetite for London property would continue unabated. These sort of changes and changes to tax are not welcomed but the reality is that over time they are accepted. There was concern that the increase in stamp duty could put people off, but I have seen people pay levels of stamp duty which are truly eye-watering.”

lbarnard@thenational.ae

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