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Why we need a new Domesday Book It's time for London to take back control

We should have been prepared. (DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)


March 3, 2022   5 mins

As Russian bombs rain down on Kyiv, we should gaze upon our own capital with disgust. How did we allow London to become a piggy bank for Putin’s cronies? 

The Government has announced new measures to “flush out the oligarchs, criminals and kleptocrats who think they can use UK property to hide their illicitly obtained wealth”. But let’s be honest: these people don’t “think” they can use UK property in this way — they know they can, which is why they’ve been doing so on a massive scale.

According to the anti-corruption campaigners, Transparency International, £6.7 billion in “questionable funds” have been invested in UK property since 2016 — £1.5 billion of which was bought by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin. No wonder that London is a described as a “laundromat” for “suspicious wealth”.

Boris Johnson may claim that “there is no place for dirty money in the UK” but, quite obviously, the UK has been — and still is — a place for dirty money. And the Government is now struggling to do anything about it. Yesterday, Keir Starmer confronted the Prime Minister: “Why are we giving Putin’s cronies 18 months to quietly launder their money out of UK property?”

Good question. Back in 2016, the Government hosted a “landmark” anti-corruption summit at Lancaster House in London. David Cameron, Prime Minister at the time, was very clear about what Britain would do: “First, we will expose corruption so there is nowhere to hide.”

His specific pledge was to create a “new public register of beneficial ownership” for foreign companies operating in the UK. Instead of hiding behind shell companies and other legal smokescreens, “everyone in the world will be able to see who really owns and controls each and every company”. An accompanying press release promised that this “will include companies who already own property in the UK, not just those wishing to buy”. And to emphasise Britain’s leadership on this matter, it was stated that “this will be the first register of its kind anywhere in the world”.

Well, it might have been had ministers got on with the job; but they dawdled. This week, Boris Johnson finally committed his government to the necessary measures. “We are going faster and harder to tear back the façade,” he said. Let’s hope so — because it’s been almost six years since the Tories promised the property register and it hasn’t happened yet.

In 1085, William the Conqueror ordered a Great Survey, which covered every county of England and named over 13,000 places. Yet William’s surveyors completed their work — which became the Domesday Book — in 1086.

It seems ridiculous that its modern-day equivalent should take so much longer. Admittedly, there are nearly 100,000 properties owned by foreign companies in the UK. Establishing their true ownership is no small task. But that’s all the more reason why the effort should have started years ago. Why then was it delayed?

We can’t really blame David Cameron. Hosting the corruption summit was one of his last acts as PM. Can we blame his successor? Did Theresa May drop the idea when she took over? No, it continued as official policy under her administration — and also Boris Johnson’s. Rather, the problem was the glacial pace of implementation. 

There was a consultation 2017, followed by a draft bill — and yet more consultation. In 2018, the Government expressed its intention for the register to be operational by 2021. That deadline was missed. In fact, until the events of last week, the necessary legislation hadn’t even been scheduled. When pressed to do so, ministers just answered that “we will legislate when parliamentary time allows”. 

This week, a panicked Government pulled its finger out and by Tuesday, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill made its long overdue appearance. It’s as if it were already drafted, ready-and-waiting to go — so why did it take Putin’s bloody war to prompt ministers to act?

Some might suspect undue influence, but there’s no need for conspiracy theories. The Government’s inactions are consistent with this country’s general lack of transparency over property ownership. 

For instance, it should be possible to go to an official website and freely access a map showing exactly who owns every piece of land in the country. But you can’t. For a fee, the Land Registry does provide limited information on individual plots. However, to get this data for the whole of England and Wales would be extortionately expensive. Guy Shrubsole — author of Who Owns England? — puts the cost at £72 million. 

Even then, about a sixth of the land in this country isn’t registered at all. There is no requirement that it has to be, unless sold or inherited. The Government could put this right if wanted to — for instance by requiring registration as a condition of receiving farm subsidies — but it hasn’t. Indeed, far from empowering the Land Registry, there were two attempts (while George Osborne was Chancellor) to flog it off to the highest bidder. Fortunately, the privatisation was cancelled by Osborne’s successor, Philip Hammond.

