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Money Grows on Trees for Local Council Pursuing Home Improvement Enthusiasts and Local Football Club Fundraiser

It is widely thought that proceedings under the Proceeds of ‘Crime’ Act, such as confiscation, are intended to obtain the money someone makes from committing a crime. So, the thinking goes, if a person is convicted of fraud having made £100,000 from the crime, then those funds can be confiscated by the courts.

While this basic premise is correct, UK money laundering laws are far broader in their application and are increasingly being used by UK authorities in innovative ways. Real estate matters in particular are receiving attention from UK local authorities.

For example, one innovative local authority has appointed surveyors to determine the increase in property value following illegal tree pruning and felling. The result, in addition to relatively nominal fines, is that courts have imposed significant – and some would argue punitive – confiscation orders.

Case 1 - The Ole Oak Tree…

The first case involves a 42-foot oak tree covered by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) located in the back-garden of a Mr Samuel Wilson’s home in Canford Cliffs, Dorset.

A TPO is an order made by a local authority to protect trees and woodland. A person who contravenes a TPO is guilty of a criminal offence, and if found guilty, can expect to pay a fine of up to £20,000.

In 2016, Mr Wilson decided to cut a number of branches off the oak, which was casting a shadow over a Juliet balcony he had recently added to his £1 million home. After his neighbour contacted the local authority, Mr Wilson was prosecuted for cutting branches from the tree in violation of the TPO. He pleaded guilty to causing willful damage to a protected tree and was fined £1,200.

Following conviction, Poole Borough Council pursued Mr Wilson in confiscation proceedings. The council’s valuation experts said cutting the tree’s branches increased Mr Wilson’s home value by £21,000.

Three years after the original conviction, Mr Wilson was ordered to pay £15,000 in legal costs plus the £21,000 additional home value under UK money laundering confiscation provisions.  

Activity      Pruning of one oak tree 
Fine       £1,200
Costs   £15,000
Confiscation      £21,000
TOTAL COST £37,200 (plus one criminal conviction)

Case 2 – Chainsaw Massacre

In a second case, Mr David Matthews, a millionaire former owner of a scrap metal business, cut down 11 trees, all protected by TPOs, in the back garden of his £1.4 million Dorset home.

Mr Mathews was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 in legal costs. Like Samuel Wilson’s case, resolved only weeks earlier, Poole Borough Council pursued Mr Mathews for the increase in the value of his property as a result of his conduct. In April 2019 Southampton Crown Court made a confiscation order against Mr Mathews in the amount of £137,500, the estimated increase in the value of his property following the removal of the trees, bringing the total cost of his garden improvement project to almost £170,000.

Activity Complete removal of 11 trees (genus various) 
Confiscation   £137,500 
TOTAL COST £169,500 (plus one criminal conviction

Local authorities have also used UK money laundering confiscation provisions in connection with convictions for other real estate planning offences. For example, there are many cases which involve individuals and businesses who have failed to comply with planning enforcement notices being pursued for confiscation. Unauthorized conversions of houses into flats have resulted in numerous criminal penalties and confiscation. Slightly more obscurely, a local football club and its directors were also pursued in relation to their fundraising activities.

Case 3 – Carry-On Car Park

In R v Del Basso, the defendants decided to run a park-and-ride service from Bishop’s Stortford Football Club to Stansted Airport but were told by the local authority that the business required planning permission. Despite being served with an enforcement notice under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, breach of which is a criminal offence, the business continued.

When the council revisited the park-and-ride and realised the business had not ceased, they commenced prosecution and, following conviction, confiscation proceedings. Mr Del Basso, the now former chairman of the football club which currently sits in the seventh tier of England’s league system, was considered to have had a ‘criminal lifestyle’, a statutory consideration which allows the court to make wide-ranging assumptions broadly that anything obtained six years prior to being charged with the offence was obtained as a result of criminal conduct.

At the conclusion of confiscation proceedings, a confiscation order was made which declared Mr Del Basso’s benefit from criminal conduct was £1,881,221.19, and he was ordered to pay £760,000 – the value of his available assets at the time.

Activity  Park-and-Ride – Bishops Stortford FC to Stanstead Airport
Fine £15,000 (£3,000 on each offence, five offences) 
Costs  £20,000
Confiscation  £760,000 (Benefit £1,881,221.19) 
TOTAL COST £795,000

Good Business

Assuming confiscation orders are paid (if not paid, the prosecution can seek lengthy custodial sentences), councils will get a proportion of the amount recovered under the so-called ARIS (Asset Recovery Incentivisation Scheme) scheme. The scheme, created in 2006, provides an incentive to pursue asset recovery by allocating a proportion of the amount recovered to the investigating and prosecution authority – up to 37.5% in some cases.

With local councils and public service providers increasingly cash-strapped, we expect more innovative use of money laundering laws by them as they seek to bolster their coffers.