You’ll remember that we recently put together a map of royal-owned London, which revealed that the Duchy of Cornwall owns the Oval cricket ground, and that the Crown Estate is leasing land to Carlsberg for a lager distribution centre in Croydon. And that got us wondering: who (else) actually owns the capital?
Setting aside the technicality that all UK land ultimately belongs to the Crown, if you ask who owns London’s land and buildings in a day-to-day sense, there are some pub-quiz-busting revelations.
The big picture
There are few surprises if you approach the question quantitatively. Aside from the territories amassed by largely self-made property moguls like the late ‘King of Soho’ Paul Raymond, much is under immediate royal ownership, or that of aristocrats. The Duke of Westminster, who presides over Mayfair and Belgravia, was only last year knocked off his long-held perch as the nation’s wealthiest property magnate by Asian investors. Battersea Power Station, for instance, has Malaysian owners and nearby One Nine Elms has Chinese ones.
As an urban centre, London defies a national trend that sees the Forestry Commission, Ministry of Defence, and National Trust as the top landowners. These are relatively recent purchasers, whereas the story of London’s development is one of historic estates (like Grosvenor, or Cadogan) developing over time; their boundaries jealously guarded by successive generations. In truth, it’s still a fairly select group of individuals and organisations who hold the lion’s share of London, although new money from the East does reflect that change is afoot, with inheritors gradually challenged by investors.
Really, it’s when you zoom in on specific landmarks that it gets interesting. Take the 02 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome. Who does it actually belong to? Believe it or not, it’s the University of Cambridge’s own Trinity College, which shelled out £24m on a 999-year ‘virtual freehold’, and acts as landlord to entertainment company AEG. The total property investments of Oxbridge colleges are worth billions, but alas, remain largely mysterious. Not so at the Albany, Piccadilly – one of the capital’s most famous apartment complexes – some of which is in the portfolio of Peterhouse, Cambridge.
The Church of England is one of those historic ‘establishment’ landowners, but now owns less than a tenth of the land it did in its Victorian heyday. Its flagship London holding is now ‘only’ a tranche of land north of Hyde Park, which includes shops and residences, the Royal Lancaster Hotel, and hundreds of rather lucrative car parking spaces. It’s also claimed that the Vatican has been quietly buying up a property empire a little to the south east of here, although there’s been little comment from the Holy See on that one.
Then there’s Qatar. The burgeoning property empire of the Qatar Investment Authority includes 95% of the Shard, and swathes of Canary Wharf. And — less expectedly – the freeholds on Chelsea Barracks, the former Olympic Village, American Embassy, and a share of Camden Markets. Oh, and that London institution Harrods? In the words of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ‘even your Harrods — we took it’.
You might call Andrew Lloyd Webber the landlord of the dance, since his company collects theatres – presently owning six in the West End. This is, in fact, typical: many of London’s entertainment venues are owned in bulk by people who, well, entertain — which seems surprisingly appropriate in lieu of these unlikely landlords above.
How about the city’s bridges? Southwark, Millennium, London, Blackfriars, and Tower Bridges are still owned by a single body; the one which built the latter two structures. The trust Bridge House Estates is an ancient offshoot of today’s City of London Corporation.
One of London’s historic estates, the Corporation itself retains substantial land holdings of its own, extending well beyond the Square Mile (much of which it does own) to include 12,000 acres of green space in and around London, including Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. Talking of large green spaces, the RSPB is a proactive buyer – although only as you head east down the Gateway, where the Society controls 20 square kilometres.
And then there’s us normal folks, the public. This ownership could become a hot topic in light of reports suggesting Mayor of London Boris Johnson will be urged to sell off public sector land for home-building. This incredibly thorny business of ownership is born out in the equally thorny business of registration, which can be patchwork, complicated, and often secretive. The above highlights reel can’t claim to be comprehensive, therefore, and if there are any more gems we’d be glad to hear of them in the comment box below.
Images by M@.