As published on: theferret.scot, Wednesday 14 June, 2023.
Student accommodation buildings in Scottish cities collectively worth over £300m are directly owned by firms registered in offshore tax havens, an analysis by The Ferret has found.
The 27 properties – in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and Stirling – are all ultimately owned by global firms and investors through holding companies set up offshore.
Among others, the ultimate owners of the student blocks include a partnership involving the Singapore sovereign wealth fund, and Blackstone, a US investment company whose boss has links to Donald Trump.
Our findings have prompted concerns about the growing role of private firms registered in tax havens providing student accommodation.
The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland said students were at the “mercy of predatory profiteering” and claimed 12 per cent have experienced homelessness due to “exponential increases in rent”. One Scottish Greens MSP claimed some accommodation providers were “only too happy to treat students as cash cows and make them pay rip-off rates”.
The owners of the properties told The Ferret they comply with UK tax rules.
The tax haven companies were identified by a Ferret analysis of a new register, which has forced property owning companies based overseas to disclose their true owners for the first time.
The actual value and number of student halls owned by companies linked to tax havens may be higher than shown by our analysis, but it is not always possible to identify them in data from Registers of Scotland.
Properties owned by tax haven firms include nine accommodations in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen managed by Student Roost, a UK firm which has 21,000 student beds. They also include Buchanan View halls, which is close to Glasgow Caledonian University, and the University of Strathclyde. Students there pay £235 a week for a one bedroom apartment.
Buchanan View – valued at £38.9m – is purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA). The Scottish Government describes PBSA as “accommodation specifically designed, built or adapted for the purpose of housing students”, which may be located on – or off – campus, and owned or managed by a university, private or third sector provider, or some combination.
According to title deeds purchased from Registers of Scotland, the nine Student Roost properties are all directly owned by holding companies registered in Luxembourg. Student Roost was bought by a partnership involving the Singapore sovereign wealth fund and Greystar Real Estate Partners last year. Greystar pointed out it has no links to Donald Trump, but declined to comment.
Luxembourg has long been considered a tax haven and a 2021 investigation by Le Monde revealed it hosts "55,000 offshore companies managing assets worth at least €6 trillion". However, Luxembourg rejects the moniker.
A Luxembourg subsidiary of IQ Student Accommodation (IQSA) owns Parker House in Dundee, for students at Abertay University, and Elliot House in Edinburgh. IQ is ultimately owned by the US investment company, Blackstone Group – the world's largest commercial landlord.
IQ, and by extension Blackstone, owns a number of other student residences in Glasgow and Edinburgh through subsidiary companies registered in the UK. However, the holding company which owns many of these subsidiaries – IQSA Holdco Ltd – is incorporated in the tax haven of Jersey. iQ owns and operates five properties in Scotland, providing accommodation for less than 1 per cent of students in Scottish Higher Education, many of whom are international.
Blackstone has, in recent years, acquired hundreds of thousands of homes in the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America, often through subsidiaries, making it one of the largest and most powerful global players in the housing investment sector.
It is headed by CEO Stephen Schwarzman, a major donor of the US Republican party and former chair of the Trump Administration’s Strategic and Policy Forum. The New York headquarters of Blackstone Group are located in a skyscraper on Park Avenue.
Other tax haven firms owning student accommodation include Downing Students (Glasgow) Ltd which is registered in Guernsey. Downing Students runs the West Village Student Accommodation on Beith Street, Glasgow, close to Glasgow University, where rooms cost at least £175 per week.
Ellie Gomersall, NUS Scotland president said The Ferret’s investigation “makes the case for a PBSA regulator” which would set annual caps on rent through a “formula that promotes an affordable, ethical and sustainable” PBSA sector.
She added: “This eye-opening investigation reveals what’s behind the student accommodation sector – a system rotten to the core. We’ve long argued that the provision of student accommodation in Scotland is broken. Is it any wonder that students in Scotland are being priced out of education when much of the student housing stock is owned and managed by companies registered in tax havens and global private equity corporations?”
Across the country there are student accommodation providers who are only too happy to treat students as cash cows and make them pay rip-off rates.Ross Greer MSP, Scottish Greens
NUS Scotland has been lobbying the Scottish Government to introduce a student housing strategy that “addresses the dramatic increase” in the number of privately-owned rooms offered by universities, Gomersall continued. She claimed that almost 30 per cent of rooms offered by universities in 2021-22 were in the private PBSA sector.
“This impacts affordability and the obligations providers have to students for example, the public sector equality duty will not apply as it does for university-owned accommodation,” she added. “That’s why we’ve been arguing for a bespoke system of rent controls for the PBSA sector that ensures affordable rents for students.”
The Scottish Greens’ MSP Ross Greer said: “It is long past time that we cracked down on the ownership of Scottish properties from tax havens. Across the country there are student accommodation providers who are only too happy to treat students as cash cows and make them pay rip-off rates.”
A spokesperson for Student Roost said: “All of the Student Roost property owning and operating companies are subject to and compliant with their UK tax obligations and all taxes have been duly paid and are not under dispute. This includes properties and operations located in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
A Blackstone spokesperson said: “We are proud of our investments in the UK, where we have been active for over 20 years and where, through our portfolio companies, we employ over 30,000 people, and pay significant taxes.”
The Scottish Government said it had no direct role in the provision of student residential accommodation, whether that is managed by universities, colleges or private sector organisations. The PBSA Review has looked at key issues such as accessibility, affordability and standards in purpose-built student accommodation, it added and its findings will be considered by ministers.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have called for greater tax transparency and stronger action from the UK Government on avoidance and evasion, but the Scottish Government is limited in what it can do within the current devolution settlement.
“Scottish ministers support measures to ensure individuals and businesses pay the correct amount of tax. We are determined to improve accessibility, affordability and standards across the rented sector and are carrying out, with stakeholders, a review of purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), the recommendations from which are due soon.”