True transparency isn’t just about who owns the land, but also about who controls it. In particular, we need a public register of land options — legal agreements which give property developers an exclusive right to purchase potential building sites. The urgency is that options enable land-banking — the practice of sewing up the supply of potential building sites so that property developers can ration the supply of new housing to the market.  

In 2016, one Cabinet minister, Sajid Javid, had the guts to condemn the land-bankers. Measures to improve transparency were subsequently proposed. But, true to form, the Government has yet to follow through. In fact, it hasn’t even responded to the public consultation which closed in October 2020. 

It’s as if ministers don’t want to blow the lid on the murky world of British property. And no wonder. Government policy still operates on the basis that escalating property prices are a good thing. And nothing can be allowed to get in the way. For instance, Rishi Sunak wasted billions of pounds on propping up the housing market during the pandemic — when it clearly didn’t need any help.

Encouraging overseas investment in British property is an integral part of this insane, inflationary obsession. The Tier 1 Investor Visa scheme is a prime example. Introduced under Gordon Brown in 2008, the idea was to dish out visas on the condition that the recipient invested at least a million pounds in the UK economy. Needless to say, no distinction was drawn between job-creating investment and property speculation which only pushes up the cost of housing. 

Last month, after years of criticism, the scheme was finally shut down with “immediate effect”. Apparently, the Government was concerned that the route was being exploited by money launderers and other criminals. Nothing gets past the Home Office.

Of course, I’m not saying that the London property market is entirely sustained by foreign corruption and criminality. Most of the money that flows into it — including overseas sources — is above board.

Yet this is an under-taxed and under-regulated industry that provides an ideal environment for the world’s worst people. And for what? Inflating land values enriches the wealthy, while those without property — especially the young — pay the price. Our economy is weakened and our democracy damaged.

When William I ordered his Great Survey, it was an act of domination — of taking control of a conquered land. A modern-day Domesday Book would be the precise opposite: a means by which we take back control of our own country.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

Yes, lets make it even easier for the government to seize assets from people, what could possibly go wrong?
The amount of blind trust in the probity & wisdom of state institutions on display here is breathtaking, particularly after the worldwide statist clown show of the last two years.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 years ago

And keep in mind, socialists think all money is dirty money.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

I’m still appalled that the UK and USA apparently think it’s acceptable to seize peoples’ assets simply because they’re Russian and rich. Do we really want to go down this road? This is what Hugo Chavez did. This is what socialists everywhere have done. Making property rights insecure doesn’t end well. Of course, Justin Trudeau is busy collapsing his citizens faith in the Canadian banking system, so maybe this is just the next step.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Yes, forget the rule of law – just so that hot money can be diverted into some less traceable asset like art or NFTs, gold, bitcoin or whatever the ingenuity of the money men can devise.

Tony Price
Tony Price
2 years ago

I would say that yes we do want to go down this road! meanwhile, I can’t see how that revealing who owns property makes ‘property rights insecure’ – are you serious? If anything transparency of ownership makes them more secure!

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

If I’m reading BV’s comment correctly, it’s the confiscation of assets that causes uncertainty (and is a slippery slope). Not openness and transparency about ownership, which I at least can see no argument against.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

The argument against it is precisely that it makes it easier for capricious state institutions to decide whose stuff they want to appropriate today. Got unpopular views? Well Justin Trudeau recently demonstrated what states can do to your property rights if they don’t like you.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Not to think 9f GoFundMe.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Thank you – I think your various comments have persuaded me, but I think the laundering of dirty money through the London property market is a specific issue needing to be addressed.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew D
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Confiscation of private property is in Justin Trudeau’s DNA if you know what I mean. *Wink*

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

In addition, groups like BLM and Antifa can find out where you can live with this “transparency” and make your life miserable

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Cyprus did it in 2012, seized assets in banks over 100000 euro. The EU response was to say, it doesnt matter, because the depositers were mostly Russian.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

How about if they’re Russian, rich, *and* criminal instruments of a dictatorship that is threatening us with nuclear holocaust?

David B
David B
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

On whose say-so will they merit that attribution? Yours? Or should we just “take the money first, ask questions later, and only if we have to, which we don’t, because we’re the government”?

