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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Finance minister questioned over ‘hytte’

Norway’s finance minister, Siv Jensen, has been facing some questions over the financing of her own summer holiday cabin known as a hytte. Opposition politicians think she’s got a very sweet leasing deal with one of Norway’s wealthiest men, whom she also appointed to head the ethics council for Norway’s sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund.

Finance Minister Siv Jensen has spent many summers in a simple hytte on an island in the Oslofjord, but came into town on this August day a few years ago to speak with foreign correspondents. Now her hytte holidays have come under scrutiny. PHOTO: Berglund

It’s been a rough week for Jensen. Her Progress Party colleague who’s filling her seat in Parliament, Mazyar Keshvari, is under police investigation after admitting to handing in fraudulent expense account claims and receiving reimbursement for them. The conservative minority government coalition that Jensen leads along with Prime Minister Erna Solberg is also under siege by the small Christian Democrats party, whose leader is keen to topple them both and take over government power himself along with the Labour and Center parties.

In the midst of all this, and deliverance earlier this month of the government’s state budget proposal, newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has been running a series of stories that raises questions about Jensen’s holiday hytte on an island in the Oslofjord called Grimsøya. She’s rented it from Norwegian tobacco heir and billionaire Johan H Andresen for NOK 40,000 (USD 5,000) a year for 10 years, a contract that many claim is well under market rates.

When Jensen signed the 10-year lease on the place in the spring of last year, the hytte was also upgraded with a new bathroom, a kitchen and fireplace. Andresen paid for the improvements, according to DN, which also reported that Jensen’s annual rent is so low that Jensen must have received a considerable discount.

‘Quite run-down’ place
Both Jensen and Andresen have denied any discount, with Jensen also claiming that the hytte was “quite run-down and nearly unliveable” when she took over, and that she remodeled much of the hytte herself. She says she installed new wall panels, painted, put a new roof on the place and installed new windows. “I have also built in a bed and a sofa,” she wrote in a briefing to Parliament, after MP Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes of the Socialist Left party (SV) raised questions as well.

That’s because “reasonable” weekly leasing rates for a modest hytte near the sea are considered to be around NOK 10,000, or NOK 520,000 per year, much more than the NOK 40,000 Jensen is paying. Even if the hytte is only leased out for the summer months, if would amount to more than Jensen’s contract with Andresen.

DN noted how small, simple cottages in the Oslofjord still sell and rent for sky-high rates. A one-room hytte without toilet or shower on Lindøya, for example, sold for NOK 2.6 million (USD 325,000) last summer, while a 49-square-meter hytte also on Lindøya sold for NOK 4.66 million. Real estate broker Marius Berger told DN that a small hytte without water or its own toilet on the island of Heggholmen rented for NOK 10,000 a week this past summer. The high prices and leasing rates are tied to the classic “location, location, location” rule of real estate, in this case, close to both the sea and the city.

‘Simple standard’
Jensen had earlier spent holidays in other simple cottages on the Oslofjord and told DN she was looking for a new place to rent when she came upon Andresen’s place through friends. “There were no negotiations on the price, that was up to the landlord (Andresen),” Jensen told DN. She also stressed that the hytte has “simple standard” and can’t be used outside the summer season.

Andresen also told DN that his hytte was close to being condemned when he rented it out to Jensen, “so the rental rate was set in accordance with that.” He also confirmed that Jensen and her family were behind the renovation of the hytte and that three other parties had turned down offers to rent it. “So the alternative for me was a negative value,” he said. His family, however, had hooked up the hytte to a water source and installed a toilet and shower cabinet.

For security reasons, no photos of the hytte have been published. Jensen wrote to the Parliament last week that she had considered reporting the hytte lease to the Parliament’s public register of any positions or economic interests that could raise questions of a conflict of interest. Even though she earlier has reported such small items as receipt of a bottle of whiskey from the Parliament’s press delegation, Jensen didn’t think reporting her hytte lease was necessary, but she did inform the prime minister’s office last year, and the deal with Andresen raised no questions or objections. She had appointed him to his position as leader of the Oil Fund’s Ethics Council back in 2014.

“The use of the hytte is built upon a regulated private lease,” she wrote this week to Parliament. “I have not received any gifts or services or other forms of economic advantage.” Berglund



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