Drawing inspiration from the Great Estates

The property industry is greatly the poorer for the untimely death of the Duke of Westminster. Of course the credit for the enduring value of the Grosvenor Estate and Mayfair was not his alone, we have to pay homage to his forbears. But the late Duke was a wholly diligent and proper person, with a sense of real responsibility. Oh, that our industry had a few more like him.

And I LOVE Mayfair. I have written before about this (most recently in the New London Quarterly, from which much of this article is extracted) . Naturally I have never lived there; and probably could never afford to, not in my wildest dreams, or even in Monopoly. And yet, as with all of us I would guess, I admire it greatly. I admire it for its unified red brick elegance, for its generous street layout and green spaces, for its touches of arts and crafts detailing. Mayfair is a loved and cherished place, and it shows. And I love and cherish it. Having worked in Mayfair, on and off, for the best part of three decades, I claim a strong affinity with the place. I now know every square inch, every London Plane. It has a familiar, clubby, sort of feel. Even its name – a May Fair – connotes celebration and fun. And of course it is the natural home of the “old school” property industry, in which I have been working (or, more accurately, battling) for more than 30-odd years.

And, over the years, whether working in Berkeley Square or Brook Street or Mount Row, as I grew into being able to afford it, I have done my level best to populate Mayfair, and to do it justice: pints and steaks in the Guinea (with Alice, the wondrous Maître D), long lunches in the Green House, Thursday evenings on the batter in the legendary basement at Finos with the shed agents. The Running Footman, Claridges, Scotts, George, the dear old Spaghetti House in Duke Street, Shepherd Market, that bonkers china shop which serves afternoon tea, all have been scenes of riotous fun, special moments. The workers, rather than the (much fewer in number) residents, of Mayfair live high on the hog in these quirky venues. And long may it continue.

The Duke of Westminster, and his forebears, are the heroes. In particular that first Duke, the startling futurologist who had the presence of mind to masterplan this, the most extraordinary of all London’s Great Estates. We were lucky that we had that Duke of Westminster, and lucky too for the Portmans, the Cadogans and the De Waldons who have masterplanned so much of the West End of London. Our Great Estates are precious. They underpin much of the high value end of the London property market. These are estates that were planned, and built, and held, and (most crucially) managed, for hundreds of years – and will be thus held for hundreds of years to come. These are the crown jewels. It is these estates that make London a world city.

There are lessons here for all urban planners: we need to build for the long term. And there is an anxiety that many of us are feeling about London right now, the increasingly corporate skyline of the city or – worse still – the humongous quantum of residential stock being slapped up in places such as Vauxhall Nine Elms. The dispiriting homogeneous blocks along the river. And I join the ranks of those people who feel queasy at the amount of furtive private foreign capital at work in our city.

So I am glad that there is the touchstone of the Great Estates, espousing so much good practice in delivering a high-quality mix of residential and business premises. And I treasure Mayfair. Even if it does carry a strong whiff of exclusivity and privilege, from which I would normally recoil. I admire greatly the work and the legacy of the late Duke of Westminster.

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One Response to Drawing inspiration from the Great Estates

  1. Michael Bach 13 August, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    A lot of ground covered here!

    The “Great Estate” approach is now being developed by London Boroughs and TfL, or, more precisely a move from flogging the family silver when the opportunity for a good property deal came up to one of seeking a long-term income stream for the rest of the “business”.

    Some are very open that they are becoming more “commercial” by seeking to build up their property portfolio to achieve the highest market rents – no pretence that there are any economic development let alone social objectives in their strategy. That would require a more nuanced “Great Estate” approach. Even some of the Great Estates seem to be putting more emphasis on maximising capital value and rents and less on curating their estate to support a wider range of social and economic objectives.

    TfL have in the last two years have announced that they are – in case no-one had noticed – one of London’s Great Estates in terms of the scale of the land/property ownership, but they too had a Damascene conversion to manage their property portfolio in the manner of a Great Estate. This new approach was, like those of some London Boroughs, based on the need to replace dependance on Government funds after 2020. To do this they would increase their income from properties, from advertising and property developments to generate £4 billion a year.

    This change in approach was very much welcomed to break the impasse on certain long-running schemes (e.g. South Kensington Station), to bring forward housing developments on non-operational land round stations (e.g. Northwood) – a “win-win” formula.

    But will this last if the Mayor of London were to put more emphasis on generating receipts from property sales – a reversion to selling off the family silver – rather the future income streams from developments with a long-term pay-off as developments as well as a steady income stream?

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