Skip to main content

Who owns London?

In the seventeenth century, London was the City of London. As the eighteenth century progressed, aristocratic land owners started to develop their land; the Earl of Bedford was first, with Covent Garden, then came the Earl of Southampton with Bloomsbury Square, and the Earl of St Albans with St James’s Square. The 1760s saw the development of the Bedford Estate in Bloomsbury and the Portman Estate in Marylebone, followed by the Grosvenor Estate, mostly in the early nineteenth century.


The developments were carried out under a leasehold system. The land owner would let plots to a developer or builder, who would build at his own expense. and at the end of the lease the development would become the property of the ground landlord. Funds would be raised for the construction on the security of the lease agreement. The landlords’ estate surveyors would ensure the quality and finish of the elevations. The system was of great advantage to the landowner, who could develop his land with little risk or capital outlay, gained and income from from the ground rent, and at the end of the lease, usuallly 99 years, the property reverted to the estate. At the end of the lease period, the estates would renew leases at increased rents or redevelop the land.

In this way, death duties notwithstanding, the great aristocratic estates of Grosvenor, Cadogan, de Walden, Portman and Bedford, together with the Crown Estate and the City of London, have survived 300 years and still control the lion’s share of Central London.

The above is not a piece of socialist propaganda. It was taken from a catalogue of an exhibition, called “The Great Estates”, promoted by those estates, of architecture in 2006. The Campaign has no objection in principle to the fact a large proportion of the capital’s land is owned by a handful of families. They have indeed managed their properties well. The estates constitute some of the finest urban environments in the world. But their owners gather up a growing stream of land rent, that arises from the presence and activities of the community, which provides, amongst other things, the infrastructure on which their estates are totally dependent. The landowners themselves, as such, do nothing to earn to earn their land value. The situation is taken for granted, which it should not be.

How did all this land come to fall into the hands of a few “aristocratic” families? What does “aristocratic” actually mean? The possession of special high-quality blue corpuscles circulating in the bloodstream? Usually, they are the distant descendants of monarchs’ favourites who managed to avoid getting their heads chopped off.

Such a concentration of power and wealth takes a toll on democracy. The owners of these estates will gladly spend a little bit to ensure that nothing is done which might harm their privileged position. Normally, the situation is never mentioned, which proves how effective they are in stopping debate. This why it was surprising to find all the information gathered together in an exhibition catalogue. But then it was unlikely to fall into the hands of anyone who would bring the contents to public attention.

The organisers of the exhibition, the Building Centre, have kindly allowed us to hold the catalogue of The Great Estates on our own website where it can be downloaded here