Selling England by the Pound

Think of the famous architecture of renowned landmarks around the world, from the grandiose ‘Arc de Triomphe’, to the iconic Brandenburg Gate and the poignant Washington Memorial. That list of architectural greatness includes the Admiralty Arch of Britain which stands out as a famous symbol of historical significance.

Built in 1912 by King Edward VII as a memorial to his mother Queen Victoria, the arch serves as the entrance to Buckingham Palace through the Mall and as a connection between Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, and the home of the British monarchy. It represents centuries of British history and architecture and has an extensive history of use by the Royal Navy and as government offices, even being home to British spies during the 20th century. The arch is used for Royal Weddings, the Olympic processions, and King Charles III passed under it on his recent coronation.

But who owns Admiralty Arch? The King? The government? The British army?

What if I told you that it was actually Waldorf Astoria, the luxury hotel brand owned by Hilton? Unfortunately, that’s right, the entrance to Buckingham Palace is soon to be a luxury hotel! And it doesn't end there.

Churchill’s old World War Two office on Whitehall? Now a luxury hotel and apartment complex. Richmond House, a stately home in central London built in the 17th century steeped in UK governmental history? Governed by Sharia law after being sold to an Islamic bond scheme. It doesn’t end with just government buildings, Brompton Road tube station, home during World War Two to the Anti-Aircraft Brigade’s London command centre, was sold to become residential development.

Undertaken during Cameron/Osborne’s austerity sell-off spree, the iconic Admiralty arch was sold for just 75 million, a tiny fraction of the government budget (just under 700bn in 2011/12). Whilst the war office was sold for a higher price of 350 million, these are miniscule gains in terms of overall government expenditure, and we need to question whether, in the long term, the sale of such iconic buildings and heritage will be worth it. Is there anything that better sums up Osborne’s austerity fixation than small short term gains at a higher long term social cost?

People in favour of the sale argue that the site was no longer fit for use by the government, and that its sale offered ‘value for the taxpayer’. Minister Matt Hancock said in 2015 that it was a ‘costly and unsuitable office space, now transformed into a landmark that the public can enjoy’. The public being a few select millionaire investors, the rest of us will sadly have to make do. There is certainly an argument to be made that these buildings were out of date for a 21st century government and thus not worth retaining, but is our vision for these historic buildings really as low as converting them all to luxury apartments and hotels?

At the risk of sounding like Indiana Jones, could these buildings not operate better as museums, opening their doors to the public for all to see and be enriched by, rather than just serving an exclusive elite?

The Churchill War Rooms were no longer fit for purpose post World War, should we instead have turned them into an underground escape room? Should the HMS Belfast be turned into a luxury cruise ship? Hell, why not sell Buckingham Palace rather than spending millions renovating it - I’m sure the already tight public finances would appreciate it! 

The housing crisis will not be solved by giving people luxury apartments next door to the Monarchy. In fact, peers even warned that it could pose a security threat, citing the underground tunnels that connect many of them and terming it ‘privatisation gone mad’.

Thankfully, whilst iconic and famous, relatively few buildings have been sold so far. However, it represents a more fundamental question for Britain’s history. Is it worth the pennies the government receives to sell off our historic buildings? Is our vision for London in 2100 for the whole of Whitehall to be luxury apartments and hotels whilst civil servants relocate further and further away in the name of minimal ‘cost savings’ in terms of overall government spending. 

As ministers look to sell off more civil service buildings, they should think carefully of their history, for example the Scottish Office located at Dover House dating from the 18th century and the majestic 19th century Foreign Office building, before aiming to make a quick buck.

This is a secretly hidden scandal that I suspect many are unaware of and poses a vital question for the future of many of our most cherished landmarks.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.