The Covent Garden Area Trust (or CGAT) is unique in the United Kingdom. It is a charitable Trust that is funded by the properties it protects. It holds a 150-year lease on the main buildings of Covent Garden’s Piazza and as long as the lease is in existence, the Trust will continue to watch over this precious, historic square. The lease dates back to 1988 and is set to continue until the year 2138.
Our Trust was set up to conserve the beautiful architecture, environment and special qualities of the centre of Covent Garden. Situated right in the heart of London, the area is bordered by Aldwych, Kingsway, High Holborn, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and the Strand. The Piazza at its centre (London’s first real square) takes both its arcades and name from Italy and was commissioned in the 1630s by the 4th Earl of Bedford. Originally a convent garden belonging to Westminster Abbey, the Piazza was laid out and designed by Inigo Jones and is partly inspired by the Place des Vosges in Paris, which was completed in 1605.
Sylvia Marder, ex-lawyer to the GLC who wrote the Trust’s lease, described the properties the Trust would have legal powers over as “The Protected Lands”. These are made up of five blocks of properties in and around the Piazza.
The current owners of the freehold of the Protected Lands – Covent Garden London Ltd, part of Capital & Counties (Capco) – own everything except for the terrace on 25-31 James Street and 7, 9 & 10 Floral Street, which is owned by Lothbury Property Trust.
Capco also own many other buildings in Covent Garden and recently (2019) acquired the handsome 1860s building on the corner of Bedford Street and Maiden Lane in which the well known magazine, The Lady, has been published since the 1890s.
There are actually five leases – one for each block of property within the Protected Lands – and each lease is identical. Under this 150-year lease the Trust has the power to refuse (1) changes of use and (2) alterations to buildings.
If the Trustees refuse an application without giving sound reasons, the freeholder can take the Trust to arbitration (like a court case but with a lawyer instead of a judge) which could incur substantial costs and lead to a loss of credibility. Since its inception, the Trust has only been taken to arbitration once and happily, won the case.
The main business of the Trust is reviewing applications for changes of use or alterations to the ‘Protected Lands’. Each application has to be decided within 15 working days or is otherwise deemed to have been granted approval.
A change of use could involve turning a fashion shop into a restaurant and an alteration might involve restoring buildings where they have eroded with time or the addition of (for example) a new pavilion to extend the Central Market (which is Grade II* listed and therefore unlikely to be approved).
The Trust Council meets every month to discuss applications and matters concerning Covent Garden generally. The freehold owners are invited to the meetings to explain changes or alterations to the Trustees and the Trustees can ask questions. The Trust also benefits from advice from its own surveyor and solicitor.
In addition to the Protected Lands, Trustees take an interest in the rest of the Covent Garden area and are often consulted on planning applications from both Westminster City and Camden Councils.