The housing market of Westminster is driven by an unusual combination of history, convenience for those working in the Houses of Parliament and – by central London standards – good value for money.
The historical reference is down to the well-preserved range of classic architectural styles, mostly Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian, found in a matrix of streets left relatively intact during the second world war and ignored by town planners in the 1960s. This is unlike nearby Pimlico and Victoria, for example, which have undergone numerous regenerations over the past six decades.
Most top-end properties in the area, which is regarded by agents and buyers as less prestigious than Belgravia or Mayfair, are apartments priced from £1m to £3m in converted houses or period mansion blocks. The relatively few houses, which fetch up to £5m, are close to Parliament on Barton Street, Little College Street and Smith and Vincent squares – the latter with views over the playing fields of Westminster School, which stands in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.
The school adds significantly to the area’s heritage. It dates back to the 11th century and has educated seven British prime ministers, philosophers such as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham, and more recent figures such as Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne. Many of the school’s buildings, including its 14th-century dining hall and library, designed by the 17th-century architect Inigo Jones, are part of Westminster’s Unesco World Heritage Site, which also includes the Abbey and the Palace of Westminster.
Very few homes have gardens and the area is relatively quiet on weekends. With few shops and restaurants less than a 15-minute walk away in the West End, the area appeals more to individuals or couples than to families with children. Many buyers are seeking a London pied-à-terre while having their main home in the country.
“People who buy here almost always have an affinity to Old Westminster, usually politicians or those associated with the royal palaces in the area,” says Giles Pickles of estate agency Chesterton Humberts. Many of these are British and in their fifties or older. Agents say “tall and thin” period houses of the kind found in this area are unappealing to younger foreign buyers, who usually want larger lateral spaces. But there are also “American nationals and Russians who appreciate the high ceilings and old world grandeur of the apartments,” says Ralph Ward-Jackson of Prospect Property Search, a buying agency.
Those who do buy in Westminster get more for their money than those drawn to the higher-profile parts of central London.
“If you work for a hedge fund in Mayfair or St James’s, a two-bed pied-à-terre in a portered building can cost approximately half the price in Westminster, for the sake of an extra 20-minute walk to the office,” says Guy Meacock of Prime Purchase, the buying agency arm of Savills.
On Matthew Parker Street, a quiet road close to Parliament and St James’s Park, Hamptons International has a three-bedroom modern apartment in a period building on sale for £1.25m. Another three-bedroom flat in a period block, with a spiral staircase leading from the main living area to a sixth-floor roof terrace, is on sale through Hathaways for £3.25m. Meanwhile agent Carter Jonas is selling a five-storey, four-bedroom townhouse with no outside space for £5.25m.
Knight Frank calculates that since early 2007 Westminster average prices have risen 55 per cent compared with 44.2 per cent across all of prime central London, including Mayfair and Knightsbridge, and yet they remain relatively modest.
Unlike many other agents operating at the top end of the market, Meacock says the recent increase in stamp duty on properties valued at £2m or more will benefit the area, which he forecasts will see increased demand from overseas buyers. “There are simply more units there under £2m than in [other parts of] prime central London,” he says.
Other changes are afoot in Westminster. First, several former institutional buildings are being converted into residential use, and are expected to filter through to the market over the next five years. A six-storey, 7,210 sq ft listed property on Queen Anne’s Gate, built around 1704, is now used as an office but is being marketed by Savills and Hathaways for £10.75m with planning consent for conversion into a 10-bedroom house.
The lucrative potential of such conversions is shown by Abell & Cleland House, a former government building being converted into 275 apartments by Berkeley Homes. It will have a 24-hour concierge service, parking and 999-year leases. “Units have already sold off-plan for £1,700 per square foot,” says Meacock, adding that this may be one of the highest figures ever reached in the locality.
The second change is happening at Victoria, next to Westminster, where new retail developments and transport infrastructure improvements may make Westminster more attractive. Pickles says: “We expect international buyers to grow as the area becomes more familiar. There’s substantial opportunity for uplift here.”
● Historic architecture
● Good value by London standards
● Improving infrastructure in the area
● Shops are a 15-minute walk away
● No ‘London buzz’ on weekends
● Older buildings need more upkeep
What you can buy for . . .
£100,000 An underground parking space a short walk from Westminster
£1m A two-bedroom apartment