Alison Nimmo: Breath of fresh air for royal property giant
The chief executive of the Crown Estate has the wind in her sails as she looks to expand it into offshore energy
It is striking that after half an hour talking to Alison Nimmo, the chief executive of the Crown Estate, the Queen's property portfolio, the subject of Regent Street has barely come up.
Here is the boss of one of the country's prime real-estate groups, and rental yields on one of the top shopping streets haven't registered. That is because Ms Nimmo, a 48-year-old Scot who greenlit some of the most striking stadia in the Olympic Park in her last job, has designs on turning the Crown Estate into more than just a property company.
Just as it is landlord to many of the world's luxury retailers, including Burberry and Apple, the empire which Ms Nimmo has overseen for just over a year is increasingly becoming landlord to energy companies trying to develop offshore wind capacity.
Sure, the vast bulk of the Crown Estate's £8bn value is tied up in bricks and mortar, as well as Windsor Great Park, a tract of Welsh moorland, thousands of boat moorings and even a potash mine.
But the bit to watch is its ownership of the seabed for 12 nautical miles around the coast, plus some exploitation rights that stretch for 200 miles out to sea. Once it was the boring part of the business – little more than fishing rights and laying cables. Now it could be a growth engine, albeit from a small base.
Some energy providers may have gone cool on renewables, but Ms Nimmo, guardian of a potentially lucrative monopoly, is unsurprisingly anything but. She even has an app on her smartphone that reports how much of Britain's energy usage is coming from wind at any one time.
"On an average day it is 7 per cent for all usage and the other morning it was over 11 per cent. Very exciting," she said, enthused after a recent trip to the National Renewable Energy Centre at Blyth in Northumberland, where prototype wind turbine blades and tidal machines are tested.
The Crown Estate took on greater importance for the Royal Family's finances when George Osborne scrapped the taxpayer-funded Civil List in favour of a sovereign grant equivalent to 15 per cent of its profits.
On a surplus of £242m, it will deliver £36m into the royal purse in April, a £5m rise, despite swingeing public sector cuts elsewhere. It isn't just the royals that benefit. Over the past decade, £2bn has flowed from the company into Treasury coffers too.
The last target left by Roger Bright, Ms Nimmo's predecessor, is to hit £250m profit in the current financial year. It shouldn't be a problem by the sound of it, which means another decent royal payout come May as Mr Bright's 10-year plan is rounded off. Then follows Ms Nimmo's strategy.
"Real estate is still the majority of the business but this small green energy business has grown from almost like a start-up company six years ago and it is now growing at a rate of knots," Ms Nimmo said, in her soft Scottish lilt. "Part of our forward strategy is how we reinvest and accelerate the growth of offshore. We see it as very important to UK plc: decarbonising, improving energy security and also optimising the resources that we have as an island."
Ms Nimmo won't be drawn on figures floated that energy could become 20 per cent of the business in the next eight years or so. But she has moved quickly to reorganise the marine division so that assorted ports and harbours now sit in the Crown Estate's rural arm. It means her energy team can focus on "the big strategic picture", striking partnerships with energy giants such as Centrica and Dong, the Danish player, instead of fiddling around collecting mooring fees.
"It is the renewables that we are really trying to target and grow. One or two sites are built, in the water and generating electricity."
Things should step up in the third round of licensing for offshore windfarms, where the Crown Estate has nine partners and the first big planning applications have been submitted for the Moray Firth. By Orkney, there are 35 pilot wind and tidal demonstrations, mainly out on the Pentland Firth.
"That's more than any other country in the world. So if we can really get some momentum behind this, we are a world leader at the moment but we are on a real tipping point now," she said.
"If we can get a strong following wind – no pun intended – in terms of government energy policy behind us then we can get the cost down of offshore and develop a British supply chain out of ports like Hull and the Aberdeens of this world. Then this really starts to be part of the energy strategy for the UK but can really contribute to growth."
The Crown Estate has staked £100m on offshore in the third round, covering development costs, demonstration sites and the environmental impact.
"We usually get that initial investment back when the developers sign up in terms of the leasing arrangements and then when the windfarms are built and generating electricity we take a small percentage of the capacity that comes out." It sounds like a nice little royalty, if all that investment pays off.
Ms Nimmo came from the Olympic Delivery Authority, where she was design director responsible for greenlighting radical structures such as the swooping aquatics centre and the velodrome, which she was miffed to see missed out on the Stirling Prize for architecture.
Her love of regeneration was crafted in Manchester, which she helped to rebuild after the IRA bomb of 1996 wrecked the city centre. After the Olympics, she wasn't clear what to do afterwards.
"It was a difficult question to get my head round, what next, because in terms of scale, complexity and challenge I just felt I wanted to do something different.
"I know what I didn't want to do, but wasn't sure what I did want to do. I saw the advert, looked at the website and the more I looked at it the more I thought that this was the job for me."
Away from the green agenda, the Crown Estate is undergoing a major new project to revamp St James's in the West End of London. Ms Nimmo wants to emulate the redevelopment of Regent Street, where a long-term vision has seen tartan shops traded for flagship Burberry and Apple stores and rents soar sky-high.
"It is a microcosm of what the Crown Estate is really good at," she enthused. "You take a pretty grotty bit of town with huge potential and some listed buildings and you do quite a difficult, complicated scheme."
Just as the Crown Estate brought in an investment partner, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, to part-fund Regent Street, Ms Nimmo is hunting for a similar investor in St James's.
"Part of planning a business is recycling capital and taking profit when we do big developments," she said. "I think the partnership with Norges Bank is a great example of how we can do that. That is a really good model for us going forwards and there is no reason why that couldn't be rolled out into offshore energy too."
Increasing profits has put the Crown Estate at the centre of some tricky questions, such as should it be broken up if Scotland votes for independence, and has it started to chase profits at a cost to its crucial public role?
"I think it is always important that we have a balance between being commercially successful and all our other requirements, be it environmental or sustainable," said Ms Nimmo, sounding like a well-trained politician.
She is also trying to mollify the Scots with more local management, but insists anything that stems from a referendum is for Westminster and Holyrood to thrash out. There promises to be plenty of hot air before this debate is over – fitting perhaps for a key player in wind energy.
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