The Times September 16, 2006

The Queen's men go to the shops - and buy Bluewater
By Jenny Davey and Alan Hamilton

The Bluewater shopping centre in Greenhithe, Kent, is the largest and most innovative shopping mall in Europe. It is now part-owned by the Crown.

WHEN the royal money men do a spot of shopping, they think big. The Crown is now part-owner of Britain’s biggest shopping centre.

Not wishing to miss out on a slice of retail action, the Crown Estate has pushed out its old boundaries of traditional landholding and bought a £38 million stake the Bluewater shopping complex in Kent.

As a measure of modern Britain, the price tag for the 5 per cent share in the giant mall is roughly the same as the public running costs of the royal family for a year.

Not that the Queen will benefit directly. Like all her predecessors since George III in 1760, she has surrendered the Crown Estate to the Government. The Chancellor gets the lot.

Tightly managed and highly successful, the estate has been known hitherto for its generally conservative attachment to upmarket inner-city properties and rich agricultural holdings, as though it were a rich 18th-century aristocrat.

In the past financial year the estate was valued at nearly £6 billion, and delivered a socking profit of £191 million into Gordon Brown’s Consolidated Fund, which means the Government can spend it on pretty well anything it pleases. Each year the Government hands back £37 million to fund the monarchy. Monarchists argue that, because of the Crown Estate, the Queen more than pays her way.

For the Crown Estate to buy a share in Bluewater from Henderson Global Investors, the funds manager, is something of a departure for the country’s most successful landowning business.

It is the first time that the Crown has bought a stake in a fund rather than buying a property directly. Although still forbidden to gamble its surplus money on the stock market beyond holding government gilts, it is trying to be more imaginative in the 330,000-acre portfolio it holds, from most of Regent Street in Central London to the remote Glenlivet estate in Scotland.

Giles Clarke, director of investment and asset management at the Crown Estate, said of the Bluewater stake purchase yesterday: “This a very exciting acquisition, and has come as a result of our looking imaginatively at how we invest our portfolio. We believe that investing in the very best retail assets will provide strong returns over the long term, and complement our holdings in London and elsewhere.”

What the Crown gets is a share of a massive retail park close to where the A2 meets the M25. The site encompasses about 330 stores, including branches of John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, 40 cafés, bars and restaurants and a 13-screen cinema.

It draws shoppers from the nearby towns of Gravesend and Dartford, from all over southeast London and Essex.Bluewater recently banned hoodies from its malls.

Now that it is part-owned by the Crown, it joins an eclectic property empire that includes Windsor Great Park, much of Victoria Street in Central London, the Marine Biological Centre in Plymouth, the Royal Ballet School and more than half the British seashore.