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At the heart of the West End, Covent Garden has a rich heritage dating back to the 17th century and earlier. London’s first residential square was built here, later it became home to the capital’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market and developed into one of London’s “playgrounds”, synonymous with theatre, street performance and cultural life. Today it remains one of London’s most significant places for shopping, eating out and leisure. As part of our look at the Great Estate's of London, Alex Miller a senior associate at Kohn Petersen Fox hosted this talk on the area. Brian Whiteley reports on the three presentations from:

Joanna Chambers, joint vice-chair of the Covent Garden Area Trust, set up in 1988 to conserve the area’s historic architecture, environment and special character (see: http://www.coventgardentrust.org.uk/) .

Charles Owen, portfolio executive at Shaftesbury PLC, a real estate investment trust which invests exclusively in the West End (see:  https://www.shaftesbury.co.uk/en/portfolio.html).

Simon Taylor, property director at the Mercers’ Company which is almost 700 years old and a Livery Company in the City of London (see: https://www.mercers.co.uk/).

 

Joanna Chambers outlined the history of the area’s development, emphasising it has always been a noisy, vibrant and dissident part of London since its founding as the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundonwic outside the walls of the former Roman city in the 6th century. By the Middle Ages, it was notably the site of Westminster Abbey’s vegetable “convent garden” - where the monks sold off any surplus food grown.

In 1536, King Henry VIII seized the land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. He then gave much of it away to his friends, and from there it changed hands several times until, in 1553, it came into the ownership of John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. Little development appears to have happened until the 1630s when Francis Russell, the fourth Earl of Bedford, built a house for himself in Covent Garden on the North side of the Strand. In addition, in a bid to make money out of his property the Earl then commissioned Royal Architect Inigo Jones to build a square there, with houses “fit for the [habitations] of Gentlemen and men with ability.”

He also directed Jones to build a church for the new parish – and this resulted in the construction of the impressive St. Paul’s Church. The resulting square was the first piazza in London, and the Russell family’s hand in the creation of the square is commemorated today in Russell Street and Bedford Street.

Markets began gathering at Covent Garden’s new square as early as 1656, though the population was still sparse, composed mostly of wealthier tenants. Being relatively new and out-of-the-way, Covent Garden had the fortune to skirt the worst of the plague in 1665, and it avoided the Great Fire of London entirely in 1666. This meant, however, that scores of Londoners leaving the destroyed City of London found themselves migrating to the West End, and inevitably to Covent Garden. Consequently, the Market practically exploded with activity. Its growth was already seeing wealthier residents leaving the area early in the 17th century. After the Fire of London, in a bid to regulate the rapid spread of the Market into the streets and alleys around the piazza, King Charles II granted a royal charter in 1670 to formalize its presence in Covent Garden.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the area grew densely populated and became the focus for a number of industries besides the central market and its related storage uses; several significant theatres were also built there.

By the early 20th century, the market had reached its maximum extent and as early as 1921 the first ideas began to circulate about relocating it to a more appropriate location. It was only after WWII and London’s subsequent reconstruction that during the 1960’s more definite plans began to be drawn up.

Joanna outlined how a Covent Garden Market Authority was set up in 1961 and planning for a future market move began in earnest. In 1968 the Greater London Council, the City Corporation and City of Westminster Council jointly published a plan for the market site’s redevelopment – with the introduction of a four-land gyratory road.(e.g. for further details see: http://www.coventgardenmemories.org.uk/page_id__37.aspx).

In the following years land prices rose as a result and residents had started leaving the area before an Examination report on the plan found in favour of its implementation. In January 1973 the Secretary of State then approved Covent Garden’s being declared as a Comprehensive Development Area under the GLC’s authority. However, he simultaneously listed over 250 buildings and rejected certain key parts of the GLC proposal. Essentially, he made it impossible for the GLC to continue development as planned.

Whilst the market moved out to its new site at Nine Elms in 1974, effectively planning for the area was under review for several years following the listing of so many key buildings and the declaration of a conservation area. The GLC then rethought their policy completely and the Covent Garden Action Area Plan was written in 1978. In 1985 it became apparent that the GLC was to be abolished by Central Government and its powers devolved upon local authorities. The people of Covent Garden were greatly concerned to ensure the continuance of the precepts of the Covent Garden Action Area Plan. The lands formerly owned by the GLC, including Covent Garden, were vested in the London Residuary Body (LRB).

The LRB was sympathetic to the idea of finding a way of continuing with the by then established policies and in 1988 the Covent Garden Area Trust was formed with a view to enable the management policies enshrined in the Action Area Plan to be continued. The Trust is a registered charity, set up effectively to conserve the historic architecture, environment and special character of the 97-acre Covent Garden area - bounded by Aldwych, Kingsway, High Holborn, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and the Strand.

