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Palatial surroundings - Westminster and Pimlico
Palatial surroundings - Westminster and Pimlico
Published FT May 16 2009


The Houses of Parliament, the neo-gothic masterpiece designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, present a glorious façade in the midday sun. But as the metaphorical black clouds of recession and a scandal over politicians’ expenses loom, can the homes nearby still bask in the reflected glow?

Listed as a Unesco world heritage site along with its immediate neighbour, Westminster Abbey, the UK government’s seat of democratic power inevitably exerts a strong influence over the buildings sited on the once marshy land around it. The area’s administrative importance is, however, balanced by a strong residential profile and its most historic buildings rub shoulders with architecture from almost every era since King Canute first built a royal palace on the spot, then known as Thorney Island.

One of the most recent additions is the new mixed-use Home Office building, with its architecturally fashionable panels of coloured glass. This structure replaced the “three ugly sisters” of Marsham Street – brutalist 1960s tower blocks – and includes 104 private one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments priced between £450,000 and £1m as well as 40 affordable housing units.

“Westminster is a specialist neighbourhood, with many buyers having very specific requirements because of their particular need to be close to government,” says Stuart Bailey of estate agency Knight Frank, which is selling an unlisted converted row of period houses in Romney Street for £3.1m.

“We love an election in this part of the world because we get lots of new instructions, particularly if there’s a change of government,” says Kieran Chalker of estate agency Garton Jones, which went against the trend and opened a local branch at the height of the credit crunch last year. “The area has changed a lot in the past 10 years. Westminster used to be much more of a working neighbourhood but now there are many more residential units being built. At the moment we’re seeing a lot of overseas buyers, who like the central location and the fact that the pound is down.”

Chalker was born in the Westminster Children’s Hospital, on the north side of Vincent Square, a private expanse of green owned by Westminster School and used as a sports playing field. The hospital has since been converted to residential apartments, where a 734 sq ft, one-bedroom unit sold a year ago for £500,000.

Residential redevelopment of former public buildings is increasingly commonplace in the area as the machinery of government has been priced out and many erstwhile civic facilities have been sold, among them Horseferry Road Magistrates Court – a favourite of author John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey – which Barratt Homes hopes to convert into homes. In nearby Rochester Row Barratt is creating 34 one- to three-bedroom apartments, priced from £584,250 to £2.3m, out of a former multi-storey car park and offices.

These newer apartment complexes and converted former offices sit alongside the area’s many older mansion blocks, such as Marsham Court – a refurbished art deco portered block originally built with its own restaurant and cocktail bar. The apartments – estate agency M2 Property is selling a one-bedroom flat for £425,000 – still show touches of their former life. Front doors have an adjacent cupboard, where former residents would place their suits and boots for cleaning overnight. Such was the life of a middle-ranking civil servant in the days of empire. Evidence of the unrelenting march of change includes a second world war memo held in the building’s records that reads: “Owing to the manpower shortage because of the war effort, residents are required to turn down their own beds.” Later, Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe had a pied-à-terre in the block and, though there are still MPs keeping homes or flats in Westminster, many now find it prohibitively expensive, despite generous – and now controversial – property allowances.

Neighbouring Pimlico, where Winston Churchill once lived, is a popular choice as it strikes a balance between convenience and cost. Its grid-pattern streets were laid out in the 19th century by master builder Thomas Cubitt, who was also responsible for large swathes of posher Belgravia, just to the north. His wide streets and homogeneous stucco-fronted architecture are still much admired, along with sought-after garden squares such as Warwick Square and Eccleston Square. This residential enclave acquired the aspirational nickname “South Belgravia” shortly after it was built and it has largely kept a low-rise, period feel.

Former Conservative party leader Michael Howard has maintained a four-bedroom home in Pimlico since 1997, after stints in Notting Hill and Belgravia. “I think it’s remarkably good value and it’s a mixed area, which I like a lot.”

His wife, the novelist Sandra Howard, much of whose latest book, A Matter of Loyalty , was written in her attic office, adds: “I thought it would be a concrete jungle when we first moved here but it’s the quintessential London village – fantastic. Barristers, financiers and politicians live in Victorian houses that rub shoulders with large council [public] housing blocks. People of every country and colour walk the streets. Queuing up in the small Warwick Way Tesco [supermarket], I’m behind old ladies buying a quarter bottle of Scotch, young ladies in pearls, girls showing their navels and men showing their builders’ clefts. All life is in Pimlico. I love it.”

As for property values, Adam Bishop of estate agency Hamptons International reports that “many of the original five-storey houses in the Pimlico grid have been converted into apartments and a 500 sq ft, one-bedroom flat would cost £350,000-£400,000. Duplex apartments may be £600,000-£700,000; the smaller houses [1,700-1,800 sq ft] around £1.65m and the largest houses [around 3,000 sq ft] £2.5m-2.75m. It’s very central, very convenient and attractive and you can buy a house for significantly less money than either Chelsea, Kensington or Belgravia.”

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Estate agencies

Hamptons , tel: 44 (0)2078344771, www.hamptons.co.uk Garton Jones , tel: 44 (0)2073400480, www.gartonjones.co.uk Knight Frank , tel: 44 (0)2078817720, www.knightfrank.co.uk
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