The best time to buy an asset is when no one else can stomach it. Great fortunes are made in uncertainty. The self-made rich aren’t the ones who hung around on the edge of an iffy situation thinking about the possible disasters. They’re the ones who calculated the odds and bought before anyone else was sure of the answers.
So where is there uncertainty in the UK today? Most English people are utterly uninterested in the prospect of Scottish independence — or in Scotland generally. But if they were actually to look up north they’d see pretty serious turmoil. It is less than a year until every resident of Scotland gets to vote on whether they want to live with the devil they know or the devil they don’t. Will they stay part of our 307-year-old union, or vote to go it alone?
This surely makes a big difference to whether you invest in Scotland. After all, the SNP have made it clear that they don’t think much of the rich. There will be wealth taxes, land taxes and higher income taxes. There will be land reform too — politicians have made it clear that one way or another they will transfer power to tenant farmers and weaken the great estates that own swaths of rural Scotland. So you might think, at least until things are a little clearer, that you wouldn’t touch Scotland with a bargepole.
But here’s the thing. The uncertainty people think exists around independence mostly doesn’t. It’s a fair assumption that Scots won’t vote to go it alone (the Grangemouth debacle may have been the nail in the Yes campaign’s coffin) but all the things I mention above are almost inevitable whether they do or they don’t.
The Scotland Act 2012 represented a huge transfer of fiscal power to Holyrood. It devolves stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax as well as allowing the Scottish Parliament to set its own rate of income tax and to borrow more money in its own name from 2015. It also provides powers for new taxes to be created.
HMRC’s website tells us the new Scottish taxes ‘may be higher or lower than or the same as those which apply in the rest of the UK’. Anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics can guess which way things will go — on stamp duty, indicative rates suggest that low-priced houses will pay less and high-priced houses will pay even more than they do already. Then there’s the question of land. It isn’t just the SNP who are interested in ‘land value taxation’ and in spreading land ownership more widely. Scottish Labour’s Johann Lamont seems to like both ideas too.
Scotland is changing anyway, regardless of whether it votes for independence. People think they can’t buy in Scotland because they don’t know what the future holds. But they can make as good a guess about Scotland’s future as anywhere else’s. The information is there.
So you see yourself as a braveheart investor: is there a way to invest in Scotland’s future? I’d avoid areas that are politically contentious or heavily subsidised, including forestry and renewable energy: there’s talk about ‘redistributing’ money received by landowners from wind turbines. As for sporting estates, if you have City bonus cash to burn and Bruce Anderson has persuaded you of the sublime joys of stalking, go ahead and buy one — but do so in the knowledge that what you think of as your land rights could swiftly be eroded.
One obvious alternative route (already much discussed at Edinburgh dinner tables) is to buy the property boltholes Scotland’s well-off might bid up when the new taxes start to bite. Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland is 38 minutes from Edinburgh on a fast train, but crucially just the other side of the border. I’m no fan of the English property market, but the north is less overpriced than the south and here £695,000 will bag you a huge five-bedroom Victorian house with ‘spectacular views over the River Tweed, the ruins of Berwick Castle and the Royal Border Railway Bridge’. Imagine the premium you’ll be able to charge an Edinburgh tax-exile commuter for it in three years’ time. On my last visit to Denmark I found large numbers of people who work in Copenhagen live across the bridge in Sweden, where property taxes are lower. Could Berwick become Edinburgh’s Malmö?
But devolution won’t just mean people leaving town. It will mean arrivals too. Imagine the extra civil servants, think-tankers and lobbyists who will be required to help the Scottish government figure out how to spend its new tax take and manage its borrowings. And which of those hangers-on won’t want to live in a nice Georgian townhouse within walking distance of Holyrood? There will be some empty ones (their former occupants will be in Berwick) but if this government goes the way of most, there’ll surely be more arrivals than departures. Perhaps the capital gains in Edinburgh will be enough to offset the new taxes — it works in Washington, where property constantly hits new highs.
Finally there’s Dundee. Yes, Dundee. You may think of it as a miserable, failing Scottish town — but you might not think that when the new Dundee V&A is up and running. Its design has just won a World Architecture News Award and it will, says that journal, ‘bring reams of tourists to the city’s stunning waterfront, providing many additional jobs and introducing a new cultural venue on the River Tay’. That sounds nice. You can buy two- or three-bedroom flats on the water in Dundee, close to the V&A site, for not much more than £100,000. It doesn’t have much to do with independence, but when the V&A opens in 2015 that is surely going to look like something very rare indeed: a UK property bargain.
Merryn Somerset Webb is editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek.