Questions arise over UK government selling King’s Cross stake

Company in charge of the new sale, Lazard, was behind criticised Royal Mail flotation

As if to prove there are still government employees working in August, the UK chancellor fired the starting gun on the sale of London’s King’s Cross property development this week.

The 67-acre site, which includes 2,000 homes, offices, shops, and parkland, is generally regarded as a success, although the Tories cannot take credit for this – it was commissioned in the salad days of the last Labour government.

Even with an unidentified toxic algae bloom polluting the Regent’s Canal, which runs behind the development, it is really quite nice.

That cornerstone tenants including The Guardian newspaper and Google* have made their UK headquarters there, is testament to its success.


But it is far from finished – there are new phases planned which will take the value of King’s Cross to £5 billion (€7.1 billion). So questions are being asked about why the UK Government is selling its 36.5 per cent stake now, when it is only expected to raise £360 million.

Of the private co-investors – DHL, the logistics firm, AustralianSuper, the pension provider, Argent King's Cross and Hermes Investment Manager – only DHL, with just 6 per cent, is cashing out.

You can see why for British chancellor George Osborne, who wants to raise £32 billion from privatisation in 2015, the sale of King’s Cross is an easy win.

But it is part of a rush to market by the Tories who, are selling half of the £64 billion assets ear-marked for privatisation in this parliamentary term within the first 12 months.

King's Cross follows the sale of Royal Bank of Scotland shares, which saw taxpayers take a £1 billion loss, and the announcement a final tranche of the Royal Mail.

Whatever the economic merits of paying the deficit down now versus earning more money later, it does not help Osborne's case that he has appointed Lazard – the investment bank heavily criticised for floating Royal Mail on the cheap – to the King's Cross sale.

Shares in Royal Mail, which were floated in 2013 at 330p, were trading at 470p within 48 hours of the initial public offering.


The undervalue cost taxpayers £750 million; worse, most of the profits went to financial institutions – including hedge funds – while only a tiny amount went to the public, which massively oversubscribed its tiny allocation.

Lazard, which has been criticised for its “cozy links” with the government, was hauled over the coals by the Public Accounts Committee last October. The “cozy” criticisms are overdone; Lord Mandelson, who chairs Lazard’s International arm, was no friend of the coalition government and Mark Russell, who runs the Shareholder Executive – the body that manage’s government stakes in non-financial sector companies – did work for Lazard, but that was in 1986.


Lazard’s biggest sin was that its own investment division “cashed in” on the bonanza. Lazard Asset Management was one of 16 investors given priority access to Royal Mail shares – well ahead of the public.

Of those 16, 12 – including Lazard – sold out within Royal Mail’s first week of trading, laughing in the face of business minister Vince Cable’s rationale that these investors would form a long-term institutional bedrock in return for priority access.

Lazard, which netted £8 million in profit, denied any wrongdoing, but it caused quite the stink. Making it even odder that Osborne has returned to the bank for advice.

We can assume that the oversubscribed social housing at King Cross will not be offered to the current residents of the New Era estate two miles down the Regent’s Canal in Hoxton.

Hoxton is a small area of central east London from which you can easily walk to King’s Cross – or, more pertinently, the City – and property prices have sky-rocketed. It is a bit like the parts of Dublin 8 that are in easy reach of Grafton street.

Or at least it was 10 years ago. In the last few years the wealthy enclaves have reached tipping point and there is pressure on cash-strapped Hackney council to sell up rundown houses to developers, pushing out their social tenants.

In 2013 the New Era estate was sold to Westbrook Partners, a New York-based fund manager that planned to double the rents of the social tenants to a market rate. Cue vocal left-wing comedian Russell Brand, who has also waded into the debate about water charges reform in Ireland.


Unlike on water Brand carried the day. After residents marched on Downing Street petitioning the prime minister, Westbrook caved in, selling the estate to a not-for-profit landlord, the eponymous Dolphin Living which owns Westminster’s Dolphin Square. This week residents finally got their victory. Dolphin said residents - most of whom earn less than £25,000 a year – can stay living there on means-tested contracts.

* This article was amended on August 20th, 2015

Helen Power is a freelance journalist