‘Companies today own around 2.6m hectares of land – 18% of England and Wales.’ Illustration: Lee Martin/Guardian Design
Multi-million pound corporations with complex structures have purchased the very ground we walk on – and we are only just beginning to discover the damage it is doing to Britain. By Guy Shrubsole
Fri 19 Apr 2019
Despite owning 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of land, managing a property portfolio worth £2.3bn and having control over huge swaths of central Manchester and Liverpool, very few people have heard of a company named Peel Holdings. It owns the Manchester Ship Canal. It built the Trafford Centre shopping complex and, more recently, sold it in the largest single property acquisition in Britain’s history. It was the developer behind the MediaCityUK site in Salford, to which the BBC and ITV have relocated many of their operations in recent years. Airports, fracking, retail – the list of Peel business interests stretches on and on.
Peel Holdings operates behind the scenes, quietly acquiring land and real estate, cutting billion-pound deals and influencing numerous planning decisions. Its investment decisions have had an enormous impact, whether for good or ill, on the places where millions of people live and work.
Peel’s ultimate owner, the billionaire John Whittaker, is notoriously publicity-shy: he lives on the Isle of Man, has never given an interview and helicopters into his company’s offices for board meetings. He built Peel Holdings in the 1970s and 80s by buying up a series of companies whose fortunes had decayed, but which still controlled valuable land. Foremost among these was the Manchester Ship Canal Company, purchased in 1987. The canal turned out to be valuable not simply as a freight route, but also because of the redevelopment potential of the land that flanked it.
Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population
Peel Holdings tends not to show its hand in public. Like many companies, it prefers its forays into public political debate to be conducted via intermediary bodies and corporate coalitions. In 2008, it emerged that Peel was a dominant force behind a business grouping that had formed to lobby against Manchester’s proposed congestion charge. The charge was aimed at cutting traffic and reducing the toxic car fumes choking the city. But Peel, as owners of the out-of-town Trafford Centre shopping mall, feared that a congestion charge would be bad for business, discouraging shoppers from driving through central Manchester to reach the mall. Peel’s lobbying paid off: voters rejected the charge in the local referendum and the proposal was dropped.
Throughout England, cash-strapped councils are being outgunned by corporate developers pressing to get their way. The situation is exacerbated by a system that has allowed companies like Peel to keep their corporate structures obscure and their landholdings hidden. A 2013 report by Liverpool-based thinktank Ex Urbe found “well in excess of 300 separately registered UK companies owned or controlled” by Peel. Tracing the conglomerate’s structure is an investigator’s nightmare. Try it yourself on the Companies House website: type in “Peel Land and Property Investments PLC”, and then click through to persons with significant control. This gives you the name of its parent company, Peel Investments Holdings Ltd. So far, so good. But then repeat the steps for the parent company, and yet another holding company emerges; then another, and another. It’s like a series of Russian dolls, one nested inside another.