Property Prince Becomes King: Charles III’s Highs And Lows In The Real Estate World
In his 70 years as heir to the throne, King Charles III's forays into real estate have been something of a roller coaster ride.
He has been criticised for airing views about architecture that saw a major national museum project altered and changed the design of one of London’s largest residential schemes. A commercial property fund he once backed had to be rescued from administration in order to save the then-prince blushes.
But some of the new king's ups and downs are instructive — that rescued fund, for example, was looking to buy and build sustainable property assets long before it was commonplace in the world of commercial real estate.
In his role as Prince of Wales, Charles was an early and outspoken proponent of sustainability and what has come to be called placemaking.
The property world has now come to him.
It was in the field of architecture and design that King Charles made his first public pronouncements on his views about the built environment. He famously described a proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend" in a 1984 speech to mark the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The Ahrends Burton Koralek-designed scheme was shelved soon after, the Architects’ Journal reported.
In 2009, he wrote to the Qatari royal family to describe Richard Rogers-designed plans for part of their huge, multibillion-pound redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks site in west London as "unsuitable". Rogers’ firm was removed from the design team for the scheme.
In both cases Charles was criticised for using his influence to push his own views on architecture in a way not befitting the heir to the throne. The AJ described him as “a long-time campaigner for traditional urbanism, Classical design”, and he has been seen as a vociferous opponent of modern architecture.
“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble,” Charles said in a late 1980s speech about the proposed redevelopment of Paternoster Square in the City of London.
He published his views in a 1989 book, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture. It was in this book and around this time that he began to put forward views on sustainability and placemaking that now look thoroughly in keeping with how large real estate projects, particularly city-centre regeneration schemes, are managed today.
In 1987, West Dorset District Council in the south west of England selected Duchy of Cornwall land to the west of Dorchester for future expansion of the town of Poundbury. The Duchy of Cornwall is the private property and financial company of whoever is heir to the British throne.
Over the subsequent 35 years, thousands of homes and significant commercial premises have been built. When the scheme is completed in 2025, 5,800 people will live in the new town. From the outset, it has sought to incorporate values like the provision of significant amounts of affordable housing, a mix of uses rather than separating residential and commercial areas and walkability.
Charles set up the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, later merged with the Prince’s Trust, to promote these values across a wider area. He has also been a proponent of making buildings as sustainable as possible to cut carbon emissions and was a keynote speaker at last year's COP26 conference in Glasgow.
But being ahead of the curve on sustainability hasn’t always worked out for Charles III.
In 2008, to much fanfare, a £1B sustainable property fund backed by the then-prince was launched.
The Tellesma Sustainable Real Estate Opportunity Fund was to be chaired by former Landsec CEO Ian Henderson and run by former Landsec Chief Operating Officer Mark Collins. The prince’s charities were going to own a third of the business, with capital also raised from external investors; the Middle East was a particular target.
Companies House documents show that PCF Sustainable Development was indeed a partner in the company that managed the fund. One of PCF’s directors was Sir Michael Peat, Charles' former principal private secretary.
In terms of the timing, Tellesma’s problem wasn’t just that it was too early to the sustainability party. It was also trying to raise money during the worst financial crisis in 75 years, and ultimately failed to raise any new equity.
The fund had borrowed £2.5M from HBOS, the bank that had to be nationalised because of its risky loans to property companies, to fuel its set-up costs. When the fund didn’t get off the ground, HBOS threatened to call in administrators before blue-chip family office Fleming Family & Partners stepped in to rescue it from an embarrassing bankruptcy procedure.
Companies House documents show that the company that runs the fund has never actually been shut down. It simply files accounts every year showing it hasn’t traded.
Charles III is highly unlikely to be as outspoken as Princes Charles was when it comes to architecture.
“I’m not that stupid," he said in a 2018 BBC interview. "I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign. So, of course, I understand entirely how that should operate.”
“If it’s meddling to worry about the inner-cities as I did 40 years ago and what was happening there, the conditions in which people were living, if that’s meddling, I’m very proud of it," he added.