Number of billionaires in UK reached new record during Covid crisis

Despite year of economic turmoil, 24 people became billionaires in UK during pandemic, taking total to 171

Britain created a record number of billionaires during the coronavirus pandemic as wealth surged despite a year of economic turmoil, prompting calls for the government to increase taxes on the ultra-rich.

There are 171 billionaires in the UK, 24 more than a year ago, according to an annual ranking compiled by the Sunday Times. It was the highest number in the 33 years of the newspaper’s rich list, as the combined wealth of billionaires in Britain grew by more than one-fifth.

The richest person on the list is Sir Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born businessman who made his money from energy and aluminium groups in the former Soviet Union. He previously topped the list in 2015.

Len Blavatnik and his wife, Emily Appelson, at a Warner Music Group party in 2012.
Len Blavatnik and his wife, Emily Appelson, at a Warner Music Group party in 2012. Photograph: Richard Young/REX Shutterstock

However, the increase in Blavatnik’s £23bn over the past 12 months was mainly down to his investment in the Warner Music record label, which floated on New York’s Nasdaq stock market in June. Blavatnik, 63, who is a US-UK dual citizen after renouncing his Russian passport, increased his wealth by £7.2bn during 2020, the Sunday Times found.

The property magnate brothers David and Simon Reuben were listed as Britain’s second-wealthiest, with a combined fortune of £21.5bn. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Sunday Times and other media interests, was not included on the basis that he is based in the US, but his $23.5bn fortune, according to Forbes, would have placed him third.

The bosses of British online retailers Ocado, Boohoo, The Hut Group (THG) and Asos all benefited from huge increases in their wealth as spending for locked-down consumers migrated online.

The gains reaped by the billionaire class came in a year that the government was forced to step in to pay the wages of millions of Britons, funded by borrowing unprecedented in peacetime. At the same time governments and central banks have stepped in with huge fiscal and monetary interventions that have sustained, and in many cases added to, the fortunes of the wealthy.

The diverging fortunes have prompted anger and calls for urgent reform of taxation of the rich. Some have also called for targeted windfall taxes on those individuals and companies who have profited most from the pandemic in the UK and beyond, including US tech companies.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a progressive thinktank, said the findings highlighted how the UK and global tax systems benefit the wealthy. It has called for increased taxes on income from wealth, including taxes on capital gains, land and inheritance.

George Dibb, the head of IPPR’s Centre for Economic Justice, said: “There is a massive structural flaw in the economy that whatever the economic shock the wealthier get wealthier.

“If we’re going to get the whole economy into recovery, and leave no one and nowhere behind, we need to change this. Societies that are so unequal are bad for everyone and policymakers need to address this dangerous gap, or risk people losing trust in our economy and democracy.”

Luke Hildyard, the executive director of the High Pay Centre thinktank, said the data highlighted the “huge uplift in living standards and public services that we could achieve by taxing the people on this list more effectively and making them pay their workers more fairly.”

Elsewhere on the list, last year’s richest person, the wealth of the vacuum cleaner inventor James Dyson, increased by £100m to £16.3bn. However, he was overtaken by the rises enjoyed by Blavatnik, the Reuben brothers, and the Hinduja brothers, whose van manufacturing and oil interests bounced back strongly during the pandemic.

The biggest jump in wealth was recorded by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal – himself formerly Britain’s richest – after the boom in the metals market to fuel the economic recovery helped his company to bounce back.

The richest woman who made the bulk of her wealth herself was Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, with a fortune worth £12bn – albeit after inheriting a stake in the Heineken beer company. The net worth of Denise Coates, the founder of gambling firm Bet365, was valued at £8.4bn.

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Among the notable new entrants to the list was Denis Sverdlov, the founder of the electric vans startup Arrival, whose stake is worth £6.2bn.

The pandemic caused a notable reorientation in wealth away from traditional retailers and towards online companies suited to the lockdown economy.

Retailer Philip Day was previously ranked as a billionaire, but he did not make the wealthiest 250 people after his Peacocks chain fell into administration and he sold Edinburgh Woollen Mill. The net worth of Sir Philip Green and his wife dipped by £20m, although it remained at £910m despite the final break-up of their Arcadia empire.


Jasper Jolly

The GuardianTramp

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