Large chunks of London are owned by its oldest families and they've got big plans for the future of their estates

Eleanor Doughty
Marylebone High Street

Too often, when London landlords come up in conversation, it is negatively – about rodent-infested kitchens, and extractor fans that don’t work. But not all landlords are created equal. Indeed, those who really make up the centre of the city, are the families who have been there for centuries and their great estates.

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet; while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street. The Crown Estate, which owns St James’s and Regent’s Park, is described by agent Henry Pyror as ‘probably a more ‘acceptable’ estate’ given that its profits go to the Treasury, and has the most famous owner of them all: the Queen.

As for who does the ‘best’ work, ‘it’s more a case of who got out of the blocks first,’ says Dominic Grace from Savills. ‘A lot of people would say Cadogan and Portman.’ In the case of Cadogan: ‘They had a clear plan for the regeneration of the Kings Road and Sloane Street and stuck to their guns. They moved Sloane Street from being a sleepy backwater which just had Harvey Nichols at the top of it into a major retail success story.’

Cadogan Square

The transformation of high streets goes on elsewhere, too. Twenty years ago, the Howard de Walden began work on Marylebone High Street, then a backwater of charity shops. A Waitrose opened in 1999, kickstarting the uptick of the area; rents from local amenities have risen in ten years from £6m to nearly £15m. ‘They got rid of the bland high street places and got the artisan people in there,’ says James Robinson, general manager of Lurot Brand. ‘Radio 4 voted it the best street in London in 2014.’

And then there was the revival of the Grosvenor’s Mount Street, which began in 2007 with the arrival of Marc Jacobs, transforming this thoroughfare off Berkeley Square into a destination shopping street. The Grosvenor’s proposed reinterpretation of their nearby eponymous square is also attracting attention – indeed, the public have been asked for their views on how the space could be better used. This is part of the estate’s ‘20-year vision’ to ‘evolve’ Mayfair and Belgravia, with seven ambitions.

The value of working with the family offices lies in their ability to take a long term view of the assets they have, to build a legacy and look after the places they have nurtured for centuries

In practice these include new improved cycle zones, and the introduction of super- and ultra-fast broadband. Plus, there’s the ongoing protection of local indigenous businesses. In Belgravia, Grosvenor’s lease for the Waitrose on Motcomb Street ‘does not allow the supermarket to sell newspapers, in order to protect the trade of the local newsagent,’ chief executive Craig McWilliam said last year.

Agents agree that a London made up of village-like estates is the preferred option over developer city. ‘They are making 100-year plans,’ says Paul Gransbury, a partner in the Strutt & Parker Knightsbridge office, of the great estates. ‘It is both offensive and defensive what they’re doing. They need to defend the castle and protect it from things that might undermine it, as well as thinking, how do we enhance the real estate opportunity that we benefit from?’

Read more: Grosvenor, which owns more land than the Queen, set to build 1,500 new homes

This long-term strategy, some argue, is better for placemaking. ‘Typically developers are looking at one or two buildings, and that’s all they care about. There’s no vested interest in thinking about the whole streetscape,’ Gransbury says.

For architects, the great estates present an exciting opportunity for collaboration. ‘The value of working with the family offices lies in their ability to take a long term view of the assets they have, to build a legacy and look after the places they have nurtured for centuries,’ says Robbie Kerr, a director at Adam Architecture, based on Queen Square in Bloomsbury.

A CGI of 30 Grosvenor Square when it's transformed into a hotel

This is manifested in the planning system. ‘It is a peculiarity, sometimes frustratingly, but more often beneficially, that they will not permit something to happen to the buildings they have the freehold of because of the damage it might do to the surrounding area.’

There’s been a change of mindset over the last few years, though says Gransbury. ‘There have been a lot of hoops to jump through for getting lease extensions and permissions for works, and a lot of the leases have been archaic. The estates that I deal with have grown up into responsible estates, [principally concerned with] looking after the wellbeing of their freehold properties. This benefits everyone.’

An alien landing on planet London might be confused by this apparently feudal system. ‘If you were starting again with a clean sheet of paper you wouldn’t do it in the way that it has evolved,’ says Pryor. ‘Regardless, the existence of the great estates enriches us all.’

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