London’s great estates have played an important role in the development of the city for centuries, and as they have evolved they have become more proactive in their stewardship. What can we learn from their experience?
￼By Sarah Yates
‘Stewardship’ is a term that is inextricably linked with the history of land ownership in Britain: from medieval times, a ‘steward’ was someone, often a member of a lesser branch of a landowner’s family, appointed to manage the property of his more prosperous (or fortunate) relative or neighbour.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the ‘great estates’ of London – those urban areas owned for centuries
and inherited by such aristocratic families as the Dukes of Bedford, Earls Cadogan, Dukes of Westminster and Viscounts Portman, as well as historic City livery companies and charitable foundations – have become associated with responsible and proactive management, or the ‘good stewardship’, of land and property. Indeed, the chief executive of the London part of the Bedford Estates still has ‘Steward’ as his job title. While in large part the success of the estates is due to a commitment to retaining and managing property over the long term, in recent years their approach to stewardship has become much more dynamic and proactive.
How the great Estates developed
After the Great Fire of 1666 as development moved westwards from the City, London emerged from the piecemeal development of parcels of what was once pasture and agricultural land, bought by or gifted to individuals, companies or charities. Key to the long-term success of the estates from the 17th century to the present day was the introduction in the 1660s of the leasehold system, through which the owner granted leases of land, generally over 99 years, to builders to undertake development.
Based on shared risk, this system ensured that the owner benefited from the building development and a regular income from ground rent at minimal outlay, while he or she retained ownership in perpetuity. The builder-developer also profited by acquiring a prime site, and was often able to sublet individual plots to recoup his costs. It was this well-established but entrepreneurial approach that enabled the creation in the 18th and 19th centuries of some of London’s most renowned neighbourhoods and elegant streets and squares in areas including Belgravia and Mayfair (under the ownership of the Grosvenor family), Chelsea (the Cadogans), and Marylebone (the Howard de Waldens). Laid out by the estate surveyors, these were not just residential areas but also contained all the shops, services and offices required by the community, including mews housing for servants; facilities such as schools and churches; and well-managed public spaces, roads and common amenities.
Many of these historic areas remain today, and so it might be thought that as the estate owner retained the land in perpetuity, successful stewardship of the estate, certainly in commercial terms, simply required him or her to gather rents. Indeed in a few areas, until relatively recently, this may have been the case.Yet the later and postwar history of the estates shows that estate landowners have faced numerous challenges that have in large part driven them to become more active stewards of their landholdings: compulsory purchase of land for housing, education and transport; stagnant ground rents; and punitive death duties, leading to the sales of large tracts of land in central London by estates such as Portman, Bedford and Grosvenor.
The impact of more recent legislation around leasehold reform has undoubtedly contributed both positively and negatively to how the estates have developed in the 21st century. Leasehold Reform Acts from1967 to 1993 have given residential owners the right to buy freeholds. Many estates have been legally obliged, therefore, to sell, sometimes on a large scale.The Eyre Estate in St John’s Wood, 90% of which was originally single houses and where sales from the 1990s onwards would eventually reduce the estate to a handful of properties, is a particular case in point.
However, the capital generated from sales has allowed many of the larger great estates to reinvest and to initiate major works such as public realm improvements, which have enhanced not only their social, cultural and economic value, but also London as a whole.Well-known examples include the regeneration of Mount and Elizabeth Streets by the Grosvenor Estate, Regent Street by the Crown Estate, Marylebone High Street by the Howard de Walden Estate and the Duke ofYork Square in Chelsea by Cadogan.
The ingredients of successful stewardship
Over time the historic great estates have been able to develop a distinct model of placemaking for London, which continues to evolve. In recent years, it has not only been influenced itself by the increased focus on the regeneration of inner-city areas from the 1980s onwards, but has also informed the development of new neighbourhoods and estates for the 21st century and beyond.These new estates are different in some respects from the originals, however.
They have been formed either by the gradual acquisition of a portfolio of frequently contiguous buildings in one area, for example the Soho Estates developed from the 1970s by Paul Raymond, and Shaftesbury PLC, which has holdings in specific West End locations such as Carnaby Street; or by the development of large-scale brownfield sites, for example King’s Cross. Several common principles have emerged:
A strategic approach to the urban framework: estates recognise that the long-term success of an area was (and remains) dependent on setting out and maintaining the right masterplan and overall infrastructure, rather than viewing it as a collection of individual streets, buildings and open spaces. Indeed the careful Georgian arrangements of residential terraced housing surrounding elegant squares has become of the one most distinctive and enduring features of London’s historic architecture.
Setting a framework of appropriate scale, density and legibility, along with roads and services, meant that over time the estate was flexible enough to accommodate new land uses according to changing market demands, while the landowner could replace outmoded or redundant buildings when leases expired.This tradition remained embedded over time.
Even in 1975, the critic Simon Jenkins was applauding the Grosvenor Estate’s proposal (though unexecuted) of 1972 to redevelop perimeter sites on its estate while conserving the quality and residential character of Belgravia and Mayfair. In examining every facet of the estate, including traffic, employment and housing, this proposal, he argued, was a “remarkable renaissance of the eighteenth-century tradition” (Landlords to London, p. 241).
