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Why Can't the Crown Estate Be a Social Landlord?

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It's as if time has stood still for Britain's historic landowners. For centuries, land owned by the Crown Estate, the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, the Church and the Duke of Westminster has served them very well.

Today little has changed. In fact if anything, the financial fortunes of Britain's ancient estates' have improved as values, particularly in London, surge.

Combined, the UK's most powerful landowners have amassed British property assets worth £13.4billion. Their property jewels take in the country's most valuable real estate. For instance, much of London's Mayfair, St James's and Regent Street falls under the Crown Estate and Duke of Westminster's purview.

Beyond the capital, Britain's five historic estates have major landholdings in places like Oxford, Cambridge, Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire and Bingham in Nottinghamshire.

Here, and in dozens of sites dotted around the country, thousands of new homes are planned at a time when for most people, affording to buy or rent a property has never been harder.

The Bureau's latest housing investigation reveals for the first time the full extent of housing plans belonging to five of Britain's most important historic estates.

These ancient landowners are behind plans to build nearly 12,000 new houses spread between 54 separate developments. At current average UK prices, this will generate over £2billion in cash.

For the 1.7million households on council waiting lists and 57,350 families living in temporary accommodation, George Osborne's confirmation last week that the UK's housing crisis will last at least another ten years offered scant hope.

So it seems that Britain's five historic landowners are stepping up to the plate by delivering desperately needed new homes.

Only it's not quite so simple. The Bureau's trawl of local authority planning documents has established that 24 the 54 developments by the Crown Estate, the Duchies, the Church and Grosvenor fail to meet local affordable housing targets.

In other words, Britain's five historic landowners are building in places where there is a recognised need for affordable homes, a requirement for them to meet that need but they often fail to do so.

Property estates that endure through time require a combination of luck, timing, skill, vision and hard-nosed focus.

Attributes the Duke of Westminster and his forebears have shown since a fortuitous marriage in 1677 resulted in the Grosvenor family owning 500 acres of fields we now know as Mayfair.

As a private developer - albeit Britain's richest - the Duke is within his rights delivering the minimum amount of affordable housing required by national planning law. And in fact, Grosvenor has a better record contributing to the building of affordable homes than some of Britain's most successful quoted companies.

But what is the excuse for the Crown Estate, whose £8.1billion property interests are owned by the monarch?

Over half the Crown's 19 housing developments fail to meet local affordable housing targets.
Planning records show commitments made by the Crown Estate to build affordable homes have been significantly cut. In one case, local planners had to remind the Crown Estate that in fact, contrary to their arguments developers do make money from affordable housing.

The Crown Estate states that it has a duty to enhance the value of its schemes and that all its profits flow back to the Treasury for the benefit of the nation. Furthermore, from its surplus the Queen receives, via the Treasury, her £37.9million income.

But disappointed MPs and councillors point out that the Crown Estate is part of the fabric of Britain. Unlike quoted housebuilders, it is under no immediate pressure to make short terms gains to satisfy shareholders. The Crown Estate, barring catastrophe, is by its very nature, here for the long term.

There are many reasons for a dramatic under supply of affordable homes in Britain. One of the biggest reasons is the high price of land - particularly in the south east.

Housebuilders increasingly argue it is unviable to include much affordable housing in their developments. As a result, the number of affordable units the private sector builds has reduced.

But the Crown Estate does not suffer from the conundrum of high land prices. Its land ownership dates back many, many centuries.

The Crown Estate could make an excellent long-term sustainable return for Her Majesty and the nation by becoming a more social landlord rather than taking the fast buck.

That the Crown Estate acts like a conventional builder and largely fails to meet affordable housing targets in its residential schemes could be regarded as betrayal of its legacy and its "subjects".

MPs will now press the Crown Estate and the Duchy of Cornwall, which pays Prince Charles his £19million salary, why it cannot build more affordable homes. At a time of national housing crisis, it may be the time for both estates to shift to a more accommodating development strategy.

Around the Web

Affordable housing - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Affordable housing supply - GOV.UK

What is social housing?- Shelter England

City urged to invest in affordable housing schemes

Developers and councils invited to bid for housing cash

The boomerang generation: A lack of affordable housing is putting huge strain ...