Mansion tax raises concerns as property bosses attend Tory fundraiser

David Cameron and Kris Hopkins talk to homebuyers (by Number 10/Flickr)

On February 5 Tory and Labour MPs complained in the Commons that London’s housing market  was “being turned into a Klondike for wealthy foreigners” with “less than 10% of available properties for sale … affordable to a [family] on average wages” and tenants forced to pay “extortionate rents”.

A few hours later the then housing minister sat down to dine with one of central London’s largest residential landlords and two other men whose companies operate in the top end of the London property market. 

According to a seating plan for the Tory annual winter fundraiser, which has been analysed by the Bureau, they were amongst 50 attendees with links to the property industry, representing almost 10% of the total guests listed on the seating plan.

Two wealthy property tycoons and one of London’s biggest hereditary landowners are listed on the same table as David and Samantha Cameron.

The number of people at the dinner with interests in the property sector was significantly more than at a previous fundraiser held in summer 2013, a guestlist for which has also been analysed by the Bureau.

The large turn-out for the February “black and white party” follows calls by a Tory MP for a sector-wide show of support for the Conservatives to ensure Labour is defeated at the next general election, along with its proposals for a mansion tax and new restrictions on builders hoarding land.

Many of those invited to the fundraiser were connected to the residential property sector in London and the South East, where the mansion tax would hit hardest.

Party political events like the February party are exempt from ministerial disclosure rules.

As the Bureau’s investigation into the Conservative’s 2013 summer party revealed, the events provide an unrivalled opportunity for lobbyists and business people to meet the PM and Cabinet members in a convivial setting away from public gaze.

Major London landlord on Hopkins’ table

At the black and white party then then housing minister Kris Hopkins  – who has since lost the housing brief but remains in charge of tackling homelessness – was seated at a table hosted by Bruce Ritchie, CEO and founder of the Residential Land Group, which owns more than 1,200 rented properties in prime locations in central London. 

Ritchie has called for less government intervention in the residential property sector, telling a Savills-sponsored debate in March: “We need to see less brainwaves from government that scare people away from investment into residential. When you are looking to stimulate the building of more homes, you need less intervention.”

Deserted mansion, Bishops Avenue London, by David Jones/Flickr
Deserted mansion, Bishops Avenue London, by David Jones/Flickr

And he has spoken out against government proposals – announced last December and consulted on over the summer – to start charging capital gains tax on the sale of residential property owned by foreigners from 2015.

He is also a member of the residential committee of industry advocacy body the British Property Federation, which credits itself with influencing the Liberal Democrats’ move away from a mansion tax in favour of new council tax bands.

Together Ritchie, his wife and Residential Land donated £111,600 to the Conservatives in 2013 – more than twice the previous year’s figure.

Mr Ritchie did not confirm or comment on his attendance at the party despite repeated requests.

At the same table was Paul Munford. His firm arranges mortgages for wealthy foreign individuals wanting to buy high value residential properties in London.

Another guest at the housing minister’s table was former Dragon’s Den entrepreneur James Caan, whose property company is in a joint venture with a Malaysian investor.

The venture, Prime London Holdings is based in Jersey and owned by a separate company registered in the British Virgin Islands. It invests in “trophy assets” in the capital – most recently a £45 million Knightsbridge home – which are sold on after development.

The general counsel for Caan’s company, Hamilton Bradshaw, said: “No policy issues were discussed with Mr Hopkins.”

Hamilton Bradshaw is involved in a number of sectors but predominantly recruitment, he added.

Camerons seated with property billionaires

Two of the richest property tycoons and a major hereditary landowner were seated with the Camerons on February 5, according to the table plan. They were:

*Simon Reuben, whose firm is developing the old Mayfair “In and Out Club” into a grand home;

*Lord Chelsea, chairman and heir to the Cadogan Estate, which owns more than 90 acres of Chelsea and Knightsbridge; and

*Irish property developer Aidan Brooks, whose company bought 53,000 sq ft of Oxford Street shops and apartments last year.

While the Reuben brothers have been major Conservative supporters for years, Brooks first appears in the Electoral Commission records around the time of the black and white party, gifting £10,000. He may have donated before this, but if so any gift was of insufficient size to trigger an Electoral Commission disclosure.

Lord Chelsea and Reuben were asked to confirm their attendance. Both declined to comment. Brooks confirmed his attendance but declined to say whether he sat with the Camerons.

Turnout followed call by anti-mansion tax lobbyist for show of support

A notable attendee at the ball was an estate agent who operates in the capital’s most exclusive enclaves and recently marketed, at £22m, the country’s most expensive ever new build home.

