Last week Barb Jungr and others held a fundraiser at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to raise money for an upcoming legal battle between the Crown Estate residents in Millbank and the Crown Estate, which is considering selling the underlying leaseholds to another developer. It is an oddly shaped affair when residents need to sue their landlord in order to keep them as their landlord. This is a huge housing issue for Westminster, here is why: the Crown Estate is a fantastic landlord. It has deep pockets and a deeply held culture that its properties should be well maintained, attractive, and they support a progressive structure of social housing that gives priority to Westminster’s teachers, nurses and firefighters, people who otherwise would not be able to able to afford to live near to their jobs.
When you sign a lease, even a shorthold, with the Crown Estate there is assurance that your rents will be adjusted fairly and slowly, that your home will be well cared for, and that in all but the most exceptional circumstances your home will remain yours. You can build a life in Westminster secure in the continuity of schools, doctors, friends: your community. That security evaporates if the underlying leaseholds are sold. Even if the leaseholds are sold to another large social landlord with an agreement that there will be no change to the tenancies in place the security for shorthold tenants is gone, and the pressure to make those properties more profitable in the future will eventually overwhelm even the best intended buyer. Westminster needs to keep all of its affordable housing, and the Crown Estate is by far its best custodian.
A little background about the Crown Estate. It is not as many people think, the personal property of the Queen. George III converted the bulk of the royal landholdings into a public trust in exchange for an ongoing salary now known as the civil list. The Crown Estate is operated as a business for the benefit of all Britons and all of the operating profits go directly to the Treasury. For example a few weeks ago the Estate sold a large chunk of Westminster’s Harley Street for £34 million pounds, property owned by the Crown Estate since before Henry VIII. But that was a transaction of mostly commercial premises. Paul Clark, Director of Investment and Asset Managementof the Crown Estate, and the instigator of the proposed sale of the Crown Estate residential holdings, has some history when it comes to selling off housing. As Chief surveyor for the Church Commissioners Mr. Clark facilitated a £70 million sale of church owned housing in Stoke Newington, Pimlico, and Maida Vale to a consortium composed, in part, of Genesis Homes a social housing provider and the Grainger Trust, a publicly traded property developer. And as could easily be predicted, when property is moved to a commercial developer, people living on shorthold tenancies felt their rents rise sharply, and when leases expire, and rents revert to market rates, affordable homes are lost forever to the community.
The Crown Estate has owned some of its property in Westminster since 1066, it is the heart of the Crown Estate and it owes some special responsibilities to its Westminster residents. I want to thank to everyone who helped out at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern event, and to Frank Dobson MP for Kings Cross and Holborn for their hard work on this issue. Check out www.ourhomesarenotforsale.co.uk/ and please take the time to write a letter or two objecting to the sale.