Life & Culture

The property greats behind London’s landmarks

Peter Bill interviewed five property greats and shares how they built up London


“Noah? He’s been on the payroll for eight days — and not done a stroke.”

The boy in question is the grandson of The Shard developer, Irvine Sellar: Born to his daughter Caroline towards the end of July. A rich example of Jewish humour used to mask pride.

I’d asked about Noah after having dinner with Sellar at Oblix on the 32nd floor of his 1000-foot tower. The baby was due that night. Then there was no masking the 74-year-old’s pride — for The Shard that is; the great big baby of this one-time market trader.

The Qatari’s rescued the £2 bn project in 2008. But there would have been nothing to rescue if Sellar had not fought a decade-long legal and planning battle that began with the purchase of the site in 1998. Any sane property boss would have given up.

Sellar is one of a group of influential Jewish property developers who have helped shape modern London.

Five were interviewed for Planet Property, a book I’ve written detailing the UK property market during the long boom and momentous bust.

Sir John Ritblat, 77, founder of modern-day British Land; Sir Stuart Lipton, 70, builder of Broadgate; Sir George Iacobescu, 67, chief executive of Canary Wharf; Gerald Ronson, 74, naturally. Irvine Sellar, of course. CentrePoint developer Harry Hyams was not interviewed. But he puts in an appearance...

Between 1997 and 2007 commercial property values rose by two-thirds. Cheap money and careless bankers pushed outstanding debt up from £50 bn to £250 bn. “They were 10 golden years for the property business” says Ronson, “anyone with one arm, one eye and one leg could make money.”

Between 2008 and 2009 prices fell by nearly 50 per cent, the worst crash in modern history. “We were looking at Armageddon in the last quarter of 2008,” says Ronson of Heron International, who reveals how he reacted after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that September.

“There was a rush here to open lots of new (bank) accounts. Heron had something like £140 m in cash and I suppose my family office had not too dissimilar a sum. At that point I was thinking to myself; we don’t want more than £5 m and a maximum of £10 m with any one bank.”

Sir John Ritblat attacks the banks. “The recession came about with the failure of the banks to manage their affairs in an orderly way. They were caught with their pants down on a tidal wave of bad lending.” Sir John is even more scathing about the performance of property fund managers.

“I never cease to boggle at the ineptitude of most institutions. The mind boggles at the impoverished nature of the average functionary; their inability to invest long-term, their short-sightedness. I have never seen such mismanagement over 50 years from the great pack of them, apart from the Prudential.”

Sir Stuart Lipton remains Britain’s most influential developer. His latest 70-acre project in Silvertown imagines a series of pavilions occupied by global companies such as Microsoft, Sony and Apple. His dislike of “wiggly wobbly” towers (like the Walkie Talkie) is clear.

The Canary Wharf Group are building the Walkie Talkie, but the design was commissioned by JV partner, Land Securities. But CWG boss, Sir George Iacobescu, can take credit for expanding the business beyond Docklands. The huge Shell Centre project on the South Bank is his latest venture.

Sir George is a patron of Jewish Care. The Romanian-born civil engineer has worked at Canary Wharf since 1988, becoming chief executive in 1997. This gracious character is responsible for shaping a world financial centre with a population of 100, 000. Some feat.

Harry Hyams? In the 1970’s as a Wimpey surveyor I used to send the reclusive legend invoices for building work on Ramsbury Manor, his Queen Anne mansion in Wilshire. Hyams, now in his mid-eighties still owns the 460-acre estate. Impossible not to mention the man who built CentrePoint.

I dropped a copy of the book in the post out of courtesy, not expecting more than a typed thank you note. He rang to thank me. I still haven’t quite got over the shock of hearing his voice.

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