Money laundering through the property sector in the UK is not a new story – goodness, if you live in London and you don’t have at least three dodgy foreign PEPs in your local Neighbourhood Watch scheme, you’ll be feeling slighted. But it seems that London estate agents are finally waking up to the dangers and starting to ask awkward questions (like “where’s your money from?”) – and criminals are having to look to the provinces. And their beady eyes have landed on university towns, including my own.
According to Mark Hayward, chief exec of NAEA Propertymark, in an interview with the Guardian, university towns are being targeted for several reasons: “First, agents there are used to dealing with non-face-to-face customers, investors and companies from overseas because people buy accommodation for relatives or investment, so they may or may not be so alert to AML. Second, those that wish to launder money want to see their investment is secure and university towns have a very good track record for bucking any downwards trend in property prices. They normally see good house price inflation and any property in those towns is eminently lettable, so it ticks all those boxes.”
In Cambridge in recent years we have seen phenomenal property development, particularly in the area optimistically called CB1 – the developers say that it’s “the new city quarter” while the local press has dubbed it “a piece of Croydon in Cambridge”. In reality, it’s a crowd of apartment blocks right next to the railway station. (Some of the balconies look directly out onto the platforms, which is ideal for anyone who likes their evening cocktails with a side-order of train announcements: “The train now standing at platform three is the 1927 service for London Liverpool Street, calling at about a thousand stations of which you have never heard and arriving at London Liverpool Street sometime next Thursday.”) If you cycle through CB1 at night, only about a quarter of the apartments show any sign of life, and yet they are all sold – I have long wondered who is buying them and for what purpose. Let’s hope that local estate agents have learned the AML lessons from their big city cousins, to keep our ivory towers whiter than white.