With a new Agriculture Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, intended to replace the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit, it’s good to see our broken system of farm subsidies is back in the news.
One significant recipient of farm subsidies is the 7th Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne Cecil. The former leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords, and descendent of Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, the current Marquess owns some 10,000 acres of land and gets over a quarter of a million pounds in farm subsidies every year. He’s ranked 352nd in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, with an estimated fortune of £330million, mostly from land and property.
But that’s not all. Because most of the Marquess of Salisbury’s extensive acres are owned offshore in Jersey. I decided to take a closer look at what the Marquess owns, and ask whether, post-Brexit, we really ought to be sending taxpayers’ money his way.
The Gascoyne Cecils have been at the heart of British politics for over 400 years, ever since Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cranborne and 1st Earl of Salisbury, served Elizabeth I and then James I as Secretary of State. His reward was an extensive estate in Hertfordshire – and the sumptuous Jacobean mansion that he subsequently built there, Hatfield House, remains the family seat to this day. It’s also “the largest private estate in Hertfordshire”, as their website puts it. And a very nice estate it is too, as I found on a recent visit – the house and gardens are open to the public and you can see some of the Marquess’ historic art collection:
The family also own the Manor of Cranborne in Dorset. Together these estates total around 10,000 acres (8,500 acres in Hertfordshire and 1,300 in Dorset, according to this obituary for the 6th Marquess; or 10,300 acres overall according to this more recent local press article).
Additionally, the Marquess owns valuable property in central London via his company Gascoyne Holdings Limited. Its website advertises ‘luxury residential properties in the West End’, and a perusal of its register of charges on Companies House shows it to have taken out mortgages and loans for various flats and offices around Charing Cross, such as Garrick Mansions and Talbot House. The family’s landholdings in the West End clearly go back a long way: a side street off Charing Cross Road is called Cecil Court, and close by is a beautiful old Victorian pub, called… the Salisbury:
So far, so very English. But then you discover most of it’s owned offshore…
In June 2015, as part of their brilliant investigation into offshore companies owning land in Britain, Private Eye revealed that the Marquess of Salisbury was at it too:
“But it’s far from just foreign arrivistes buying up tracts of England through tax haven companies. Some of the country’s most historic families use the trick, too. Among them are the Gascoyne-Cecils… The family seat, occupied by the 7th Marquess, is 400-year-old Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, which is owned directly by the family. But 2,000 nearby acres have been transferred to Jersey companies Samos Investments Ltd and Syros Investments Ltd. The family can also stretch their legs at Cranborne in Wiltshire, where they own another couple of thousand acres, mostly farmed, near the similarly dated Cranborne Manor. The manor itself is owned and occupied by the current Marquess’s heir, the Hon. Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, but the land interests have been transferred to Samos Investments Ltd and Mysia Investments Ltd (which also own some prime London property)… Exactly what is behind all this is not clear – although inheritance tax ‘efficiency’ is a fair bet”. (Eye 1394, 12th June 2015; back issues and the Tax Haven special report can be bought here)
Private Eye, with the help of data scientist Anna Powell-Smith, subsequently produced a map of offshore-owned land, using Land Registry data covering the years 2005-2014 obtained under a Freedom of Information request. In the Google Map below, I’ve extracted the land held by Mysia, Syros and Samos Investments Ltd from Private Eye’s map. I’ve also combined it with information on the Marquess of Salisbury’s land holdings taken from farm subsidy data and other sources, which I explain more about below.
There are plenty of links between the Marquess of Salisbury and these mysterious offshore companies. For example, Mysia Investments and Syros Investments own all £1.34million of the shares in Gascoyne Cecil Farms Ltd, which runs the Hatfield home farm and receives a large whack of CAP subsidy. GCPD Ltd, another of the family’s property firms, which lists the current Marquess as a director, is also owned by Mysia and Syros Investments. One of the mortgages taken out by Gascoyne Holdings Ltd in 2002 shows a loan agreement involving a private bank and Samos Investments. The connections stretch back years.
Indeed, the Gascoyne Cecils seem to have been early adopters of offshore company structures – OpenCorporates lists both Mysia and Syros Investments to have been founded in Jersey in 1974, and states that Syros Investments was previously known as Samos Investments.
Confusingly, the latest Highways Act s31.6 landowner deposit made by the Gascoyne Cecil Estates for their land at Cranborne in Dorset – a process that exists to protect against future rights of way claims – states that the land is owned by ‘Morion 1 and Morion 2 Ltd‘. (A morion is a type of 16th-century helmet, and one appears in the Salisburys’ coat of arms.) These non-trading companies were set up in 2011 and the Marquess is a Director of both. However, the Land Registry shows that this land continues to be owned by Mysia and Syros Investments, as this land title for a large parcel of land at Cranborne shows.
Common land owned offshore
The Marquess’ estate even includes a plot of common land that’s now owned offshore. King Barrow Hill at Cranborne is a small patch of registered common that’s shown on Natural England’s map of common land. It’s also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). But like the rest of Salisbury’s land, it’s owned by Mysia and Syros Investments.
A ruling by the Commons Commissioner as far back as 1980 mentioned it was owned by Mysia Investments on behalf of the Marquess. It found rights of common over it to have fallen into disuse, but that it still constituted ‘manorial waste’, so remained common land. The ruling notes that for well over a century the ancient burial mound that gives King Barrow Hill its name was used as a place for religious gatherings.
