The fire safety failings of Caton Court, the 'student village' on Bulk Road in Lancaster, were a source of great anger in Michaelmas Term, second only to the extraordinary situation of the Sugarhouse Scandal. Spineless will be answering the following questions in a series of articles about Caton Court: who owns it, who approved it, did university policies contribute to it, who advertised it, what went wrong, and what were the repercussions.
If you look at Caton Court, its website, any marketing material, you find it platered in the branding of some entity called 'Aparto'. This is the brand name of Student Housing Operations Ltd, which manages student accommodation in UK and Ireland for the Texan international property developer Hines. Dig a little deeper, and the true answer to who owns Caton Court becomes far more complex.
To find ownership of land in the UK, you must consult HM Land Registry. After paying a £3 fee for the title deed of Caton Court, you will find that its registered owner is HPH Lancaster Property Ltd. They purchased the land from Lancaster Student Housing SARL in November 2017 for a sum of £5.62 million.
It was purchased in November 2017 using a loan from Wells Fargo Bank, headquartered in the United States. Wells Fargo paid a $2 billion fine to the US Department of Justice in 2018 for providing false information about mortgages that contributed to the 2007/2008 financial crisis. It had previously been fined $1.2 billion in 2016 for 'improper mortgage lending practices'.
HPH stands for Henderson Park Holdings. Henderson Park Capital is a UK-based real estate investment company, led by former Goldman Sachs partner Nick Weber. Henderson Park and Hines announced that they had formed a joint venture to develop Caton Court in November 2017. They had previously collaborated on a hotel in central Athens before signing the Lancaster agreement.
Henderson Park was founded in 2016 and rapidly raised $500 million from Middle Eastern sources, including Kuwait's sovereign wealth fund. Its property portfolio was reported in late 2018 at $3.3 billion, and in October 2019 it made headlines for acquiring Irish property investment group Green Reit with a winning bid of €1.34 billion.
HPH Lancaster Property Ltd is incorporated at Aztec Group House, 11-15 Seaton Place, St Helier, Jersey. The Aztec Group is an offshore fund manager, and 11-15 received a passing mention in the Panama Papers leaks, as another company registered there administered a business whose agent was the now-notorious Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. HPH Lancaster Property has a subsidiary, HPH Lancaster Operations, and its parent is HPH Student Housing Holdings. Both of these are registered at Aztec Group House. According to Private Eye, ‘the standard explanation for a Channel Island development company is that when the property is sold at a profit later... capital gains tax would not be payable.’
The previous owner of Caton Court, when only Hines was involved in the development, was Lancaster Student Housing SARL. This company was registered in Luxembourg at 35 Avenue John F. Kennedy. This address is used by Linklaters, an elite British law firm, and also received a passing mention in the Panama Papers. Lancaster Student Housing SARL was struck off the register in October 2018.
The Jersey-based ownership of Caton Court was discovered by Green Party city councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox in late 2018, who passed it on to the press. Cllr Hamilton-Cox told Spineless, ‘It's something that really gets my goat. I'm a strong advocate of not dealing with these companies. If they're based offshore then basically they should be on the end of a very long bargepole.’ He has previously campaigned against British Land using a Jersey-based company in a proposed student housing development in the Canal Quarter. In 2014, the City Council passed his motion that would would have made council suppliers declare they were not using offshore entities, though he says it was never implemented.
According to a November 2018 subtext report, Cllr Hamilton-Cox's research was ‘provided to the students’ unions at Lancaster University and University of Cumbria, who will hopefully steer students away from paying rent to these companies in favour of landlords who aren’t avoiding UK taxation.’ Despite the warning, LUSU opted to enter into a marketing agreement with Aparto about six months later - an agreement they were forced to suspend after the fire safety failings were revealed.