Perhaps, in the days following the general election, there was no more thrilling place to be than Westminster. It was there that the world’s press waited on College Green for a new coalition government to emerge.
Against the backdrop of Westminster Abbey and Parliament, history was unfolding. This is the very heart of the Establishment, where political parties, lobbying firms and shadowy think tanks inhabit Smith Square and the surrounding Georgian streets.
Yet, as a place to live, Westminster lacks a central core and character, though in recent years its council has encouraged residential development with more than 350 new flats - the redevelopment of the old Home Office building, nicknamed the three ugly sisters, included more than 100 new homes, while the conversion of the old Westminster Hospital buildings around a green on Horseferry Road provided another 180.
Giles Pickles, of the Westminster office of estate agents Chesterton Humberts, says he has been called in to value a number of homes belonging to MPs who have lost their seats. However, new rules on parliamentary expenses make it unlikely that these homes will be sold to incoming MPs - more’s the pity for them as this is a very good-value central London property area.
The new rules, introduced following the parliamentary expenses scandal, encourage renting rather than buying and with the rental allowance capped at £334 a week, Westminster letting agents are not expecting a flood of enquiries.
According to Lawrence Brown, the lettings manager at the same agents, most new MPs will be forced to look at cheaper areas south of the river such as Kennington.
Properties: much-prized are the lovely early Georgian houses around Smith Square and in Queen Anne’s Gate (pictured below), and the handsome, solid, red-brick mansion flats at the back of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Victoria Street. Good buys are the late-Victorian and early 20th-century council blocks, which now have a high proportion of owner-occupiers, and the modern flats in and around Vincent Square, Horseferry Road and Marsham Street.
The area attracts: mainly single professionals or couples without children because the property stock is a combination of period and modern flats. Staying power is good - many people, especially overseas owners, hold on to their flats, keeping them as their London base for many generations.
Postcodes: Westminster is in SW1, a postcode which also includes the very attractive streets of Pimlico and Belgravia.
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Best streets: Smith Square is at the very heart of the political establishment. A six-bedroom listed Georgian house dating from 1726 is currently for sale here for £5.75 million through Savills (020 7578 5100).
Vincent Square is home to the famous private Westminster School’s playing field. The square contains a few Georgian houses and some fine later Victorian houses. A four-bedroom Victorian house in the square is on the market for £3.35 million through Foxtons (020 7591 9000).
Up-and-coming areas: the Millbank estate behind the Tate Gallery is an early example of social housing. The architecture of these austere, red-brick blocks is Arts and Crafts-influenced and prices start at around £330,000 for a one-bedroom flat. Most of the flats are now owner-occupied rather than rented.
What’s new: The Westminster is a development of nine one-, two- and three-bedroom flats and penthouses which will be finished this summer, tucked away in quiet Little Smith Street on the site of the former Cabinet Office building.
Prices range from £695,000 for a one-bedroom flat to £3 million-plus for the most expensive penthouse. For details contact Hamptons (020 7834 4771). The same developer, CIT Developments (020 7667 7766), starts work in the autumn on Central Africa House, a fine Edwardian Missionary Society building in Great Peter Street, which is being converted into nine spacious flats.
Schools: Westminster School can trace its history back to 1179 when the Benedictine monks at Westminster Abbey set up a small charity school.
The school is still based in the precincts of the abbey, while the roll call of former pupils includes prime ministers, musicians, actors, architects and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
The school takes boys from age 13 and girls in the sixth form. There is a prep school in Vincent Square where boys start at age seven. Both the cathedrals have choir schools. Westminster Abbey has 30 boarding choristers, while
Westminster Cathedral also has 30, plus 100 day boys who are educated up to Common Entrance at age 13.
Popular state primary schools are Burdett-Coutts in Rochester Street which is judged “good” by Ofsted and St Peter’s Eaton Square which gets an “outstanding” rating. Greycoat Hospital, a successful state girls’ comprehensive in Horseferry Road, occupies a historic building which has two little statues of pupils from times gone by in niches above the entrance.
Shops and restaurants: there is a good spread of activity, with the House Of Fraser department store - once known as the Army & Navy - and a large Sainsbury’s in Victoria Street. The new Cardinal Walk development close to Victoria station has a Topshop, Zara, Hobbs and other popular chain stores.
Tucked away in the back streets there are oddities such as J Wippell & Co, an ecclesiastical supplier, and bookbinders Shepherds. When it comes to restaurants MPs seem to love a good curry.
The Cinnamon Club in Great Smith Street and Quilon in the St James’s Court Hotel both serve top-notch Indian food. Other favourites with our political class are Shepherd’s in Marsham Street, part of the Langan’s chain, and the restaurant in the Goring Hotel in Beeston Place.
Leisure and the arts: St John’s Smith Square, in a fine Baroque church known as Queen Anne’s footstool, is a leading concert venue for classical music, while the theatres and cinemas of the West End and the Southbank are a short walk away for those seeking more modern culture.
Transport: Westminster is in Zone 1 and an annual travel card covering Zones 1 and 2 costs £1,032; St James’s, Westminster and Victoria are all on the District and Circle lines; in addition Westminster is on the Jubilee line and Victoria is on the Victoria line.
Council: Westminster City Council is Tory and Band D council tax for the 2010/2011 year is £687.62, one of the lowest in the country.
Average sale prices in Westminster
One-bedroom flat: £390,000
Two-bedroom flat: £607,000
Two-bedroom house: £725,000
Three-bedroom house: £1.25m
Four-bedroom house: £1.8m
Average rental prices in Westminster
One-bedroom flat: £380 a week
Two-bedroom flat: £550 a week
Three-bedroom flat: £850 a week
Three-bedroom house: £1,000 a week
Four-bedroom house: £1,500 a week
(Source: Chesterton Humberts)
Pictures by Barry Phillips
All details correct at time of publication (9 June, 2010)