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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 July 2007, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Property goliath with blue blood
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen takes a keen interest in the Crown Estate's affairs

Roger Bright rejoices in the rather grand title of Second Commissioner of the Crown Estate.

In practice, as chief executive of one the largest and most powerful landowners in the country, he is responsible for property and other assets worth more than 7bn.

The Crown Estate is no ordinary institution, its origins dating back to the Norman Conquest when William I took possession of all land in England "in right of the Crown".

Although the size and value of the sovereign's hereditary possessions have fluctuated considerably over the last 900 years - as have the uses to which they have been put - the estate has remained intact.

Royal prerogative

Since the middle of the 18th Century, Crown lands have been managed on behalf of the government with any surplus income they generate - which totalled 200.1m last year - being paid to the Treasury for the benefit of the ordinary citizen.

Roger Bright, Crown Estate chief executive
The Queen is always interested in what we do but she does not interfere
Roger Bright, Crown Estate chief executive

These days the Crown Estate is managed independently of both government and Crown but the reigning monarch, as well as the Prime Minister, retain the power to appoint its board members.

"The Queen is always interested in what we do but she does not interfere," Mr Bright - the chief executive since 2001 - says.

Later this month officials will present their annual report - detailing the body's commercial and social activities - to Her Majesty.

In doing so, they will be aware that her love of Windsor Castle means she always takes a keen interest in the upkeep of the surrounding Windsor Great Park - a huge expanse of woodland in which Henry VIII spent hours hunting - which the Estate is responsible for.

"She leaves us to get on with the management of the estate but takes a very positive interest in what is going on and she is very supportive of us."

The Crown Estate may sound like a feudal anachronism in the 21st Century but, in reality, its dual commercial and environmental role has a strikingly contemporary tone.

It has an impact on most facets of British life and economic activity - ranging from retailing to farming to coastal management - reflecting the challenge the country faces in remaining competitive while preserving diverse communities and traditional industries.

The Estate's urban property portfolio, which includes more than 2,000 ultra-desirable residential addresses in central London and industrial and commercial holdings across the UK, is huge by any measure and makes up its main source of income.

Regent Street rebound

London's Regent Street, whose freehold it almost entirely owns, is the organisation's flagship asset but also its biggest challenge.

Once London's finest shopping thoroughfare, the sweeping, curved street fell on hard times in the 1990s and was left with little - apart from the evergreen toy store Hamley's - to remind people of its former glory days.

Capital value: 7bn
Profits: 200.1m
Employees: 400
Assets: Regent Street, Windsor Great Park, Kensington Palace Gardens, Ascot racecourse

"Going back five or ten years, it was a pretty uninspiring, rather drab place," Mr Bright admits, "dominated by airline and tartan shops."

Because it issued 90-year leases to companies, the Estate had lost much of its ability to control the look and feel of the street, where tourists and serious shoppers had always rubbed shoulders, but which the latter had largely deserted.

When a swathe of leases ended in the late 1990s, the Estate saw the opportunity to boldly transform the area, pledging to invest 500m in its improvement over a 10-year period.

So far, the gamble has paid off.

Apple's decision to open its first European store in 2004 gave it real cachet for the first time in ages. The likes of Zara, Habitat and Bose have followed in its wake, while H&M, Nokia and Banana Republic are among those opening outlets in the next year.

Hoss store on Regent Street
We have bought 40 new retailers onto the street and the quality has improved substantially
Roger Bright

"Our strategy is to provide a destination for overseas retailers coming into the UK for the first time. Apple blazed a trail for that.

"We have made a lot of progress. Over the last five years, we have bought 40 new retailers onto the street and the quality has improved substantially but we have more to do."

Further developments are planned for the Piccadilly Circus end of Regent Street, but the biggest future challenge could be in trying to curb traffic levels, which could bring it into conflict with London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

"We have long said we would like to see some reduction in bus traffic," he says, while acknowledging that Transport for London and others have their own policy priorities.

Wind farms

Congestion is not a issue when it comes to the Estate's remit to protect the UK's coastal foreshore and marine seabed while also trying to exploit its commercial potential.

The Crown has always owned the rights to the foreshore and the offshore seabed up to the UK's territorial limits.

Once upon a time, that right would not have had many entrepreneurs salivating.

Groundsman laying a hedge in Windsor Great Park
More than two million people visit Windsor Great Park every year

But the push for green energy has changed all that.

The Estate was handed a key role in determining the pace of progress when in 2004 it was put in charge of licensing offshore wind, tidal and wave projects up to 200 nautical miles.

Wind is the most advanced of these technologies with four farms now operational, a similar number under construction and 15 more approved.

The Estate is confident about the commercial prospect for offshore renewable energy, believing it will generate 20m in revenue from its licences by 2020 compared to 400,000 now.

But despite hiring a senior Shell executive last year to head its marine operations, is it really equipped to make such strategically vital and commercially sensitive decisions, albeit in close conjunction with ministers?

"We believe we are," Roger Bright insists. "We have acquired quite a lot of additional expertise in the last year and we will continue, as we need to, add to that."

Commercial outlook

From the 780 farmers whose land it owns to the 1,300 workers who rely on it for affordable housing in London, the Estate influences many people's lives across the country.

Wind farm off the coast of Norfolk
Wind farms could provide significant income for the taxpayer

It has set itself increasingly aggressive commercial targets - it aims to boost profits by 50m by 2012 - conscious that it is prevented by law from borrowing to fund investments and that the property market may slow after a long, bumper run.

But its unique range of assets and its ability to participate in joint venture property schemes - it recently bought a stake in the Bluewater shopping centre - is likely to insulate it from the worst effects of any downturn.

While remaining mindful of its origins and responsibilities, the Estate believes it is now as slick and fast-moving as its less historic competitors.

"We are much more commercial than one may think," Roger Bright concludes.

"If you imagine a spectrum that has a static, landed estate at one end and a commercial property company at the other end, we are moving along that spectrum."

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