Who Owns London’s Office Space?

Hannah Watkins
Hannah Watkins|Updated January 3rd 2019

It’s fair to say that the commercial property market in London is complex.

With companies occupying space in a variety of ways – from freeholds, to leaseholds, to licenses, to sublets – it can be hard to visualise what belongs to who in the UK capital. Because most businesses residing within buildings don’t actually own the property. In fact, even the people they lease or license from may not own the property.

Let’s take an example: say you’re working in a serviced office. You’re a tenant of the serviced office (WeWork, TOG, Regus…), but that serviced office provider is also a tenant of somebody else. The freeholder of the property may actually be a bank, or a hedge fund, or a private investor.

In our bid to demystify the commercial property industry, we’ve put together this article giving you more clarity on who actually owns office space in London.

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As the profile of London commercial property is constantly changing, with huge acquisitions and developments happening on a weekly basis, it can be hard to ascertain exactly who owns how much at any one time. Nevertheless, there are seven main landlords of London property: institutions, property developers, private investors, corporations, landed estates, public bodies, and overseas investors. Below, we’ll outline how this formulates ownership of London commercial property, and even give you a few insights into the ownership of some of the city’s most recognisable buildings.

Institutions

Some of the biggest landlords in London are institutional investors. This includes everything from banks and insurers to pension and hedge funds. Think: Aviva, Legal & General, AXA, so on.

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A prime example of property owned by an institution is Twentytwo Bishopsgate. Formerly The Pinnacle project, which was suspended in 2012 due to lack of funds, Twentytwo Bishopsgate was sold to AXA in 2015 for a sizeable £300 million. Since then, the space has undergone extensive redesign – including a height reduction due to worries of cranes interfering with City Airport’s flight paths – promising its tenants world-class facilities, including the largest bicycle park in London, a viewing gallery offering unrivalled vistas of the city, and even a climbing window sitting 400 ft high.

Twentytwo Bishopsgate is by no means alone in AXA’s commercial property portfolio. Other well-known past investments have included the 60 Holborn Viaduct building, let to Amazon, and Google’s King’s Cross office.

Other leading institutional investors include Aviva, who last year owned just under 9 million sq ft of property in London, and Legal & General Group, who owned just under 7 million.

PropCos and REITs

Many London landowners are traditional property companies (PropCos), or Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs – companies that own, and often operate, income-producing real estate). The most prevalent of these in the UK include Capital, Canary Wharf Group, British Land, and Landsec. Another is Derwent, who own a portfolio of 5.5 million sq ft of commercial real estate, primarily in Central London, valued in June 2018 at £5 billion. This makes them the largest London-focused real estate investment trust.

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One of their prize buildings is White Collar Factory, now home to big tenants such as Capital One and Adobe. The estimated value of the property is over £200 million – unsurprising given its super high-spec facilities for tenants, such as a 150m rooftop running track.

One of Derwent’s main achievements with this building was its sustainability credentials, minimising its impact on the environment during both construction and operation. In fact, they claim that their measures ensure carbon savings equivalent to:

  • 5,600 journeys of the entire London Underground
  • a Boeing 747 flying from London to New York City 162 times
  • the mass of 16 Eiffel Towers
  • driving along the Great Wall of China 76 times

Private investors

Commercial property is a popular investment opportunity for wealthy individuals, resulting in some of London’s most recognisable buildings being snapped up by private investors.

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Arguably the most well-known office building in London, The Gherkin, is owned by Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra, who paid a huge £726m for the building in 2014. At the time, Safra was ranked the world’s second-richest banker, with a personal fortune close to $15bn, according to Forbes. Whilst £700 million may seem a lot, the Gherkin was (and still is) considered revolutionary in terms of its architecture, having raked in a number of awards: The Stirling Prize, London Region Award, and the Emporis Skyscraper Award.

Corporations

Some companies, rather than leasing space, prefer to own their office building. Given that this is a riskier investment, involving much more significant upfront costs, most companies choosing this route are large and well-established (though this isn’t always the case).

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Notable examples of this are Bloomberg London, which houses over 4000 staff (with room to grow). Designed by Foster and Partners, Bloomberg HQ started construction on the old site of Bucklersbury House in 2010, at cost of £1 billion. Located between the Bank of England and St Paul’s Cathedral, the new site provides approximately 1.1 million square feet of office space. A huge investment, Bloomberg committed to making this an iconic building – and succeeded.

Since then, Bloomberg HQ has won the Riba Stirling Prize for architecture, and earned the title of the World’s Most Sustainable Office Building: compared to a typical office building, the new Bloomberg building’s environmental strategies deliver a 73% saving in water consumption and a 35% saving in energy consumption and associated CO₂ emissions.

Landed estates

Landed estates, sometimes referred to as the ‘Great Estates,’ have existed in London since the 16th century and were created by aristocrats from this period. The most notable landed property owners in London include the Grosvenor, Cadogan, Portman, Howard de Walden and Bedford Estates who still own a significant amount of property in central London.

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Eaton Square, for example, is owned by Grosvenor – a landed estate founded in 1677. Even today, their portfolio covers almost 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia – and in 2016, Eaton Square was dubbed the “Most Expensive Place to Buy Property in Britain”.

Public bodies

A large proportion of commercial property in London is owned by public bodies and the Government.

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The most prominent landlords include the City of London Corporation, whose portfolio comprises everything from the city’s universities to its hospitals. Most Government properties are pretty self-explanatory: Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament contribute to the Government’s 13,900 UK buildings and land plots. The latter is currently undergoing extensive restoration works estimated at a huge £3.5 billion.

Overseas investors

By far the most noticeable change in London’s commercial property ownership profile over recent years has been the increase in overseas investment. In 2017, of the £19.7 billion that changed hands in Central London’s commercial property market, a huge 77% was by non-domestic investors. In spite of recent uncertainty following Brexit, investment from overseas has anything but suffered – in fact, it has risen.

Why is London so attractive to non-domestic parties? Despite such political uncertainty around leaving the EU, London remains a comparatively stable and transparent investment for international capital. According to James Beckham of Cushman & Wakefield:

“Since the vote to leave the EU, capital targeting London from the Asia-Pacific region has increased to record levels. This is partly due to currency fluctuations, but is more indicative of longer-term confidence in London and investment strategies which are not derailed by short-term political uncertainty.” (via Business Reporter)

The most active overseas investors are those from Asia, in particular Qatar. Since 2005, this tiny country of just 2.5 million people has been one of the city’s biggest players, with a large portion of the £80 billion they’ve invested put into UK real estate. For example, the Qatar Investment Authority paid £1.17 billion to acquire the HSBC tower in Canary Wharf in December 2014. The Cheesegrater, or Leadenhall Building, was also sold in March 2014 for £1.15 billion to CC Land, the Chinese real estate company.

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However, the most significant (and well-documented) investment came from Hong Kong food conglomerate Lee Kum Kee: 20 Fenchurch Street, more commonly known as the Walkie Talkie building, sold for a record-breaking £1.3 billion in 2017 – the highest ever sum for a single UK building.

A lot of money for a building that also gained notoriety for melting the bumper of a Jaguar, and for winning the 2015 Carbuncle Cup, an annual award for the ugliest building of the year.

Joint ventures

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Some commercial property will be jointly owned by more than one party. Take Regent Street, for example: half of it is owned by The Regent Street Partnership, made up of Norges, the Norwegian bank, and The Crown Estate. The venture was conceived when The Crown Estate sold a stake in Regent Street to the Norwegian Sovereign wealth fund for £448m, and their portfolio now comprises 54,000 sq ft of retail and office space over London.

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