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Property chief argues no room for empty shop tax

This week's vote in the Scottish Parliament to squeeze an extra £18 million in tax from owners of empty shops and commercial premises comes in the teeth of a powerful campaign by the hard-pressed property industry.

CONCERNed: David Peck, chief executive of Buccleuch Property and outgoing chair of the Scottish Property Federation. Picture: Gordon Terris
CONCERNed: David Peck, chief executive of Buccleuch Property and outgoing chair of the Scottish Property Federation. Picture: Gordon Terris

For David Peck, the outgoing chairman of the Scottish Property Federation (SPF), the outcome is a bitter blow, but hardly a surprise.

"We are told there is a gap to plug in the finances, they need to raise £18m, and this is where they are going to raise it from. They have very limited levers to pull and however much logic you throw at them you find 'the computer says no'."

The Scottish Government says the tax is part of its proposals "to support town centres". But the SPF argued it was just another obstacle to reviving town centres, Mr Peck says.

He adds: "We are told it will encourage landlords to let empty property – if they seriously do not think that every landlord in the land is not trying his absolute darndest to let property, they are being very disingenuous. The reality goes back to the first point, they just need the money."

Mr Peck is chief executive of Buccleuch Property, an arm of the Buccleuch Estates, but a mid-sized property company in its own right with a portfolio of UK assets worth around £150m.

In his one-year term at the SPF he has spoken out regularly on the industry's political agenda, notably the empty shops tax, which he says has had "a disastrous impact in England".

He says: "It makes it even more difficult to invest in the high street. The additional liability can put investors in danger in terms of their covenants, and could tip property companies into receivership. This has happened."

Mr Peck says the SPF, formed only five years ago, is now lobbying on around 50 legislative issues. He says Scottish industry groups are fortunate in having ready access to politicians, and Local Government Minister Derek Mackay is "someone we feel we can do business with", but he notes the SPF has to be active on a wide frontier "at a time when the industry is fighting for survival".

This week also saw the close of consultation on Holyrood's proposed land and buildings transaction tax to replace the current stamp duty land tax from April 2015. The industry fears it may mean higher rates, to offset lower transaction volumes and replenish lost block grant.

Mr Peck says: "We are concerned that there is negative sentiment starting to impact on the willingness or desire of investors to come north of the Border. It is something we are beginning to detect from the larger property companies and institutions." One factor, he says, is the need for "a more detailed debate about what independence means".

But he says regardless of the referendum, there is opportunity. He adds: "We would like to see people being braver. Stamp duty is one area where there would be a real opportunity to look at what happens when you radically reduce tax and see if that would attract additional investment north of the Border, and people's willingness to start doing more development ."

Mr Peck is a chartered surveyor who trained in London with Drivers Jonas, worked for Taylor Woodrow, and moved to Scotland 18 years ago to work for Iain Wotherspoon's Kilmartin group before being recruited nine years ago by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry.

The property business helps support the four Buccleuch estates across southern Scotland, providing surplus cash to underpin the duke's empire.

It is an important player in Scotland, taking on assets such as the Aberdeen Science Parks from Scottish Enterprise, and using some of its own substantial landholdings, such as those at Dalkeith where it developed the Shawfair headquarters of the SQA.

It specialises in prime residential real estate in central London, and in the boom years it dabbled in international property, from Sydney to Moscow to Dallas.

But in 2008, when the crunch hit, Buccleuch Property ran up losses of £18m on turnover of £65m. Last year it turned a £5.6m loss into a £700,000 profit, though impairments knocked another £4.7m off the balance sheet.

It re-focused on commercial property and tourism, moved into biomass energy, and ended direct management of 2500 acres of farmland, returning it to tenant farmers.

Mr Peck said: "I think our perception is we have got everything consolidated and well under control now. The primary issue in our portfolio has been diminution of value. We have been able to sustain cash flow from rental income very well, and from site sales and some quite interesting development activities, which have been secured through achieving pre-lets."

Buccleuch, he says, has suffered impairment of 20% to 25% against industry-wide levels of 40% to 45%. "That's partly because we have always valued conservatively and partly because we have managed our way through the recession well – we are a hands-on team."

In Aberdeen, for instance, Buccleuch took "a slightly unloved public sector-owned asset and applied some asset management and development skills" to create the re-branded science and energy park, hiking occupancy from 65% to 80%.

While Aberdeen and London remain buoyant, "everything else in between is exceedingly difficult and highly opportunistic", Mr Peck says. "We have got to look around the whole of the country to find situations where there is genuine opportunity to create value."

In July the business reduced its stake in its central London joint venture Native Land from 50% to 10% by selling to a Qatari investor. The new venture is targeting £500m of investment over the next two years, giving Buccleuch as well as the Qataris plenty of opportunity to take equity in individual deals.

Mr Peck explains: "Part of the challenge we have had is the scale of these sorts of deals and because of the way the banking market has moved." But he adds: "We have a very good relationship with our banks, not least RBS, our core banker."

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