09 September 2013

A word from our property insider...

This year's Rich List confirmed my view that property honchos are equally divided between those entrepreneurs who create their own wealth, and those custodians of landed estates who take a similarly entrepreneurial approach to maintain and develop their inherited assets. 
In the top 20 are: 
7. David and Simon Reuben, £8,281m

8. the Duke of Westminster, £7,800m

14 Joseph Lau, £4,600m

18. Earl Cadogan, £3,675m

The Reuben brothers keep a low profile.  Two of their current London schemes include Cambridge House, the former premises of the Naval and Military Club ("In & Out") in Piccadilly which has consent for a six-star hotel and private members' club, and Merchant Square in Paddington, a 1,8m sq ft development of offices and flats, key to the area's regeneration.  I applaud the brothers' spirit and strategy - majoring on refurbishment and improvement, to which I'll return shortly.

Next comes "the Duke of Westminster". To clarify - as the title-holder in the family, his grace is certainly a major beneficiary of Grosvenor, the innovative (admittedly private) company which is the custodian of the family's investment property assets (including Mayfair and Belgravia) as well as being a thoroughly 21st century property company, developer and fund manager. But the Duke is only one of its shareholders, and his estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and Scotland are held in trust.  The Crown Estate is analogous - although the Queen now directly benefits from its performance (for the first time since 1760) it is a business in its own right. 

Then we find Joseph Lau.  Joseph Lau Luen Hung is a billionaire Hong Kong real estate investor, who 
founded Chinese Estates Holdings.  The company has invested HK$1.9 billion in Hong Kong.  He owns a collection of some of the most exquisite works of art in the world (among them Gauguin's Te Poipoi) and has a cellar of 10,000 bottles, presumably including some Petrus and Cheval Blanc.

Finally, Earl Cadogan's family's property company comprising their Chelsea and Knightsbridge estate is Cadogan Estates - which is a model custodian for the Sloane Street and King's Road area, just as the bigger and more diversified Grosvenor is in neighbouring Belgravia and up in Mayfair. These London estates, and Portman, Bedford and Howard de Walden amongst others, have demonstrated responsibility, sensitivity, and sustainability in their urban, listed jewels. And that is my theme - these four real estate winners, or their organisations, deserve their rewards because of their laudable approach to development.

It was not ever thus - the 20th century is littered with examples of ignorant, inexcusable and possibly criminal demolitions in the name of progress. In London alone, consider the Euston arch (correctly a propylaeum), the east side of Berkeley Square or the Adelphi. And we can all name numerous post-war examples of brutal, inhuman and unsustainable residential and commercial development throughout the country. But from the 1980s things began to improve:  Richard Rogers' Lloyd's Building might be an acquired taste but its quality and aesthetic sincerity are palpable. Broadgate and Canary Wharf (perhaps excluding the tower) both display elements of good, solid, 19th century mercantile architecture, and I don't mind a bit of pastiche, singularly lacking in 50s, 60s and 70s developments. In fact, so derided was the developer after the war, that a wonderful television play was made in 1965, called Pity About the Abbey, about the demolition of Westminster Abbey to make way for a by-pass!  It was written by Stewart Farrar and Sir John Betjeman, satirising the trend to demolish distinguished buildings, for example the Euston arch, under the pretext of necessity. 

 So, what the Reuben's are doing in Paddington or by saving the old "In & Out", Grosvenor's fabulous makeover of Mount Street and Cadogan's excellent Duke of York's Headquarters would be rather a pleasant shock to Mr Farrar and Sir John.  And, although I don't know what sort of buildings Joseph Lau puts up in Hong Kong, what a civilised fellow he is - even if his taste is predicated solely on value. Another fine example is Sir John Ritblat whose triumph, British Land, now owns Broadgate, and whose philanthropy in the arts world apparently knows no bounds.  Responsible use of created wealth and noblesse oblige - I'll have both please.