Billionaire-owned shooting properties offered tax relief

Nine out of ten of Scotland’s shooting properties, including some owned by billionaires, are exempt from paying £10.5 million in annual business rates, according to new research.

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) study, commissioned by the Scottish Greens’ Andy Wightman MSP, found 90 per cent of the 13,705 sites assessed as shooting properties in 2018 to be eligible for the Scottish Government’s tax relief scheme for small businesses.

By being valued below £15,000 by assessors from the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA), these sites could apply for 100 per cent rates relief via the Small Business Bonus Scheme (SBBS).

A further 358 (2.7 per cent) were eligible for a 25 per cent discount due to being valued between £15,001 and £18,000, while just 1,011 premises (7.3 per cent) were due to pay full rates.

SBBS and the charging of business rates to shooting properties has prompted fierce criticism, with calls for it to be scrapped.

Opposition parties say it makes billionaire owners of shooting estates exempt from the tax, while landowners and shooting advocates say it unfairly taxes small landholders who don’t run shooting businesses, or even shoot at all.

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Wightman stressed that property owned by “some of the richest people in the world” was eligible for SBBS. These include a Highland estate owned by the ruler of Dubai via his tax haven-registered company, and another by the former boss of Lego. The latter estate has previously claimed SBBS relief for its deer forest, according to data seen by The Ferret.

Wightman called for this “tax break” to end. Scottish Labour also said wealthy landowners should not be “subsidised from the public purse when they can afford to sustain themselves”.

But the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) stressed that small farmers and crofters had been hit by a tax aimed at a small number of the super rich. Scottish Land & Estates, which represents landowners, said it was “only fair that legitimate rural businesses can qualify for the SBBS where they meet the criteria”, but claimed that the system is more costly for assessors to operate than the revenue it generates.

The Scottish Government said it was “committed to delivering a fair and sustainable” rates system for all businesses, adding that SBBS was due to be independently reevaluated.

The land reform (Scotland) bill, which passed in 2016, ended universal tax relief for sporting estates which had been granted in 1994 by John Major‘s Conservative government. Now, land owners are automatically granted shooting rights and can also grant lease, licence or permission to shoot to another party.

Shooting rights are defined by the SAA as “the right to occupy the land for the purpose of shooting wild animals and birds hunted for sport”. Due to an unclear definition of game animals in Scots law, shooting rates are due even if a landowner only shoots game they consider to be “vermin”. Forests “used for the driven hunting of deer” and larders to store game are also liable for business rates.

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However, properties are also considered to be shooting premises and due to pay non-domestic rates even if the owner does not actually shoot. “It is a voluntary restriction to decide not to shoot and this is something that Assessors must ignore when deciding to make a valuation roll entry”, according to the SAA.

To work out how much tax shooting and non-domestic properties pay towards local council services, each premises is given a rateable value (RV) by surveyors from the SAA. The RV is then multiplied a rate known as ‘poundage’, which is set by the Scottish Government.

SPICe estimated that without SBBS, the public purse would have gained £10.5 million from commercial properties with shooting rights in 2018-19. However, if all shooting properties eligible for SBBS claimed it, taxpayers would have paid the £7.7 million revenue shortfall to local authorities.

The Scottish Government confirmed that £2.9 million in non-domestic rates income was raised from shooting properties in 2019/20. This revenue is put into the Scottish Land Fund which helps support community buyouts.

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SBBS, which was introduced in 2008, is not automatically applied to exempt commercial properties and must be claimed for.

Wightman also obtained data from Highland Council which shows that in 2018-19, 862 premises claimed £866,734 of SBBS relief. Some 819 estates claimed 100 per cent relief, while a further 43 claimed 25 per cent relief.

Some 1,601 properties with shooting rights in Highland and the Western Isles are currently known to the SAA, which groups the two local authorities together. The figure suggests that around half of Highland shooting properties may have claimed for SBBS in 2018.

Wightman, a longtime land reform campaigner, highlighted that some shooting properties within vast Highland estates were eligible for SBBS, despite being ultimately owned by billionaires.

