Vivienne King: The Crown Estate

Crown Estate legal director Vivienne King has a key role in realising the Government’s wind power plans, but she has also been a breath of fresh air in the organisation.

As the owner of almost all the seabed within 12 nautical miles of the UK, the Crown Estate is set to play a pivotal role in helping the Government meet targets to expand offshore wind energy by 25 gigawatts in the coming decade.

This remit includes helping to draft the relevant legislation, tender and operator documents, and taking part in the tender selection process itself.

As the woman in charge of steering the process through while taking factors such as existing cables, minerals and the flight paths of birds into account, Crown Estate director of legal services Vivienne King is the first to admit the size of the task facing her.

The scheme is the UK’s third round of offshore wind power and will see 7,000 turbines installed according to new designs which, King says, can be significantly larger than those used on land.

But King’s policy of only handling in-house that work which external firms are not qualified to do means that all transactional and litigation work generated by the scheme will be handled by external appointees.

Instead, King’s ambition since joining the Crown Estate in 1994 has been to have more involvement in the day-to-day management of its business. And while the Crown Estate is not a company, she believes its organisational structure is in many ways akin to one.

Commenting on her role as director of legal services and company secretary, King says: “I observe codes of corporate governance and ensure good governance is in place. I manage compliance across the business – for example, at the moment I’m interviewing a health and safety manager. I also look at the combined codes and see whether we need to alter practices in any way.”

The most significant real estate project occupying King’s time at present is the £500m Quadrant scheme – a one million sq ft redevelopment of three buildings in the Regent Street area.

King says she finds the project exciting due to its size and what it has to offer London. She also cites its environmental credentials: the venture has a central energy system, which includes a generator that is partly hydrogen-fuelled.

SJ Berwin is handling transactional work on the development as part of its wider responsibility for the £2bn Regent Street portfolio – the lion’s share of the Crown Estate’s total £7bn assets. Recently the firm has assisted the organisation in producing short-form leases for smaller lettings on Regent Street, allowing flexibility and speed, and thereby reducing legal costs.

Jon Vivian, head of real estate at SJ Berwin, has been working with the Crown Estate longer than King herself and the two are good friends. But as in all the estate’s relationships with its panel of six external law firms, King’s tough business acumen shines through.

Appointees have each won their places via a competitive tender process that takes place every three to five years. Forsters is instructed on the estate’s City, midtown, West End and Kensington properties, while Pemberton Greenish and Burges Salmon deal with other London-based property work, with the latter’s lower cost base helping it secure a role.

Since real estate is what the Crown Estate is about, it must be also be a core part of the identity of panel firms. This explains the absence of magic circle firms from the list, as their real estate businesses might all be corporate-derived, says King, who admits that “none are fighting to bring themselves to our attention.”

Outside of London, the rural and marine estates are handled by Anderson Strathern – for Scottish assets – and the Southampton office of Bond Pearce.

Although all transactional work is now outsourced, when King joined the Crown Estate 14 years ago from Herbert Smith the estate handled a fair amount of transactional work internally and had an in-house contingent of seven.

However, downsizing began gradually in the 1990s, accelerating more rapidly over the past five years as the organisation sought to maintain ground with its major commercial rivals.

SJ Berwin’s Vivian says he thinks there has been more change at the Crown Estate since King’s promotion to the role of legal director in April last year than in the previous 18 years.

“Historically the estate’s reputation – wrongly – has been as a stuffy and unbending quasi-governmental department,” he says. “It has been at real pains to be more commercial and more in tune with the market.”

But a radical approach to business should come as no surprise from a woman who claims Margaret Thatcher as one of her heroines.

“On a personal level she achieved a position of greatness against the odds,” says King of the former Prime Minister, adding: “She relished a challenge.”

The Crown Estate may be well hedged against downturns through owning prime central London property, but the challenge it faces, says King, is that “we measure ourselves against the private sector and need to operate as the competition operates, but the competition isn’t bound by statutory obligations.”

This is a factor unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, King is seeking to strike a balance between the prerogatives of the market and the boundaries set by The Crown Estate 1961 Act, asking: “When it is safe to colour outside the lines?”

Name: Vivienne King
Title: Director of legal services and company secretary
Company: The Crown Estate
Sector: Real estate
Reports to: Chief executive Roger Bright
Number of employees: 400
Legal capability: Four
Legal spend: £5m-£6m
Main firms: Anderson Strathern, Burges Salmon, Bond Pearce, Forsters, Pemberton Greenish, SJ Berwin
Vivienne King’s CV
Education: 1982-83: Chancery Lane College of Law, CPE
Work history:
1983-85: Articled clerk, Simmonds Church Smiles
1985-94: Associate, Herbert Smith
1994-97: In-house lawyer, The Crown Estate
1997-2006: Deputy head of legal, The Crown Estate
2006-present: Director of legal services and company secretary, The Crown Estate