City of Westminster - on Location

Thursday 27 March 2014

Saw Swee Hock LSE © Nigel Stead

Westminster is aiming to retain its role as ‘champion of raising the bar in high quality design, delivered for the benefit of the city’ – but must build more office space, even in the face of challenging permitted development rights changes imposed by government.

Those were some of the headline views to emerge at a special NLA On Location event in association with Westminster City Council and sponsored by Berwin Leighton Paisner, held at the new LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Centre last week, along with a debunking of ‘anecdotal’ views expressed in the press that Westminster is becoming prey to ‘dark’ developments where overseas investors invest, but don’t inhabit.

Councillor Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, said that his borough is like no other in the country – one in 40 employees in the country works in Westminster, or almost 700,000 people. Some 49,500 separate businesses contribute £49 billion to the country, or 3.1% of the entire national output, but Westminster’s challenges includes a world heritage site now ‘under threat’ from ‘those Luddites of Lambeth’. Westminster is also England’s busiest planning authority, with over 12,000 applications a year and some 187 ‘major’ applications received since 2011. But despite seeking to remain the ‘champion for high quality design’, Davis said approximately a third of the 400,000m2 of office space gained between 1996 and 2010 have been lost in the last three years, with further losses of offices to residential in the pipeline. ‘The worth on offer to developers for conversions was already tempting enough but last year’s changes have accelerated their popularity.’ Westminster is ‘entirely and absolutely pro-growth’, added Davis, but such losses and their replacement with residential development have ‘really serious implications’ for health, education and transport provision, plus a loss of affordable housing.

Westminster’s strategic director for built environment Rosemarie MacQueen said the borough is being forced to ‘face up to what we do about the disappearing office’, a view echoed by Westminster Property Association chair Daniel van Gelder, who said that with its lack of supply, Westminster is losing occupiers who want big buildings. ‘Have we really started to build effectively for the effects of Crossrail?’ he asked. ‘I don’t think we have’. Westminster needs to build more offices, larger offices, and with larger floorplates, impelled by buildings being lost to residential every week and prices being paid for some sites coming in at as much as £2000/sqft. Restrictions on residential in some areas could possibly be one way out, but van Gelder believes the market may ‘self-correct’.  

MacQueen said that with an average house price in Westminster now round £1million compared to a £473,000 regional average, the stamp duty contribution to national coffers is considerable, but issues of affordability are crucial. However, she said, there is a great deal of ‘anecdotal’ material in the press about ‘lights out London’ which is not borne out by new statistics from researchers Ramidus Consulting.

The principal of Ramidus Rob Harris said that around 15,000 of Westminster’s 118,000 homes are ‘prime’ – i.e. with a property value of above £2m. He added that the concentration of super prime residential is quite small, that we live in world cities rather than nation states and that overseas investors are making commitments with many of their properties held for the long-term, sending their children to local schools and building relationships in the area.

The conference also heard from New West End Company chairman Sir Peter Rogers, who warned that Westminster must stay ‘special’, ensure planning policies are fit for purpose and guard against London’s centre of gravity moving east; Grosvenor’s Nigel Hughes on neighbourhood forums, particularly Mayfair’s, but also the fact that only seven neighbourhood plans have been formally adopted in the two years since they were put into force; and Berwin Leighton Paisner partner Tim Smith, who suggested that localism was a ‘one-size-fits-all concept’ and about growth, not one designed with London communities in mind. David Rowe, head of borough projects and programmes at TfL, said that Crossrail 2 must happen to help travel journeys in the capital further; Michael Squire, senior partner at Squire and Partners, took the audience through some of his practice’s context-respecting projects and repeated his idea for Westminster to allow an extra storey on developments built since the war; and Publica director Lucy Musgrave detailed her firm’s work at places like Capco’s Covent Garden on exploring the ‘DNA’ of Westminster and London, understanding its conditions, safeguarding its social infrastructure and creating connections.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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