These include the Inverinate Estate in Wester Ross, which is owned by the billionaire ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, via his company Smech Properties Limited. Smech is registered in the tax haven of Guernsey, according to OpenCorporates.

The estate’s deer forest, owned by Smech Management Company Limited, is valued at £15,000 by the SAA, meaning it is SBBS-eligible.

The Ferret contacted Sheikh Mohammed’s foundation to ask whether Inverinate Estate had claimed for SBBS, but did not receive a response.

The 57,000-acre Corrour Estate on the edge of Rannoch Moor is owned by Lisbet Rausing, the daughter of the late Tetra Pak food packaging billionaire Hans Rausing, who was one the world’s wealthiest people. The estate’s deer forest, valued at £13,500, is also SBBS-eligible.

Donald Rowantree, Corrour’s estate manager told The Ferret that the estate had not claimed any SBBS support.

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the former boss of Lego, has a current net worth of $6.7bn, according to Forbes. He owns the 82,800-acre Strathconon Estate in central Ross-shire. The estate’s deer forest is currently valued at £17,000, making it eligible for a 25 per cent discount on shooting rates.

Highland Council data shows that Strathconon Forest claimed 100 per cent relief for its £1,320 business rates tax bill in 2018/19. Strathconon Estate did not respond to our request to comment.

In 2019, The National reported that the Queen, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Argyll and other aristocratic landowners had contested the tax bills for their sporting estates.

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Wightman said that charging shooting rates is “an imperfect but important way [to ensure] shooting estates make modest contributions to the cost of delivering public services such as roads, schools and cleansing.”

But he called it “shocking that some of the richest people in the world including billionaires are eligible for SBBS, which was intended to help genuine small businesses.”

Wightman added: “That the general public is subsidising these vast landholdings through such a tax break is beyond parody and completely unjustified. It is clearly time for this tax break to end.”

His comments were echoed by Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant MSP. She said that while “sporting estates are vital to the rural economy”, only those who “subscribe to a fair work agenda and are owned domestically” should be given financial support, if they need it.

Grant called for “a re-prioritisation of business support” to ensure that “public money is not instead lining the pockets of rich tycoons and landlords who pay their taxes overseas.”

However, SACS said that “by the Scottish Government’s own private admission, shooting rates are a failed attempt to lash out at the perceived excesses of one or two large landowners”. Instead, “as SACS predicted, the project has only turned out to be a burden for smaller landholdings and ordinary folk”, including many who do not shoot at all, the group said.

Alex Stoddart, the society’s director argued that “the vast majority” of those registered as shooting premises “do not conduct any meaningful shooting activity other than to control crows, foxes and pigeons”.

This ensures that “Scotland’s ruling political elite” have “no shortage of porridge, lamb and potatoes on their Edinburgh restaurant tables whilst sitting on their lazy fat backsides dreaming up new ways to focus on anything other than jobs, communities, education and health”, he said.

Stoddart added: “To be clear, the general public is not subsidising vast landholdings – we are all 100% subsidising political ineptitude and the mismanagement of our finite public resources.”

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Scottish Land & Estates said that it had warned “prior to the reintroduction of rates, the reason for their abolition in the mid-1990s was the huge administrative task for all land businesses to be [assessed] whether shooting took place or not.”

This “resulted in a system that was more costly to operate than the revenue it was generating”, said Sarah-Jane Laing, the group’s chief executive.

“Proponents of the reintroduction of these rates repeatedly stated that it was about the fairness of rates being applied – similarly, it is only fair that legitimate rural businesses can qualify for the SBBS where they meet the criteria.” Laing added that shooting rates were “in addition to various other forms of tax that are paid by these businesses where it falls due.”

The Scottish Government said it was “committed to delivering a fair and sustainable non-domestic rates regime for businesses from all sectors.” SBBS has “lifted more than 100,000 recipients out of rates altogether and provides vital assistance to many small businesses”, a spokesperson said.

Following a recommendation from the Barclay Review of non-domestic rates, SBBS will be reevaluated by the Fraser of Allander Institute, with a report due in Spring 2021, the spokesperson added.

Header image thanks to Pikrepo.

Highland Council shooting property SBBS relief claimants 2018/19

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