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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Anna White

Lights-on London: affluent areas are trying to lose their ghost town reputation — but are they getting it right?

Against a backdrop of widespread economic hardship, The Knightsbridge Estate has launched a collection of ultra luxury apartments to let. Nestled between Harrods and Harvey Nichols, the largest ones cost more than £9,000 a week, close to half a million pounds a year, and around 18 times more expensive than the average rent in London.

Billed as London’s first “super-prime residences for rent”, The Knightsbridge Estate says it wants Knightsbridge Gardens to be a “lights-on scheme”, and tries to encourage two-year tenancies on the flats, where a one-bed starts at £1,250 per week. But this is negotiable.

To Westminster councillor Matt Noble, there is a “dichotomy” in central London: between decadent homes being delivered and the two-decade waits for council housing faced by some families.

There are 4,000 people on the waiting list for council housing in the borough, says Noble. In Kensington and Chelsea, the waiting list is 3,181 strong.

Homelessness is not the only concern in Westminster. A ghost town reputation has darkened its grand doorways for too long, to the detriment of full-time residents and small businesses.

“One the of biggest threats to the area is developers buying land and building super luxury property. This hollows out our communities,” says Noble of what is known as Prime Central London (PCL), namely Belgravia, Mayfair, Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge.

Young professional Londoners who might once have managed to rent in the area could now never dream of affording to stay and raise a family.

Branded residences — where leading hoteliers team up with developers to create luxury homes with opulent resident-only amenities attached — are also on the rise.

Motcomb Street in Belgravia (Juliet Murphy)

Such elitist facilities are accused of ripping the soul out of central London, deterring shoppers, diners and revellers from what was once the most swinging part of town.

In this era defined by the cost-of-living crisis, when even Prince William is hinting at a plan to build much-needed housing on royal land, are the efforts of estate owners and councils to overhaul central London too little too late?

New homes in Belgravia from £700,000

London is the fifth most expensive city in the world with the priciest properties concentrated in PCL.

Following its redevelopment, Chelsea Barracks now boasts townhouses that range from £38 million to £60 million in 12.8 acres of landscaped gardens with sculpture trails and water features.

Ebury Bridge Road will see 780 properties built in total, including 370 council homes (Handout)

Opposite is Ebury Bridge Road. This run-down 1930s housing estate is being overhauled in the biggest delivery of affordable homes in south Westminster in 50 years. The development is being driven by Westminster City Council with the private sale homes paying for the construction of the affordable ones.

Of the 780 units, 370 will be council homes. This is 129 more council homes than in the scheme’s previous iteration. Another 21 units are for homeowners who have been moved during construction, while 389 are for private sale, with prices rumoured to start from £700,000 — far lower than the average asking price for Belgravia of £3,295,806 (Rightmove).

This means half of all homes at Ebury Bridge will be classed as affordable. A gym and a nursery are being added to the site.

In total, there are 1,490 council houses under construction in Westminster.

Keeping key workers

Professor Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics slams inner London as the “epicentre of the appalling state of housing supply in Britain” and a “contributor to the housing affordability crisis”.

One of the direst consequences is the loss of key and essential workers who are unable to live near where they work.

Marylebone has dedicated housing for those working in its many hospitals. But there are 10 hospitals (a mix of NHS and private) in the neighbourhood and just 13 key worker homes at a 54 per cent discount. The intention is there, but this is a numbers game.

Key and essential workers in inner London find it impossible to live near their places of work (Juliet Murphy)

“At the moment there is no ambition to increase the number of units provided within this scheme,” a spokesperson for the Howard de Walden estate in Marylebone told Homes & Property.

There are 14 homes for intermediate rent in Farm Street, Mayfair, which go to key workers first. Intermediate rent tends to be 60 to 80 per cent of the market rate. In this block, a one-bed costs £1,200 per month — around three times cheaper than the average private rental home in the neighbourhood.

Other initiatives for key workers include the Westminster Home Ownership Accelerator Scheme set up by charity Dolphin Living.

Anyone living or working in Westminster with a household income of less than £90,000 and savings of more than £22,500 can apply to live in dedicated blocks in Maida Vale or Bayswater where rent is set at a 65 per cent discount against market rate. This enables tenants to save and after three years the scheme will add £54,500 towards buying their own home.

Turning the lights back on

At the other end of the scale, a new survey by Beauchamp Estates reveals that international wealth is flooding back into the London property market after a Covid lull, with American, European, India, Malaysian and Chinese billionaires driving top end sales.

London welcomes residents from all over the world, but there are fears that a rise in overseas buyer numbers will go hand in hand with an increase in the number of unoccupied homes.

Councils are cracking down on empty homes (Juliet Murphy)

Westminster council is cracking down with a hotline for reporting homes that seem unlived in for more than six months of the year. “Investing money is fine but we shouldn’t commoditise housing. It is too important to the fabric of our society and treating it as a commodity disintegrates community,” says Noble.

Kensington and Chelsea (the other PCL borough) has taken it a step further and is holding a review to find empty properties.

The council will slap a council tax premium of 100 per cent on those homes which have been empty for more than two years and less than five, or are substantially unfurnished. For those empty for more than five but less than 10 this jumps to 200 per cent.

Can central London clean up its act?

Energy efficiency and air pollution are also high up the agenda for landowners and councils in PCL.

The Mayfair plan has policies to increase urban greening, such as limiting corporate events on green spaces and requiring developers to add green roofs, hanging baskets, and to plant trees and add living walls and roofs to structures such as bus stops.

