16 May 2014, Financial Times
Whitehall’s postwar office blocks are being converted into housing, as the area benefits from the redevelopment of Victoria.
Over the past four decades, everyone from rock stars to rioters has faced justice at the dock of Westminster Magistrates Court. In 2009, Amy Winehouse appeared trailing paparazzi to deny assaulting a woman at a charity ball. A year later it was the turn of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who was there to fight extradition proceedings.
Today the court is no more. The nondescript building, closed as part of a Ministry of Justice rationalisation programme, has been demolished and replaced by 129 flats by Barratt London. The first residents are due to move into The Courthouse this summer; prices range from £665,000 to £6.5m. The scheme is just one of a number of high-end developments changing perceptions of Westminster.
Not long ago this wedge-shaped slice of riverside real estate, bounded by Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road, was seen as the home of Parliament, not even a residential option. Now it is being tipped as one of the rising stars of central London’s property market.
Westminster is benefiting from the £2bn redevelopment of neighbouring Victoria and a ripple effect from prime central London. Developers are converting moribund office buildings – often formerly owned or occupied by government departments – into lateral homes in the shadow, etaphorically at least, of Big Ben. Prices are rising accordingly.
Research by Savills shows average house prices in Westminster stand at £933,207, up 27 per cent since 2008. According to Richard Osborne-Young of Jones Lang LaSalle, the value of new-build homes is even higher. He estimates that two or three years ago flats typically sold at about £1,000 per sq ft and, though there is still “plenty of second-hand property” available at around this price, new developments are pushing towards £1,500 to £2,000 per sq ft. “Westminster is catching up with prime central London,” he says.
Buying agent Camilla Dell, of Black Brick, feels that Westminster is gaining traction with “savvy” buyers. “The interest is from, perhaps, a more sophisticated buyer who is not transfixed by living in Mayfair or Knightsbridge,” she says.
As well as value for money, Westminster also has better public transport links and a more central location than many top areas. These good links are fortunate because Westminster “is not as pretty as Belgravia and Chelsea”, according to Osborne-Young. And it lacks both an established high street and a good range of cafés and restaurants.
The most famous restaurant in the area is the Cinnamon Club. Thanks to its proximity to parliament, bills from this Indian restaurant featured regularly in the MPs’ expenses scandal. Victoria Street, with its chain stores but lack of independent retailers, is the closest shopping street.
Westminster is also home to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, which means that tourists are thick on the ground. Traffic is heavy, too.
Building sites are scarce in prime central London and so developers are looking to adjacent areas. Westminster, with its rich trove of grim postwar office buildings, is ripe for redevelopment, especially since the Government Property Unit was set up in 2010 to rationalise the government’s property holdings amid concerns about waste and inefficiency in the management of its estate.
Taylor Wimpey, for example, is in the process of replacing a 1960s structure, once occupied by the Department for Communities and Local Government, with a development of 24 flats named 73 Great Peter Street. The scheme, due to complete next spring, is on the market with Jones Lang LaSalle, priced from £999,999 for a 625 sq ft, one-bedroom flat to £4.15m for a 2,000 sq ft penthouse.
Last year Taylor Wimpey also acquired an office site on Chadwick Street and this year bought Ashley House on Monk Street. Both are earmarked for housing. Lisa Ronson, of Ronson Capital Partners, is another Westminster convert. She has recently overseen the opening of the show suite at Riverwalk, where 116 homes have been built on the site of a block which once housed the Government Office for London. About half have been sold since last spring. Two-bedroom flats are available at £1.8m and four-bedroom properties at £12m. Buyers have been willing to pay up to £2,800 per sq ft to live at Riverwalk and, while the specification is high, Ronson says the development’s unique selling point is its Thames views.
“Previously, Westminster was something of a hidden gem,” says Susannah Odgers of Hathaways estate agents. “However, as Victoria has moved into the residential spotlight, so has Westminster.”
Yet houses are scarce. A five-storey period townhouse on Wilfred Street, built in 1920 and recently renovated, is priced at £2.5m. Meanwhile, Abell & Cleland, a 275-unit development by Berkeley Homes, is due for completion in 2016. Homes have views over the Thames and the South Bank. Prices start from £1.81m for a two-bedroom flat (1,094 sq ft), ranging up to £7.95m for a four-bedroom penthouse.