Gibraltar: UK Tax Refugees Stoke Offshore Property Prices

In several columns over recent months, I have highlighted the different forces at work driving the Gibraltar and Spanish residential property markets. We all know that prices in Spain – particularly the Costa del Sol – have plummeted as a result of the global financial crisis. It is also clear that prices here in Gibraltar whilst not perhaps rising are at least holding steady in most cases. This month, I take a look at one of the reasons why this might be so – using as the basis for my thoughts a survey that has just been conducted by The Sovereign Group.

The survey's main conclusion was that most offshore tax jurisdictions within easy reach of Britain are bucking the European property market slump as wealthy Britons prepare for an exodus from harsh UK tax rises.

In particular, property values in Gibraltar and Monte Carlo, two of the most prominent European destinations for "ex-pat" money, are holding firm or increasing while prices around them on the Costa del Sol and Cote d'Azur have plunged by up to 50%. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Geneva are also enjoying trend-bucking strength in their housing markets.

"The facts speak for themselves here," said Howard Bilton, Chairman of The Sovereign Group when the results of the survey were published. "Property prices in the south of France and southern Spain are languishing in the worst slump they've seen in many years but on their outskirts are two smaller jurisdictions - Gibraltar and Monaco - where the market is extraordinarily resilient."

So why might this be? One answer can be found by considering the forthcoming tax hikes already announced by the UK government. These will start to take effect from next year and will mean that anyone earning over £150,000 will be paying income tax at the rate of 50%. Add to that the cost of National Insurance and other taxes and the percentage starts to look frightening. Remember also that VAT in the UK will be increased back to 17½% in December following the temporary reduction to 15% this year aimed at stimulating demand.

I have spoken to a number of UK based advisory firms – concentrating on those involved in relocation. They tell me that many wealthy UK-based individuals are actively considering a move overseas to escape what they expect to be increasingly harsh tax rises in the coming years. Very often, these individuals are not ready (or willing) to retire; and where entrepreneurs go, business will surely follow. Is it any wonder that the offshore locations are benefitting from healthy property markets? On the other side of the coin, it is a very sorry situation for the UK and for those taxpayers who aren't able to go offshore.

This might all sound like a return to the 1960s when many famous British actors, musicians, writers and artists went into tax exile – often to Switzerland. In those days, currency controls and limited communications made it far more difficult to relocate, both personally and for a business. Today we live in the broadband age, when voting with your feet where tax is concerned is a viable option for many. Increasing globalisation means that everyone has to compete these days - tax authorities should not be any different.

So let's accept that there are (potentially) many more British residents looking to re-locate. What might attract them to a particular jurisdiction? It's a well-rehearsed argument perhaps but the classic ingredients are still important. These include lifestyle (whatever that means to an individual), reasonable living costs, good communications and infrastructure and, of course, a benign tax environment. Gibraltar has all these things, particularly where the "high net worth individual" is concerned. Moreover – and this must not be overlooked – we have the language. Not only can British people speak their mother tongue, but the "system", whether it be buying property, dealing with lawyers or the bank, is very familiar. There isn't even an exchange rate risk.

In addition to all these positive reasons to consider Gibraltar, several major new residential property developments have recently been completed. Developers say they have been finished "in the nick of time" to satisfy a wave of new residents and this is set against a backdrop of prices on the neighbouring Costa del Sol continuing to plummet by record levels. Justin Bray of Bray Properties told me "recently we have noted a marked increase in interest for Gibraltar properties and a greater proportion of these enquiries are leading to actual sales, allowing us to be even more confident for the future." Good news for all of us I hope.

To give some balance, the situation is similar in Monaco (which, significantly, now boasts 100% broadband coverage). For instance, there have been reports that property prices have risen by as much as 30% – the same amount that even the most optimistic observer would acknowledge they have fallen in neighbouring Provence. One leading Monte Carlo estate agent said in a recent report that Monaco's "tax haven status ensures the market remains buoyant and prices stable so investment in Monaco property continues to be attractive."

In Geneva, housing demand hit a new peak when the apartment vacancy rate fell to between 0.25% and 0.5% last year and it will continue to hold firm this year, according to "Swiss Issues Real Estate 2009," a report on Swiss housing published by bank Credit Suisse earlier this year. Extensive research on the residential market in Geneva, recently published, concludes that the Geneva market is expected to plateau, but not decrease during 2009.

Closer to Britain, and concentrating on the English speaking islands, a few dozen miles from the English South Coast's languishing property market, Jersey's property prices have risen 7% in the past year and the worst scenario to which homeowners and investors in Jersey might look forward in the coming months would be a period of "stabilising" house values.

A stone's throw away from Jersey, residential property prices in Guernsey were mixed, with small apartments falling in value by up to 17%, according to the island's Policy Council. However, at the same time the price of houses – representing 60% of residential property sales – were up a fraction at 0.1%. Again, it is obvious that the buoyancy at the wealthier end of the market comes from a steady stream of new interest from the UK mainland. The most prominent new arrival is Guy Hands, head of the Terra Firma private equity group with a fortune estimated at £200m, who moved to the island in May.

In the Isle of Man, property prices last year increased by 4% and this year are "holding steady" according to the leading commentator on Manx property trends.

All this should be positive for the smaller jurisdictions I have looked at above. As a Jerseyman who has made his home in Gibraltar, I am of course hugely biased. True Gibraltar is two hours from the UK as opposed to Jersey's 30 minutes. But come on! Who can resist the attractions of living here or at least in this region? Great people, the weather, culture, cuisine, not being an island, Spain and Morocco on our doorstep – and you can still get a pint of warm beer if you really want to. Many of us who have made the move here years ago are already convinced. It is pleasing to see positive stories appearing in the international press. Let's do all we can to encourage more people to visit Gibraltar and hopefully more of them will want to stay – to the benefit of us all.

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