Ebury Bridge Road is designed to be largely a car-free neighbourhood (apart from disabled parking). With 2,000 bike spaces, it is being built around five green squares and pocket parks.

Community activities at Ebury Edge, a temporary space while Ebury Bridge Road is completed (Handout)

Cundy Street Quarter, also at the Victoria end of Belgravia, is a low-carbon development which will deliver 333 new homes: 88 affordable homes, 170 for later living, and 75 for private sale.

Led by the landowner Grosvenor, this new neighbourhood will use a 20th of the energy of the previous version, with 27,000sq ft of green roofs and £10 million being spent on improving the surrounding public realm (communal gardens and children’s play areas).

Work starts on the Grade II-listed Grosvenor Square — former home of London’s American embassy — next year. The six-acre garden is the second largest garden square in London but with no real ecological value.

With proposals to create a subterranean garden scrapped, new approved plans will see a third dedicated to overgrown habitat rich planting, a wetland with waterfalls and a learning centre.

With 2,000 bike spaces, Ebury Bridge Road is being built around five green squares and pocket parks. Pictured, the Ebury Edge community space (Handout)

We need places to shop not gawp

Office space in PCL is vital too for the vibrancy of the area and its economy. Young people in particular are most productive when working in clusters — they acquire tacit skills and a social network, Professor Cheshire explains.

The offering on the high streets must then suit their pocket. “Working, living, shopping, going out must all fit together as an ecology,” says placemaking adviser Patricia Brown. “We cannot only have boutiques and restaurants where people gawp but cannot shop. People need to be able to buy a hairband or a toy.” She is calling for “authentic not instagrammable” high streets. “We have created an unaffordable place and we need to move beyond this now,” she adds.

Large-scale placemaking, seen elsewhere in London where new mini towns rise up on old industrial sites, is not possible within this sacred architectural haven. Anthony Payne, managing director at LonRes, says the careful evolution of the high street is the key to creating community.

“These landowning estates and councils are not able to start from scratch, they are micro placemaking within the confines of what already exists. They are curating,” he says.

Westminster council has ringfenced £10 million to upgrade “neglected” streets on the outskirts of PCL such as the Edgware Road in Paddington and Queensway in Bayswater.

Knightsbridge Estates, working with TfL, has improved the exit to Knightsbridge Tube and widened the pavements to try to attract more shoppers. But improving street furniture is meaningless without the right mix and activation on the high street.

Formerly a ‘dead mews’, Pavilion Road has been turned into a vibrant high street says Anthony Payne (Daniel Lynch)

The narrow and uneven streets of Soho might not be as easy on the heel but the latest skateboard at Palace Skateboards in Brewer Street still has buyers queueing round the corner.

Payne cites Pavilion Road in Chelsea, which was a “dead mews”, as the perfect example of a vibrant new high street with a hyperlocal cheesemonger, convenience store, ice cream kiosk, and Ottolenghi Chelsea, all serviced by Uber bikes.

Marylebone and the village effect

Those pockets of PCL that have grown into genuine villages are attracting buyers and tenants over the trophy areas, says Payne, who calls Marylebone the “trailblazer”.

He adds: “Due to its world-class medical sector, Marylebone used to feel a bit grey, as though it was full of ill people there to see their doctor. But it has reinvented itself.”

Marylebone hosts a summer festival each year (Handout)

The mix of businesses in Marylebone High Street has been the key. “We try and help new interesting and independent small brands get off the ground, for the good of our existing residents and to bring visitors in,” says Julian Best of the Howard de Walden estate.

New offerings include O Pioneers, a kitchen table label with two designers making Victoriana–style dresses, and MUD Australia, a carbon neutral porcelain shop. Then there are old favourites such as La Fromagerie, a Marylebone Summer Festival and open air film night and a food festival in April.

Becky Fatemi, who runs the estate agent Rokstone, is a long-time resident. “The revival of our high street started with the Conran Shop and the farmer’s market, and then Chiltern Firehouse.

“Recently Bayley and Sage have opened along with a new Carlotta,” she says. “There’s a strong sense of community — I’ve often heard it compared to Greenwich Village in New York.”

As for housing, the price of a white stucco townhouse overlooking Regent’s Park is never going to come down by much. But the number of new homes classed as affordable or reasonably priced, can go up if led by the Government, councils and even a future king.

‘How renting should be’

Candle-maker Rachel Vosper outside her shop next to the Wilton Arms in Kinnerton Street, Belgravia (Juliet Murphy)

There are well-established communities tucked away in central London that need cherishing. Candle-maker, business owner and mother-of-one Rachel Vosper has lived and worked in Kinnerton Street in north Belgravia for 12 years. “I wouldn’t be in any other part of London,” she says.

Vosper runs a candle shop ( and provides bespoke arrangements for events such as the Chelsea Flower Show and private clients. She also runs a refill service so that customers can come in with treasured vessels or old candle holders and fill their own.

It’s a sociable street with full-time residents who err on the creative side. “These streets only really work if they are fully occupied,” says Vosper, who hails the Wilton Arms as the heart of the community.

Vosper manages to stay in Belgravia — one of the most expensive places in the UK — because her landlady doesn’t crank up the rent and instead gives her a sense of security.

“We support each other. When I moved in with a tiny baby she made sure there was milk in the fridge and linen on the beds. I look after the flat for her.

“Although I can’t guarantee she will never sell, I have now been here for 12 years. Isn’t that how renting should be?”

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