Apple's tax ruse is astonishingly cynical

Remember when Apple was as fresh, green and wholesome as the fruit it’s named after? I don’t really either, but the most recent news — reported in today’s Times — that Apple is "pursuing the holy grail of tax avoidance" by setting up subsidiaries that are not based in any country is quite astonishingly cynical. 

According to the report, one subsidiary called Apple Operations International has no employees or offices anywhere. It’s certainly a creative solution — but when developing countries lose eight times more to tax evasion than they receive in aid ($385bn according to DFID) and the UK tax gap is estimated at £30bn, the creative minds behind the tax ruse ought to be using their skills elsewhere.

The concept of not registering in any country at all is an interesting one, and something I’ve been researching when it comes to wealthy individuals. Projects like "The World" — a globe-crossing luxury boat containing 165 private residences so that ‘home’ is wherever ‘The World’ is — loosen the ties that usually exist between an individual and a particular country (and their inland revenue.) 

Last year, 1800 Americans gave up their US citizenship. While some renounced their US citizenship for political reasons (often because they object to US foreign policy), a large proportion did so for tax reasons. The US is one of only four countries in the world (the others are the incongruous gang of North Korea, The Philippines and Eritrea) that tax their citizens regardless of where they are living. Most other countries tax individuals on the basis of residence. 

The vast majority of Americans who have expatriated have taken up a second nationality instead, but the US is also unusual in that gives citizens the option of becoming stateless ie. having no nationality at all. There are an estimated 12 million stateless people in the world — people who often face grave difficulties, including a lack of access to state welfare, education or healthcare or travel documents. But a handful of people are known to have become stateless voluntarily.

I’ve spoken to one of them, and next issue I’ll be exploring whether the rich will consider statelessness as a radical way to avoid tax.

Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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