FIVE years ago David Cameron spent a rainy summer weekend on Jura.

The then prime minister sheltered from torrential downpours in a cottage belonging to his wife Samantha’s millionaire stepfather.

At least that is what newspaper reports said. In fact, the whitewashed lodge where the Camerons and their three children hid from the weather was part of a 20,000-acre estate formally owned by a firm registered in the Bahamas.

The Scottish Government on Wednesday announced detailed proposals to try to expose the true owners of land - rather than untraceable firms at PO Boxes in the Caribbean or Channel Islands.

In a statement, the government said it wanted to create a register which, if agreed, would “reveal for the first time the controlling interests of land owned by trusts and overseas companies”.

Land reform minister Roseanna Cunningham added: “It’s no longer acceptable for the identity of people making decisions about land in Scotland to be obscured. Our proposals go further than any existing UK legislation. We’re putting Scotland at the forefront of this policy in Europe.”

Scotland’s currently opaque property registry - title searches are expensive and often end with a secretive tax haven address - means it is far from clear how much of the country is owned offshore.

The Sunday Post earlier this year said some £2.9 billion worth of land was held by 776 companies registered in 22 secrecy jurisdictions.

The BBC this year checked the land registry of England and Wales and found nearly 100,000 properties registered offshore, a quarter of them in the British Virgin Islands.

Land campaigner Andy Wightman - who exposed the offshore ownership of the Camerons’ holiday home on Jura - reckons 750,000 acres of Scotland is owned in tax havens. Foreign investors have been buying up prime Edinburgh real estate, including property close to Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence, Bute House.

HeraldScotland: The National Trust for Scotland owns Bute House

Bute House

Rachel Davies Teka of Transparency International said: “Anonymous ownership of property is a key method used by corrupt individuals to hide their identities and launder illicit funds.

“Our research has found £4.4 billion of property bought with suspicious wealth across the UK with much of this facilitated by the use of anonymous companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions.

She added: “This is a positive step by the Scottish Government who are leading the way to open up who really owns land.

“This will also act as a deterrent to those seeking to launder money through Scottish property.”

Transparency want England and Wales to follow suit.

Mr Wightman also welcomed the move but struck a note of caution after his 20-year-battle for transparency. He said: “This new Register will be helpful but it will not be definitive as it relies on self-declaration and will be impossible to verify the true owners based in offshore secrecy jurisdictions.”

HeraldScotland: Roseanna Cunningham

Roseanna Cunningham

Ms Cunningham said access to the register would be free. Mr Wightman warned that information to which beneficial ownership details would relate to would still be behind a paywall.

Scotland’s ‘big land’ lobby said it was supportive of transparency moves. Sarah-Jane Laing, executive director of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “We fully appreciate that transparency and visibility of ownership is an area where improvement is required and we led the way in publishing our Landowners’ Commitment in 2014 which urged landowners to be open and visible. “ She said her body would review regulations to ensure they are “both proportionate and workable”

However, the SNP still faces robust opposition on wider reform from vested interests. These include those of Mrs Cameron’s stepfather, Viscount Astor, whose family has effectively owned the Jura estate for nearly century and who has described the beneficial owners of the property as his children.

The hereditary peer, whose full name is William Waldorf Astor III, in 2015 accused the SNP of threatening “Mugabe-style land grabs” on landowners. That, said a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon, was “pretty preposterous”.

Analysis from Malcom Combe, Law Lecturer, Aberdeen University

"Land registration is not new to Scotland. The current Land Register was introduced in 1979, and prior to that there was a system of deeds registration that went back to the 17th century.

"What is happening now – in line with what was provided for in 2016 Land Reform Act -  is to have a register of who controls a relevant entity that owns land, much like letting agent registration has emerged in the private rented sector.


Malcolm Combe

"The hope is that this will increase accountability of owners, or at the very least open up channels of communication, which would otherwise have been tricky in situations where, say, the only details of a landowner was an overseas registered office.

"Interestingly, the draft regulations set out that knowingly or recklessly failing to comply with the information duties that will be associated with the new register will be a criminal offence.

The maximum penalty for those offences is a fine not exceeding £5,000, although the stigma of an offence is perhaps the greater penalty. There will be some tricky issues to navigate though, such as how to operate the rules for local trusts or clubs."