As we walked along Whitehall last week, my chum said: “Look at this, a sign of what London has become.”
We were passing the Old War Office building, erected in 1906 and used by Winston Churchill when he was Secretary of State for War from 1919 until 1921, and containing 1,100 rooms and four kilometres of corridors. The 580,000 square feet landmark is being redeveloped as a flagship combination of hotel and residences, operated by Raffles, the luxury chain, comprising 120 rooms, 11 restaurants and 85 serviced apartments. As the hoardings made clear it’s to be rebranded as “The OWO”.
What my pal and I were moaning about was a combination of things – that civil servants should be pushed away from the heart of government, that instead of working close to their political bosses, they are forced to relocate somewhere far away from the capital as part of the “levelling up” drive.
Then there was the question of whether London needs another high-end hotel. Right now, this is a town devoid of foreign tourists and business visitors because of the pandemic. They will return, and when they do, it will be to a location that has seen several upmarket hotels spring up in the Covid years. It’s not as if we did not have such establishments before. Let us hope the future demand is there.
There was also the renaming. The Old War Office immediately conjures up images of the great leader and other grandees who were based there, including another former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Lord Kitchener and Lord Haldane. It’s also said to have been an inspiration for James Bond author, Ian Fleming and it’s where several of the 007 movies were filmed.
In one of the most memorable scenes in Skyfall, Daniel Craig stands, looking mean and moody, plotting stirring, decisive action to save the country, on the roof of the adjacent offices. There, in front of him, symbolically, is the Old War Office, its flagpoles all proudly flying the Union Jack. Now, it’s historic, evocative title is reduced to three, doubtless trendy but nevertheless meaningless, letters.
The billionaire buyer
This week, it was revealed a mystery buyer has bought a penthouse on the fifth and sixth floors for £40m. Said to be a billionaire in his 30s, the purchaser is paying more than £11,000 per square foot - the highest-ever amount for a property in London - for the four-bed 3,442 square feet apartment, which also includes the building’s iconic three-storey north turret. From there, he will be able to see across to the South Bank on the other side of the Thames.
It’s what, in real estate circles is described as a “punchy” price. This is someone presumably undeterred by the current health crisis, who is placing a big bet on London rebounding. All hail that.
This, though, is where it gets intriguing: He is rumoured to be someone with connections to the hugely wealthy Hinduja family.
Who are the owners of The OWO? The very same Hindujas. When the trophy edifice came up for sale in 2014, it was expected to fetch around £100m. Such was the heated nature of the London market, however, that it went for three times that sum. The buyers were the Hindujas in partnership with Spanish group, OHL Desarrollos.
Perish the thought that the Hinduja family, by selling to one of their members, might help set the going square footage rate for the rest of the development. If they were, they would not be the first owners to do so - and there's nothing contrary to law about it, either.
For the Hindujas The OWO represents a rare, high-profile foray in the UK. Despite its vastness their Hinduja Group and its proprietors like to remain very much in the background. At the last count the Anglo-Indian conglomerate had investments of £100bn spread across the world, in chemicals, trading, banking, infrastructure projects, real estate, IT, healthcare, the list goes on. Run by the four brothers, Gopichand, Srichand, Prakash and Ashok, the tightly held group, which employs over 150,000 people in 38 countries, is headquartered in London. Gopi and Sri are regularly cited as among the richest men in the UK.
They remain, though, largely unknown, to the public at least. In person, they’re low-key, lunching on vegan food and water and juices every day in their West End offices, not venturing out to celebrity haunts and parties. Whenever I’ve met them, I’ve found them be courteous and serious, keen to discuss international affairs, not given to showing off or histrionics. Indeed, their closeness and mutual respect has always been an abiding feature.
Family at war
Recently, the Hindujas have been torn apart by a feud, which has caused great sadness and bitterness. Sri or as he is also known, SP, is 85 and suffering from dementia. His side of the line is pushing hard for what was once inconceivable, for the group’s assets to be shared out. This, for an organisation that has clung to its motto: “Everything belongs to everyone and nothing belongs to anyone.”
Gopi, Prakash and Ashok are fiercely resisting the move. Court battles are raging, in the courts in London and in Switzerland. There is a real possibility the 107-year-old combine may be broken up.
There is another reason why the brothers tend to keep their heads down, in the UK at least. In 2001, it was revealed that Peter Mandelson, then a UK government minister, had personally intervened on behalf of Sri, who was seeking British citizenship. Then it was disclosed that another minister, Keith Vaz, had also made inquiries about the progress of his application. This, while the Hinduja Group was sponsoring the “Faith Zone” in the Millennium Dome.
The “Hinduja passport scandal” as it became known cost Mandelson and Vaz their jobs (a later inquiry cleared Mandelson of any wrongdoing) and embroiled Tony Blair’s administration in sleaze allegations. Labour’s opponents had a field day, relishing the discomfort of Blair and his circle.
There is a delicious irony in that the grandest building in Whitehall, just across the road from Downing Street, should belong to the Hindujas, who were at the centre of a political and media storm. Meanwhile, those Tories who were so eagerly bashing them and Labour have their own accusations of “cash for favours” to deal with. In more ways than one then, The OWO signifies what London has become.