Towering apartment blocks going up all over Manchester and Salford are evidence of a property investment boom underway in the midst of a housing crisis for many. Research has revealed that this boom is fueled by foreign investment capital channeled through layers of offshore holding companies that allow the lucky few involved to avoid paying tax in this country.
The buy to rent flats being built in high rise blocks will do little if anything to alleviate the housing crisis in Manchester. Manchester City Council (MCC) are deeply entwined in this intricate web of financialisation and refuse to answer questions that the people of Manchester have a right to know.
This was the disturbing picture of property development painted by Dr Jonathan Silver, of Sheffield University, when he presented his research at an event held by Greater Manchester Housing Action, called ‘Knowledge Is Power’, at the University of Manchester on the 19 July. One of the reasons Silver embarked on this research project was the confusing and often contradictory messages on housing he came across in the press. He says:
“If you listen to the media we are having a boom, this is great news, the Daily Mail is telling people from down south to put their money into Manchester. The local press are trumpeting a Chinese style building boom. I found this really interesting because I thought we were having a housing crisis not a housing boom.”
The reports of the fortunes to be made in a thriving property development market in Manchester rub unpleasantly against the reports of homeless activists squatting in empty buildings and ever increasing levels of homelessness across Greater Manchester (GM). Silver described how the old owner occupier model of development that had been prevalent before the financial crash of 2008 was over. Previously property developers would go to British banks for loans, build apartment blocks and then sell them to the public.
Since the property market came out of its post crash slump around 2014, the new model behind the boom for building apartment blocks was driven by the financialisation of the development process which was now concentrating on build to rent apartments rather than homes to sell.
The boom in buy to rent goes hand in hand with new financial packages that allow large institutions or corporations to buy apartments, sometimes in blocks or whole development sites, for the purpose of renting. And due to local authorities’ failure to enforce Section 106 agreements, which can force the developer to provide affordable rent flats, the large majority of these flats will be at market rent.
Why Manchester is becoming increasingly popular for this type of venture becomes clear when the investment returns are compared. Gross yield is the rental income expressed as a percentage of the property value, the higher the yield the greater the return on the investment.
In the London borough of Kensington the average rent is £1,732 per month and the average cost of a house is £1,103,645, which provides a ‘Buy to Let’ gross yield of 1.8%.
In Central Manchester the average rent is £1,230 per month and the average cost of housing at £177,546 gives a ‘Buy to Let’ yield of 8.3% – a full 6.5 percentage points higher than Kensington.
With figures like that it is no wonder investors are queuing up to put their money into Manchester. The Telegraph reporting on the issue said “Manchester has been revealed as a hotspot for build-to-rent construction, nearly eclipsing London.”
Silver reports that there are currently 10,000 Build To Rent apartments on site in GM (mainly in Manchester and Salford) with tens of thousands more Private Rented Sector flats planned in the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. Greater Manchester Combined Authority have also estimated that 250,000 people could be housed in apartments built in the area between Salford Quays and Manchester City Stadium in the future, according to Silver.
International investment and offshore companies
Investigating where the money was coming from to fuel the Buy to Let boom in GM, Silver found that around 50% had international investment involved. The majority of this finance was channeled through offshore tax havens (which allow companies to avoid paying tax in the UK) such as Jersey and the British Virgin Islands. He then mapped the location of offshore financed urban development sites in Manchester and Salford (see map below). Silver said:
“What I have done here is map what has currently received planning permission, I can tell you there are huge second, third, fourth wave of more of these big build to rent schemes in the pipeline.”
Private Eye created a searchable online map in 2015 showing properties in England and Wales owned by offshore companies in which they state, “most are held in this way for tax avoidance and often to conceal dubious wealth”. Using this data Private Eye created a series of articles exposing money launderers, arms dealers and oligarchs using these offshore companies.
Delving deeper into the strata of financial transactions and offshore holding companies, Silver says “I found it quite frightening how many layers there are”. His findings unearthed some very unpleasant connections between the development companies involved, MCC and the ultimate sources of the money – linked to human rights abuse and environmental destruction.
St Michael’s Development
Gary Neville’s St Michael’s development, currently going through a second submission process due to widespread criticism of the first proposal, is one of the proposed sites that is being legally financed by wealth obtained at the expense of the environment.
Peter Lim made his money through a company based in Singapore called Wilmar International which owns vast swathes of land across Indonesia producing palm oil. In 2008 Wilmar were forced to admit that they were involved in illegal land clearing for palm oil production. Clearing of rainforest in Indonesia for palm oil production is responsible for the loss of natural habitat endangering already critically endangered species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.
Lim sold Wilmar for £1.5 billion in 2010. Through Lim’s real estate company Rowsley Ltd he is now investing £40 million into St Michael’s. Along with environmental destruction Wilmar are also implicated in human rights abuses by using child labour on their palm oil plantations. Manchester City Council will also benefit financially if St Michael’s is given the go ahead due to owning buildings which will be demolished to make way for it.
Abu Dhabi, Loom Holdings and Manchester Life
Manchester Life is a UK registered company currently developing up to 10,000 housing units in Manchester. It is a joint venture between MCC and Loom Holdings, an offshore company based in Jersey which is owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG). The ADUG is a United Arab Emirates (UAE) private equity company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the deputy prime minister of The UAE and also the son of the ruling Emir. He is also well known locally as the owner of Manchester City Football Club. According to Human Rights Watch the UAE has a terrible human rights record:
“The government arbitrarily detains, and in some cases forcibly disappears, individuals who criticised the authorities, and its security forces face allegations of torturing detainees… Authorities denied access to the country to activists who criticized the UAE’s mistreatment of migrant workers. Labour abuses persist, as migrant construction workers facing serious exploitation. Female domestic workers are excluded from regulations that apply to workers in other sectors.”