Trevor Abrahmsohn is co-ordinating a lobbying effort by a group of wealthy individuals against the mansion tax.

Members at the group’s first meeting last November were urged to donate to the Conservatives if they wanted to stop the tax.

Abrahmsohn’s firm, Glentree Estates, donated £12,500 to the Party in 2013. A £3,000 donation in the form of sponsorship is listed in 2006.

He said: “There happens to be a coincidence of interests here. This is a foolish tax that will damage this country. As it happens the Conservative party is very much against this tax. The coincidence of interests is what it is all about. I have never supported a political party in the past. I’ve never been to a political conference. I see damage to the economy and I’m speaking out”.

In the past two years property companies donating for the first time have contributed more than £800,000 to Tory coffers. In addition some long-term supporters from the property sector have increased their donations.

Sol and Eddie Zackay, billionaire owners of Topland Group, which recently announced its involvement in a £200m scheme to develop residential property in central and greater London, took a table for 10 at the party, inviting Topland colleagues and other property executives.

Acccording to Electoral Commission records, Topland started donating to the Tories in summer 2011 and has given £50,000 in total.

Topland was sued by the Ministry of Justice two years ago for alleged bribery and fraud. It settled the £22 million case for an undisclosed sum without admission of liability.

A Topland spokesman said the company had not started donating in response to the mansion tax. It had started donating before the tax became an issue, he said, adding that the levy had not been discussed at the February party.

“We are  supporters of the Conservatives because of everything that they stand for in terms of business as opposed to Labour.” While Topland “would obviously support that anti-mansion tax campaign”, residential property was not a big part of the company’s business, which was focused on commercial real estate, the spokesman said.

Also on the seating plan was a landlord who until 2013 had been disqualified from acting as a director.

Related story: Lobbyists and PRs mix with David Cameron, Philip Hammond and Teresa May

Energy minister hosts energy tycoon and lobbyist

A millionaire with interests in oil, gas and renewable energy hosted the then energy minister Michael Fallon and two MPs at his table at the February event.

Alexander Temerko is the Russian-born director of Tyneside-based firm Offshore Group Newcastle (OGN), which specialises in building components for offshore wind, gas and oil platforms.

As the Bureau has previously revealed, he was a guest at the Tories’ 2013 summer ball, where he bought a bronze bust of David Cameron worth £12,000 for £90,000 at an auction.

He is also a member of the Conservative’s “leader’s group”: a set of major donors who contribute at least £50,000 to the party entitling them to regular meals with David Cameron and key members of his government.

At the black and white party, Mr Fallon was, according to the table plan, seated with four OGN Group directors as well as Mr Temerko, including an executive from Aquind, an OGN company specialising in wind farm technology.

According to Electoral Commission records Mr Temerko and the firm have given at least £537,655 to the Conservative party since they began donating in February 2012.

There is no suggestion that there was any attempt by either Mr Temerko or OGN or its representatives to influence policy in relation to wind farms. In addition, OGN’s expertise is, according to the company, in the oil and gas industry.  Renewable energy, it is claimed, only comprises a very small share of OGN’s business.

The Conservatives have been in favour of offshore wind farms since prior to the last election – well before 2012, when OGN started donating to the party.

Mr Temerko and OGN hit the headlines last year when newspapers raised concerns over their donations to the Tories following the Business Department’s award, in 2012, of a £4.5m grant to the firm to build components for wind turbines. Both parties deny any relationship between the donations and the grant.

Related story: Election 2015 – Which parties have the most cash in Britain’s battleground seats?

An analysis of Mr Temerko’s and OGN’s political donations by the Bureau shows cash has been frequently targeted at Conservative candidates and constituencies near to major offshore wind development zones.

In total OGN and Mr Temerko have made 15 separate donations to individual constituencies.

The majority (nine) of these gifts have been received by just five constituencies. These are all near to the largest of the wind farm development zones.

One MP who received a donation – James Wharton – was a guest at the OGN table on February 5. Mr Temerko also donated to Alun Cairn’s constituency. Mr Cairns was also on the guest list as being seated with OGN.

Mr Cairns, Mr Fallon and Mr Wharton did not respond to requests for comment on their attendance; however a different source confirmed all three were seated at the OGN table. Mr Fallon and Mr Wharton were photographed outside the venue.

“Any allegation that there was any attempt by either Mr Temerko or OGN or its representatives to influence policy in relation to wind farms is false,” said an OGN spokesman.