In recent years the great estates have turned their attention again to this key principle, and in particular to the importance of a high-quality public realm in sustaining vibrant and attractive urban neighbourhoods. Perhaps the best-known example is the regeneration of Marylebone High Street in the 1990s by the Howard de Walden Estate, now a vibrant shopping area and centre of regular community events and activities. Similarly, the Grosvenor Estate has sought to upgrade key streets including Mount Street in Mayfair and Elizabeth Street in Belgravia, where physical improvements have included the removal of cluttered signage, better pavements and public artworks in order to provide an appropriate environment for high-end restaurants and luxury fashion retailers.
A commitment to flexibility over the long term: a commitment to managing an estate for the long term recognises the importance of a more considered approach to maintaining economic and social value, rather than to generating a quick profit and having little or no interest in the development once it is finished and handed over. Indeed, the estates’ commitment to the long term can be seen simply in the fact that many of them have a continuous history of ownership dating back to the 17th century and earlier.
As noted above, estates need to continue to adapt to external forces to survive: effective management of the estate requires flexibility and creativity, especially now because of the need to promote central London to investors and occupiers in a highly competitive international market.This is particularly important in estates with a large proportion of retail properties, where continuous research into new trends and a brand-conscious approach are essential in creating successful retail destinations. In this case, good stewardship does not just mean careful and responsible maintenance of properties and services, but a broader strategic approach that helps to sustain the right mix of uses and occupiers, and a creative approach to investment and development.
The Cadogan Estate, for example, has focused on a careful ‘curation’ of its prime retail estate in Chelsea by carefully selecting retail and restaurant tenants to ensure a diverse mix of international brands with independent stores, the latter now constituting 40% of the shops.There also, open market rent reviews have been replaced with annual indexation to better reflect the businesses, and if the retailer intends to assign its lease the estate has first right of refusal, so that it can maintain control over the occupier mix.
Many newer ‘great estates’ have been founded in a similar approach.At King’s Cross, for example,Argent and its development partners established a joint venture that provided a structure to finance each phase of the development against the value of the land and any completed parts, so that it was not necessary to sell off the early phases in order to finance subsequent development or provide short-term returns. Likewise, many older estates have entered into joint ventures to expand the diversity of their portfolio or to enhance particular areas that require upgrading or refurbishment: the Bedford Estate has partnered with Exemplar to redevelop One Bedford Avenue, a site comprising two existing retail and office buildings fronting Tottenham Court Road, where the property mix represents a distinct contrast to the Estate’s better-known smaller and historic buildings to the east in Bloomsbury.
A focus on the local: in centuries past, and even today, the landowner lived on the estate itself and was often on familiar terms with tenants, occupiers and the wider community.A responsible approach to stewardship here included philanthropy and charitable giving, including, for example, support for local cultural, education and artistic initiatives, and provision of housing at low rents for those on low incomes.
The numerous London streets and squares with family names, titles or landholdings represent the legacy of this relationship.The tradition is maintained today in the provision of housing for keyworkers and similar initiatives.Through a centuries or even just decades-long association with an area, estate owners and managers have an intimate knowledge of and association with it and a mission to retain and promote its distinctive character and spirit: Soho Estates’ mission, for example, is to ‘keep Soho’s soul’.This familiarity with the local was often in large part due to the role of the agent or manager, responsible for the hands-on approach to running the logistics of the estate on a daily basis: organising rent collection, dealing with tenants’ or occupiers’ queries, providing valuations, and so on.
Today the agent – in the form of either internal support teams or external consultants – has become much more professionalised, but intimate knowledge of an estate through maintaining good relationships with tenants and occupiers is still essential to maximising assets and capital. The agent’s role is a much more strategic one, including identifying parts of the estate that can be upgraded, unlocking value by restructuring leases, or recommending areas for investment or properties to buy back. Contemporary estates have learned from the original ones that a locally based, on the ground management team that understands the area is of vital importance in maintaining the integrity of the estate.
A proactive and holistic approach: through the benefit of retaining assets in single ownership, and an imperative to sustain value in the long term, estates have taken an organic and holistic approach to renewal and development. A landowner with majority ownership in a certain area can set and maintain high standards of quality for the benefit of all occupiers, visitors and users. Even where the long-term interest has been sold minimum provisions are often in place in terms of estate management to ensure quality and consistency of approach. Estates have employed a continuous process of managing properties over the short, medium and especially long term through their lifecycle in order to maximise the value of the asset: letting, buying back or reversion, refurbing and then reletting. Historic and architecturally significant buildings are restored and maintained, not just to retain character but also to ensure that they remain commercially attractive to potential new tenants, and support uplift both elsewhere on the estate and beyond it. Here one of the most significant recent major projects is the Regent Street Vision long-term programme initiated in 2002 by the Crown Estate to significantly upgrade the commercial and retail spaces behind its 2km-long Grade II-listed facades to meet the demands of 21st century occupiers.
Commitment to a long term future
Over the centuries, London’s great estates have proved highly successful at creating and maintaining high-quality, vibrant places and neighbourhoods.Their approach to stewardship can be summarised as one that represents a commitment to the long-term future of an area by carefully investing in, maintaining and managing the economic and social, as well as physical aspects, of it.
It is this holistic approach that is being taken forward by new areas under development and in single ownership as the next phase of London’s great estates are emerging in areas as diverse as East Village London in the Olympic Park, Earls Court and Covent Garden under Capital and Counties PLC, and Paddington Central, under the ownership of British Land.
Sarah Yates is an independent researcher.
This article draws on ‘Great Estates: How London’s landowners shape the city’, an exhibition and associated publication produced in 2013 by New London Architecture and curated by Peter Murray AoU.
The publication is available priced at £10 (plus £5 postage and packing) from New London Architecture newlondonarchitecture.org.