Amnesty International held a protest in March this year, outside Manchester Town Hall in support of an award winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansour who had been disappeared by the UAE authorities on trumped up charges. Amnesty called on MCC to use its close commercial relationships with UAE royalty and speak out on behalf of Mansour. Refusing to speak up for Mansour a MCC spokesperson said in Big Issue North:
“While we are very much an international city, our position is that ultimately alleged internal issues within the country of origin of private investors are beyond the remit of Manchester City Council.”
But the questionable conduct of MCC doesn’t end there. Silver used the example of the Murrays Mill development where 124 apartments are being built by Manchester Life. The land this development is being built on was owned by the council, who transferred ownership of the land to offshore Loom Holdings.
You may be asking yourself who benefits from public land being transferred to private offshore companies, is this a good deal for the citizens of Manchester? These are the questions Silver asked of MCC through Freedom Of Information requests, he says:
“The assumption is that MCC are going to get 50% of the profit out of 10,000 housing units, but they refuse to answer that…I have been denied time and time again… I would say it’s a public right to find out about this deal to see what the council are getting out of it.”
In another deal where Manchester Life transferred public land offshore via Loom Holdings, an offshore company called Silk Glass Developments was established. This company owns the land that Manchester Life is building the Cotton Field Wharf development on, which contains 302 apartments. This development received a £22.5 million loan from the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Housing Fund, which was set up as part of the devolution deal for GM and originally consisted of £300 million.
Andy Burnham in his campaign to become mayor repeatedly pledged that he would repurpose this rolling fund to build social housing. Currently there is no affordable housing let alone social housing allocated for this development. A spokesperson from GMHA said:
“The lack of transparency is appalling. The council needs to show how any of this is in the interests of the people they were elected to represent. There are many questions to be answered, and MCC can be sure that will be asked with increasing frequency as Mancunians wake up to what is going on. Public assets, public money and indeed the whole political economy of the region are at stake.”
All part of the plan?
Andy Burnham’s vision of more social housing seems to clash with MCC’s. When Howard Bernstein (ex MCC chief executive), and Gary Neville travelled to the MIPIM 2017 property and development fair in Cannes to promote global investment in Manchester, they were not promoting investment in the social housing needed to alleviate the housing crisis. Silver thinks that the city council’s strategy of focussing on building for the private rented sector is a deliberate one, saying:
“This is the model Manchester City Council want. They don’t want social housing or public housing, they don’t even want housing for people to buy even if they could afford it.”
Social rented housing, what used to be council housing, is usually regarded as being at around 60% of the market rate. Affordable rented housing is designated as being 80% of the market rate, and MCC have a guideline of asking for 25% of new homes in private developments be built as affordable housing when negotiating Section 106 (S106) agreements. But the viability clause allows developers to wriggle out of their S106 obligations by predicting they will not make enough profit, often with highly inflated estimates of the costs involved.
The S106 Annual Monitoring Report 2015/16 for Manchester states that S106 agreements are ”the key route for securing affordable housing through the planning system”. But of the 121 live S106 agreements listed, only 5 mention affordable housing as part of the agreement, and only one of these actually puts a figure on the number of homes to be built, at 88 units.
Silver reported that in his investigations he had only come across social housing being mentioned once. That was in documents relating to the Spinningfields development where there was an obligation by the development company to provide money for social housing at another site. A spokesperson from GMHA said:
“What the city needs more than anything is affordable homes for existing residents, including the tens of thousands waiting for social housing. We do not need more luxury flats for high earners, whose existence – in the numbers required to fill them at the rate the properties are going up – is in some considerable doubt.”
Angel Meadows is another large scale Private Rented Sector development, on three public land sites with 600+ apartments, that has issues regarding S106 agreements. It will also directly affect the well being of the homeless people of Manchester. The main development partners for Angel Meadows are Manchester Place (collaboration between MCC and central government) and NOMA (Co-operative Group and Hermes Investment Management). The partners have awarded responsibility for the development to Far East Consortium International Ltd (FECI), which is registered offshore in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Hong Kong.
Lifeshare are a charity whose Facebook page states “we work to prevent and break the cycle of homelessness, reduce harm and promote health”. They have a kitchen that distributes food to the homeless, that is threatened with closure due to the FECI development. As a key local service a S106 agreement could provide money for a replacement kitchen, but as yet no S106 agreement for a kitchen or affordable housing has been made.
The devastating effects that property development driven by the profit motive rather than the need for people to have a safe, secure and affordable (for them) home can have on people and communities, was demonstrated in a report presented by Dr Kate Hardy (University of Leeds) and Dr Tom Gillespie (University of Sheffield). The report called ‘Homelessness, health and housing’ shines a light on appalling temporary housing conditions homeless people have to endure often outside their home town. The report will be elaborated on in a following article.
It is obvious that the Buy to Rent boom in Greater Manchester is not providing homes for those most in need. The ever increasing numbers of homeless people in temporary, expensive, substandard, and unhealthy accommodation will not be housed in these apartments being built at market rent. They are also beyond the reach of most individuals and families on low wages in GM.
The use of offshore companies in these property deals is clearly for tax avoidance purposes – tax which, if collected within the UK, could fund house building. The connections to human rights abuses and environmental destruction are probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the morally dubious nature of the money involved in these offshore schemes. The London property market has been described as the “world’s laundromat”, due to the amount of criminal cash invested/laundered there, it looks like Manchester is becoming the second UK venue in this corrupt launderette chain.
Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) website – click here
GMHA Facebook page – click here
GMHA twitter: @gmhousingaction
‘Homelessness, health and housing’ report PDF – click here
Featured image, Leftbank Apartments, Spinningfields, via Wikipedia Commons