Why is London filling up with the very very rich?

Foreign investors flooding in.

The allure of the UK to overseas buyers has been apparent for some time and certainly long before we had a home-grown Wimbledon champion, victorious rugby and cricket teams, the birth of a Royal baby and what seems like endless blue skies and hot sunshine!

Indeed, much has been made of the influx of high net worth non-UK nationals to London and its impact on London’s buoyant prime residential property market. Undeterred in most cases by the recent hike in stamp duty land tax rates imposed upon houses priced at more than £2m, statistics show that foreign investors (and especially those who are victims of the worldwide economic turmoil, euro crisis and rising wealth taxes in their home countries) continue to look to London.

It is understood that between 45 and 65 per cent of London’s most desirable areas are owned by high net worth individuals from abroad. But, what is it that makes UK, and in particular, London, so desirable?

Recent commentary suggests that one explanation for the movement of foreign investment into the UK is that beneficial exchange rates are effectively giving those buying into London huge purchasing power, with some currencies having appreciated as much as 45 per cent against sterling over the past five years. 

Overseas buyers can, therefore, enjoy a healthy discount on their property investment as a direct result of the depreciation of sterling – the deals often made even sweeter by the UK’s low interest rates.

However, experience shows that, while these economic factors are no doubt influential, there are a number of other drivers of market demand such as the UK’s stable legal system as well as its status as an unlikely low tax jurisdiction.

Indeed, the UK has an established history of political and social stability, coupled with a sophisticated legal system, and comprehensive (if occasionally unwieldy) tax code. It boasts a comprehensive network of bilateral tax treaties: principally in respect of income tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax but also inheritance tax. 

In particular, the tax regime is highly beneficial for individuals who become resident in the UK without also becoming "domiciled" here – provided they structure their affairs appropriately.

Furthermore, it is relatively simple for international UHNWs to come to the UK. As a member state of the European Union, EU citizens of course benefit from the fundamental freedom of free movement. However, for non-EU/EEA nationals, it is possible to obtain an "investor visa" by making a £1m, £5m, or £10m investment in specified "permitted investments" in the UK (with a view to obtaining settlement in the UK within 2-5 years). Surely a relatively inexpensive gateway to the UK?

The UK investment opportunities generated by strong currencies may be relatively short-lived. Much the same might be said for this glorious weather. However, London has long been regarded as a key international business centre, a safe political haven, extremely strong in its professional services offering and a centre of educational excellence. It is perhaps, therefore, not so difficult to see why, all things considered, London really is the capital city of choice for the internationally mobile UNHWs.

Lydia Essa works for private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP.

This piece first appeared on Spear's.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.