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago

It’s not about seizing assets but simply requiring people to say where they got the funds to buy those assets. Obviously not all rich Russians are gangsters, crooks or cronies of Putin but if they are not they can tell us how they made their money. With the collapse of the Soviet Union there was wholesale thief of assets belonging to former state enterprises much of that money found its way to London. It’s destabilised and corrupted financial institutions, the legal system and governments. Ruthless action is justified to stop Putin having access to anything here to fund his aggression.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

When William I ordered his Great Survey, it was an act of domination — of taking control of a conquered land. A modern-day Domesday Book would be the precise opposite: a means by which we take back control of our own country.

We take back control?

A modern-day Domesday book would be very much the same as the old one: a register whose purpose is possession, taxation, and control.

Why imagine that the keepers of this register will be any more benign than William the Conqueror? (Clue in the name.)

Even in liberal democracies, registers of such things as bank accounts or motor insurance can be swiftly used against the people. Ask the Canadian truckers about that nice Mr Trudeau.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Exactly so. Anyone who thinks the Domeday book was positive example of state action either does not know what they were actually for, or has just told you everything you need to know about their alarming political views.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

Oh and please recall that the Domesday book(s) were drawn up so that the government (my rapacious ancestors actually) were looking to find out who owned what so the spoils could be divided up amongst the Norman ruling class.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Alternatively you could argue that the lack of ‘transparency’ is the result of people trying to avoid excessive regulation… just as people and firms avoid paying taxes if they may.
More and more regulation is the default position of the managerial class. There’s rarely a realistic option of reducing regulation or considering other options.
The Bonfire of the QUANGOs died because too many people wanted their patronage and too much regulation required tame bodies to police it.
Does anyone ask if a smaller base of regulations might not be of more benefit than the mounds of paperwork and clerical expense of trying to avoid vague ‘bad things’?

Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Alright Milton Friedman, what is all this “regulation” that owning land involves??? There’s far more paperwork involved in hiding it away through offshore trusts.

John K
John K
2 years ago

There are several different and largely unconnected issues caught up in this.
One is the ownership of farmland and eligibility for taxpayer subsidies. More than a century ago the Government collected and published a register of everyone who owned more than an acre in England. The landowning lobbies were not happy that hoi polloi could find out how much they owned, and the exercise has never been repeated. But personally I see no reason why not, maybe with a larger minimum reporting threshold.
A second is the ownership and options over potential and actual development land. That is a more difficult issue, as it is commercially valuable information.
The third is the ownership of large houses and other property by rich people hiding behind opaque companies and similar vehicles. I see no reason, other than the political interests of successive governments, why this has been allowed to mushroom. e.g. walk across Vauxhall Bridge and most of the green glass apartments are clearly empty, stores of wealth for rich foreigners.
They need completely different approaches.

Last edited 2 years ago by John K
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Here in the far East just now the net is full of ads for London property. A ÂŁ1m buy to rent is considered cheap as a way of investing capital despite recent stamp duty rises for overseas buyers. Let’s put it this way, this area is about to raise tax on supercars from eyewatering to stratospheric. The official who suggested it says it’ll make no difference. Bentley and Rolls sold over a hundred cars each with already massive taxes on top over the last week in advance. Every little helps.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terence Fitch
James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
2 years ago

It’s simple keep track of what’s bought and who buys it. If a name isn’t given refuse to sell it under a new law, a name has to be put to the building and that person must be checked for criminal or nefarious activities if they are not British. Especially if they may originate from potential enemy territory and they can’t be validated through basic checks like credit check etc.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Land registration in France was complete and on line in the early ‘90s.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

It comes down to power and the ability of foreign money to influence politics which can be detrimental to British people. Knowledge is power. Foreigners buy property because of the security built up since Alfred the Great. Foreigners do not contribute to the full cost of their security; they have not shed blood for it. I suggest all property is either owned by British people or by companies registered with owners listed which has to be named persons with a contact address. Those not domiciled for tax purposes should be taxed at 5% per annum of the value of purchase price with re-valuation every five years on top of council tax. All foreigners should sign a document that a condition of living here is that they never undertake detrimental actions against Britain.
A person may pay rent to live in one’s home but that does not allow them to damage it or persons also living there.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Quite right too.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Bureaucratic torpor or palms are being greased, take your choice.

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago