More than three out of four of Scotland’s largest city shopping centres are owned in, or linked to tax havens. The Ferret’s exclusive research has prompted calls for greater transparency about the interests of owners and their commitment to Scottish cities.
Our research looked at 23 major shopping centres in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth, Stirling and Dunfermline, excluding retail parks. We found 18 involved ownership structures that made some use of companies registered to tax havens.
The revelation comes at a time of crisis for many shopping centres, which are struggling to cope with the post-Covid-19 reality of the retail market. From 2016 to 2021, 83 per cent of department stores including BHS and Debenhams – on which centres traditionally depended on as a “retail anchor” – went under, leaving many scrabbling to fill voids.
As part of our Who Owns Urban Scotland series we also found about a third of shopping centres in Scotland’s cities have announced, or are considering, plans for significant redevelopment. Those will see some repositioned as “urban quarters” featuring new city streets, office and residential developments, and public space.
Critics called for legislation to end the use of tax haven ownership. Some also warned of shopping centre owners having “unstainable levels of influence” over the make-up of Scotland’s urban centres.
Registering a business operating in the UK in a tax haven is not illegal and no wrongdoing is suggested. However critics of the arrangement, such as the Tax Justice Network, have argued it can deprive governments of tax revenues, increases inequalities and undermines smaller and domestic businesses.
It is often difficult to discover the real owners – and influence – behind faceless investment funds held fully, or in part, in secretive tax havens.
A number of shopping centres in Edinburgh are registered offshore, including the Gyle shopping centre in the south west of Edinburgh, which is registered to the Gyle Shopping Centre Unit Trust in the tax haven of Jersey. The Ferret has not been able to establish its ultimate owner.
Last year there were reports that a redevelopment of the centre, which opened in 1993, was planned, taking it from a traditional retail centre with a car park, to a “new high street” or local town centre, featuring shop fronts, offices and about 1,000 homes.
A spokesperson for the Gyle said that no large scale development proposals were currently on the table.
Ocean Terminal was built on the former industrial docklands of Edinburgh’s north side between Newhaven and Leith. It opened in 2001.
It is registered to Ocean Terminal Limited through a chain of other companies including Ambassador Real Estate Investments Ltd. That firm is run by Scottish businessman David Gaffney, the co-founder and investor of Ambassador Group, whose involvement was first announced in 2020.
The shopping centre is jointly owned by Intermediate Capital Group plc. Last August the majority of its shares were transferred from its subsidiary company registered in the tax haven of Luxembourg – to Are Tallents Ltd, which is owned by the Glasgow-based Ambassador Group.
This September plans were approved for the redevelopment of the struggling centre, which had seen major retailers including Marks & Spencer withdraw. It will now be part-demolished and remodelled to include ground-floor shop fronts, bars and restaurants, a cinema and other leisure facilities, co-working and housing.
The St James Quarter to the east of Princes Street is majority-owned by Dutch pension investment company APG, a subsidiary of Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP – the largest pension fund in the Netherlands.
The remaining 25 per cent share is held by global real estate investment trust (RIET) Nuveen. The joint ownership is organised through a series of investment vehicles, which include companies and property trusts registered in Jersey.
A spokesperson for APG said its investments in the UK were subject to UK tax laws and said it was “proud” to be majority owners in a project “that improves the quality of the city”.
In Glasgow, the city’s Buchanan Street is bookended by two shopping centres that are both due to undergo major redevelopment.
St Enoch shopping centre is registered to the Jersey-based St Enoch Trustee Company Limited and was owned by US-based global investment firm Blackstone. Five years ago the Panama Papers financial document leak revealed it had avoided tens of millions of pounds in UK taxes on property deals in Glasgow and London.
Blackstone said at the time that its investments were “wholly compliant with UK tax laws”.
In March 2021 the investment giant, founded by Wall Street billionaire and former Donald Trump ally Stephen Schwarzman, handed the keys back to lenders Morgan Stanley and M&G. It is now owned by UK-based Genesis JVCo Limited on behalf of the investment companies.
At the other end of the street Buchanan Galleries, which opened in 1999, is owned by UK-based LandSec – Britain’s biggest commercial property developer. It has also submitted plans for a dramatic redevelopment which would see the centre demolished and replaced with city streets in a grid formation, and a mix of shops, offices and flats.
Outside Glasgow city centre, Braehead, Silverburn, the Fort and the Forge shopping centres are all owned by, or linked to, companies registered in Jersey. The island eliminated all taxes for corporations in 2008, with the exception of financial services (taxed at 10 per cent) and development projects (taxed at 20 per cent).
A spokesman confirmed all revenues and profits generated at Braehead Shopping Centre were fully subject to UK tax.
In 2018 the Herald reported on revelations from the Paradise Papers that showed recently deceased Turkish billionaire Sevket Sabanci was one of a group of investors behind Esas Holdings – owners of the Turkish low-cost airline Pegasus – which held the Bon Accord through various holding companies.
Dundee’s Overgate shopping centre, which forms a major part of the city’s shopping quarter, is held in a Jersey based unit trust for owners, Legal and General.
The city’s second shopping centre – the Wellgate was sold to Invista on behalf of St James’s Place pension fund for £31.2m in 2011 and then sold again to Belgrave Estates for just £1.4m in December 2021. Last week the council said it may demolish the centre.
Paul Sweeney, Labour MSP for Glasgow, called for a “comprehensive review” of property ownership in Scotland. He added: “The levels of influence held by these multinational organisations is as unsustainable as it is unbelievable. For years, city centres and high streets have been left chasing their tails because large shopping centres have had carte-blanche to reconfigure the very fabric of our major cities.
“To find out that almost three quarters of them have links in some way or another to tax havens is the final straw, and should be the catalyst for a total rethink.”
He claimed that city council master plans and task forces had achieved “very little” and should concern taxpayers as the lack of collaboration between planning departments and companies had “resulted in good public money being thrown after bad private investment”.
However Alison Thewliss MP, SNP spokesperson for the treasury, said Scotland needed more powers to address the issue and claimed the UK Government had consistently “missed opportunities to close loopholes”.
“The powers to tackle avoidance and evasion for almost all taxes lie at Westminster,” she added. “We have consistently called for greater tax transparency and stronger action from the Westminster government on avoidance and evasion, but measures have continued to be woefully inadequate.”
The UK Government declined to comment.
Who Owns Urban Scotland is an investigation by The Ferret looking into the firms controlling Scotland's towns and cities. Support our journalism by becoming a member for £5 a month at theferret.scot.
Photo credit: Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0