Tax havens remain upbeat
Islands are unfazed by British government's plan to tighten rules, writes Peta Tomlinson
Where do the wealthy go when the taxman demands too much? The British Isles is one choice. Positioning themselves as fully-fledged tax havens, the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, such as Jersey and Guernsey - all self-governing jurisdictions of the British Crown - have benefited from the flood of British companies and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) who fled offshore in more buoyant times to a friendlier fiscal environment.
But are the days of wine and (low tax) roses numbered? And if so, what will this mean for the islands' property markets?
It's been reported that the British government has a mind to rein in offshore taxes in its Crown dependencies. Radical plans to force the tax havens to reveal the names behind hidden companies, account holders and trusts have been drawn up by the Treasury. The reports say the new rules could come into force as early as next year.
Nick Cooper, residential director at Black Grace Cowley, an Isle of Man property agency, isn't fazed.
"While it is impossible to cover all bases on such changes in legislation, we feel confident that the island can stand on its own feet very well. In fact, that is the motto of the three legs of man [the Isle of Man's symbol]. Whichever way you throw it, it will stand," he says.
"The island has too many good facets to be unduly affected by Britain trying to plug a perceived financial hole that actually generates wealth for Britain, not costs income, but that is a whole new topic."
Housing prices on the Isle of Man jumped by 300 per cent in the decade to 2007, as the population swelled by about
12 per cent. Many of these new residents were indeed HNWIs drawn to the favourable tax environment, but the island's high quality of life also appeals. And despite "a significant number of new homes" being built during the period, the island still has a housing shortage, Cooper says. The post-2007 slowdown was short-lived, with prices now back at their peak.
"This backs up our theory that the Isle of Man stagnates rather than falls significantly, as we are now five years further on with no further changes in price evident," Cooper says.
"There are several key influencing factors: the general take-home salary is higher than that of Britain, so individuals
can afford to continue their lifestyle even in a recession. Secondly, as the island is so small, there are few necessity sales as long as the individual proposes to stay on the island. The third reason is that HNWIs generally have many properties in a number of jurisdictions and, therefore, will ride out any slowdown in the market by living elsewhere and sitting on their island asset."
Cooper says the Isle of Man is a favourable destination for overseas property investors who view it as "a very safe haven for cash in a troubled world".
"We anticipate further inward movement, as HNWIs and general workers alike wish to disentangle themselves from what appears to be a free-
falling UK market, decaying infrastructure and a downward-spiralling standard of living,"
he says. "The Isle of Man is
30 minutes away by plane, but light years away in terms of safety, lifestyle and public spirit."
Michael Dean, associate at Savills in Jersey, agrees that buyers will not be deterred.
"Jersey attracts on average 12,000 to 15,000 new residents per annum, and I only have one buyer who is waiting to see the outcome of the British government's white paper, which is yet to be issued," he says. "In my experience, most people move to Jersey for a lifestyle choice rather than just tax. I have buyers moving here from Singapore who currently pay no tax, so if tax was the issue, they would clearly stay put."
Jersey's other attractions are its moderate climate, an unhurried lifestyle and low crime, Dean says. Property prices on Jersey climbed 250 per cent in the 10 years up to 2008, with the greatest growth being recorded from 2005 to 2008. "Since then, prices have eased by 20 per cent, but now appear to be stabilising," he says.
However, Andrew Eggleston, principal of estate agency Bell & Co on Alderney in the Channel Islands, believes the proposed tax clampdown will have an impact, especially for Guernsey, which he says relies heavily on its tax-haven status. Jersey and the Isle of Man will be less affected because their economies are more diversified, he says, whereas on Alderney, a tiny island with a population of less than 2,000, it will make no difference.
"Alderney, like the other larger Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, is a fully-fledged tax haven. We have no capital gains tax, no death duties and no VAT. Our maximum income tax is set at 20 per cent, and property rates are low," Eggleston says.
But people choose Alderney for a lifestyle that has "stayed back in time, like Britain in the 1950s or '60s", he says. "We do not always attract the out-and-out wealthy, as we don't have the infrastructure for their way of life, such as theatres, nightlife, opera and transport."
Alderney is the only Channel Island to have no purchasing restrictions, yet enjoys all the tax-haven advantages of its bigger brothers Jersey and Guernsey, Eggleston points out.
Safety is another advantage - "we just do not have crime" - and it is affordable, he says. Property prices in Alderney start at about £120,000 (HK$1.44 million), with mid-range good quality homes from about £300,000. The most expensive, at £3 million, is Fort Quesnard, a superbly refurbished fort with drawbridge built in 1853 right beside the sea, with views into France eight miles away.
Property prices in Alderney have mirrored much of England, dropping an average 20 per cent between the spring of 2008 and early 2012.
"Last year, prices remained fairly static, which showed that stability was coming back. We still remain in that situation," Eggleston says. "It remains a purchasers' market as we still need to reduce our stock before we see a rise."
What you can buy for £135,000
A three-storey house on the island of Alderney, set just out of town on a quiet, cobbled street. In need of refurbishment throughout, it has a small garden with outbuildings.
What you could buy for £15 million
The Santon, a six-bedroom mansion on the Isle of Man, complete with library, lake and aircraft hangar, set on 12.1 hectares of coastal land. The hangar is large enough to house a Global 7000 plane, which "could fly from the Isle of Man to Beijing without refuelling at close to the speed of sound".