A Council of Trustees that meets formally every quarter and funded by ground rents from the area governs the Trust. The Trustees include representatives of the local councils and community groups, and nominees of designated bodies who reflect the public interest. There are also “ordinary” Trustees who are elected each year by the members at the Annual General Meeting.

Today finds the former market buildings fully occupied and with the latest significant renovation projects finished at the Floral Court and King Street. More “greening” of the area is being encouraged – of both buildings and the surrounding streets and public spaces. The present challenges facing the area really arise from its success as a tourist attraction with ever-growing numbers of visitors. Land values and rents continue to rise as a result. Most notably recently, one impact of this was the forced move of premises by Stanford’s from its long-established premises on Long Acre to new premises at Mercer Walk. Trying to maintain a balance between the needs of local residents and businesses will be a continuing issue for Covent Garden.

Charles Owen explained that Shaftesbury Estates is an investment trust that owns over 600 buildings across 15 acres of the West End; many are listed and located in conservation areas. Their prime income generators are retail and food & drink uses located on ground floors of their buildings; offices and residential rental properties on upper floors predominantly comprise the rest of their holdings. 

Their two main projects in Covent Garden are at St Martin’s Courtyard and Seven Dials.

The St Martins Courtyard redevelopment was completed ten years ago as a mixed use scheme with retail and restaurants on the ground floor fronting onto Long Acre and in a rear courtyard, with offices and residential flats above. A new refurbishment of a “gateway” building on the site, Sussex House, has just been completed. Comprising a “flagship” retail unit on the ground floor with offices above, tailored to the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises, Shaftesbury Estates now intend carrying out a “refresh” of the rear courtyard. This will aim to make it exclusively for restaurants, with soft planting and decoration introduced to make the area more aesthetically attractive to attract footfall.

Seven Dials was originally laid out in fields there in the 1690’s. The irregular street pattern was intended to maximise the number of frontages. It is now a mixed use area with residential flats, shops, offices, theatres and a gym all located there. Shaftesbury Estates are gradually refurbishing existing poor quality buildings to attract new occupiers – by improving building facing materials, fenestration and shopfront designs. They are also looking to improve the area’s public realm in conjunction with the London Borough of Camden, the Seven Dials Trust and Covent Garden Trust. This involves improving pavements for pedestrians and introducing more vibrant pavement and highway surfaces. A set of unique street signs are being introduced and new “greening” and street planting planned. 

Shaftesbury Estates are also increasing their marketing of the area to increase public awareness of Seven Dials as a visitor attraction. Amongst other things, it has a local phone app. for businesses and residents there, organises a series of pop up community events in local shops and also closes Seven Dials to traffic on occasions for local events.

Simon Taylor explained that the Mercer Company and its associated charitable trusts make grants to support young people, education, older people, churches and communities. Inter alia, it provides a network of almshouses and other homes for the elderly, is involved with the running of 16 schools across the country, and provides, with the City of London Corporation, free public lectures in the City at Gresham College.

The Company’s key holding in Covent Garden is on the north side of Long Acre comprising some 50 shops, 20 restaurants and 150 flats. They have been following a strategy for some time of developing a walking route across the site, broadly parallel to Long Acre, running from St Martin’s Courtyard, through Mercer Walk to Old Brewer’s Yard.

The Mercer Walk scheme was completed in 2016 and includes an H&M store, other retail outlets including the new Stanford’s shop, two restaurants and 24 flats. The presence of H&M as an anchor unit allowed Shaftesbury Estates to take risks with other occupiers – e.g. Pineapple Dance Studios are now based there.

With the Old Brewer’s Yard site Shaftesbury Estates intend refurbishing its buildings – following on from Marks & Spencer’s store leaving in 2017. They hope to create new pedestrian entry routes off Long Acre and Neal Street. As yet, they are uncertain about future uses to be attracted but are considering gin distilleries and microbreweries plus “experiential” retailing alongside a more traditional commercial offer. Social enterprises are also under consideration, in line with their philanthropic agenda. Overall, their aim is to create the right curatorial environment for offices, shops and residential users.

Boots will be taking a ground floor unit there with two floors above of residential flats. The basement is to be given over to parking for 250 bicycles with a set of associated showers.

A short question and answer session followed the three presentations. Major points raised were:

  • Commercial pressures have led to the loss of businesses valued by local residents – e.g. the M&S store – and there is also a dearth of clothes shops. The problem for the large estates is they cannot charge lower rents to try and attract more locally-valued retail uses, given they need to fund investment in courtyards and off-prime locations as well.
  • Social housing is needed in the area - Shaftesbury Estates noted that they include some housing association and student accommodation amongst their holdings in Covent Garden and are trying to provide a mix of residential types to meet different demands there.
  • Social issues in the area still take up significant Police (and private security staff) time – e.g. dealing with rough sleepers and drug addicts who tend to congregate in the area.
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