Hallowed burial site; common land; manorial waste; and now privately owned in an offshore tax haven – this small patch of heath is testimony to the whole sorry history of changes in English land ownership, from antiquity down to modernity.
Setting up offshore firms is of course perfectly legal, and there’s no allegation here of wrongdoing. But offshoring raises questions about transparency, money flows, and whether tax is being avoided. I’ve contacted the Marquess’ estates to ask why they’ve registered their land offshore, but not had a response at time of going to publication. If they respond, I’ll publish their reply.
Environmental Stewardship (ES) maps show that Gascoyne Cecil Farms receive subsidies for a large area of land close to Hatfield House. (The Land Registry land title for this area shows it to all be owned by Mysia and Syros Investments.) Meanwhile, the ‘Marquess of Salisbury’s Estates’ are the recipients of some ES payments on their Cranborne estate.
Using DEFRA’s CAP subsidy website to look up these entities, the following farm subsidies were received in 2015 and 2016:
- Marquess of Salisbury’s Estates – 2015: £129,228; 2016: £107,598.
- Gascoyne Cecil Farms – 2015: £166,797; 2016: £163,751.
- No payments appear to have been made directly to Mysia, Syros or Samos Investments.
So, that’s a 2015 total of £296,025, and a 2016 total of £271,349.
But while getting over a quarter of a million pounds in public subsidies annually isn’t to be sniffed at, that’s not the end of the story. The Marquess also has a number of tenant farms on his estate in Hertfordshire, as shown in this map below, taken from the book Hatfield House: The first 400 years:
Each of these tenant farmers will pay rent to the Estate, so any subsidies they get will likely be factored in to rental rates. The book gives more details of the tenant farmers as follows:
- Home Farm and Munns Farm are owned and run by Gascoyne Cecil Farms – farm subsidies accounted for above.
- Symonshyde Farm – Daniel MacKay – ‘D MacKay’ in Hatfield on CAP payments search: £26,369 in 2015.
- Stanboroughbury Farm – Peter Crawford – unclear whether any CAP received.
- Brewhouse Farm – David Craig and Dougal Craig – ‘T D Craig and Sons’ on ES map and CAP payments search: £52,473 in 2015.
- Coldharbour Farm – Jeremy Waddup – ‘J F P Waddup’ on CAP payments search: £37,268 in 2015.
- New Park Farm – Robert Shambrook – ‘M & R Shambrook’ on CAP payments search: £26,833 in 2015.
- Warrengate Farm – White family – appear to run B W Field & Partners, which is shown on ES maps of the area and on CAP payments search: £64,536 in 2015.
- Town Farm – no details given.
So that’s an additional £207,479 in public farm subsidies that went to the Marquess’ tenant farmers in 2015 – and presumably at least some of that got passed on in rent.
For someone so well-versed in the use of modern offshore business structures, the Marquess of Salisbury has also shown a great interest in reviving ancient manorial rights.
The 2002 Land Registration Act obliged anyone claiming manorial rights to register them by October 2013. The Marquess did so by writing to several hundred Hertfordshire residents informing them he had access to their land and asserting the sporting and mineral rights he held over them. “Homeowners should not be alarmed”, ran the Estate’s letter, but that they should consult their own solicitors if they were.
As you might imagine, this both alarmed and angered residents no end, who organised a ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ (see pic below) and demanded the Marquess drop his claims. The Land Magazine (Issue 18, summer 2015 – back issues available here) recounts that the campaigners went on to set up a website, EndManorialRights.org, that called for the final abolition of all feudal laws in the UK. Unfortunately, both group and website seem since to have folded. If anyone has any more recent information, please get in touch.
Power and politics
Indeed, the Gascoyne Cecils have a long history of defending the privileges of landowners. As Paul Foot recounts in The Vote, in the debates over working-class enfranchisement that would later produce the Second Great Reform Act of 1867, “the Tory attack was led by Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, heir to the earldom of Salisbury… ‘What are we to say to the owners of property if such a Bill is passed into law?’ he asked anxiously, for his family were the owners of huge swathes of land all over England. ‘What about the case of wealth?'”.
When that same Robert Cecil became the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and later Prime Minister – forming three administrations between 1885-6, 1886-92 and 1895-1902 – land reform had become a hot political issue. Salisbury did his best to resist it in England, though was forced to concede some measure of land reform in Ireland in an effort to stem demands for Home Rule.
His son, the 4th Marquess, was bitterly opposed to Lloyd George’s efforts to reform the Lords and levy a land value tax after the 1909 People’s Budget.
‘Bobbety’, the 5th Marquess of Salisbury, features in the Netflix series The Crown, in which a young Queen Elizabeth berates Salisbury for misleading her about the health of Winston Churchill with the words: “Never trust a Cecil!”. But his legacy was to preserve trust in the House of Lords: “‘Bobbety’, the fifth marquess and kingmaker of immediate postwar Tory politics… saved hereditary peers from extinction under Clement Attlee by proclaiming the Salisbury doctrine.”
The present Marquess, after serving as MP for South Dorset, government Minister and leader of the Lords, opposed Lords reform by the Blair Government and wrung out a concession to allow 92 hereditary peers to stay on in the House.
Despite the efforts of successive Cecils, the political power of the hereditary peerage is nearly extinguished. But their landed wealth, by contrast, flourishes. Indeed, we prop them up with large public subsidies, and indulge their use of opaque offshore business arrangements. Will we for much longer?