Westminster: For whom the division bell tolls

Where are all tomorrow's fledgling Members of Parliament going to live? Nick Lloyd Jones offers a guide to the labyrinthine world of the Westminster property scene
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The Independent Online

The division-bell area of Westminster is loosely defined as anywhere within an eight-minute dash of the House of Commons. It got its name because many homes and hostelries within its radius are equipped with bells to alert errant MPs to return to cast their votes at the end of long and tedious debates that they have decided to skip.

The fresh influx of newly elected MPs into Westminster after general elections always heralds a flurry of additional demand for properties within the traditional division-bell boundaries.

All MPs are given office space within Westminster, but many, especially those from constituencies a long way away from London, also choose to acquire a pied-à-terre in the area. They can claim generous allowances of up to £21,000 a year to help them with this.

And it's not unknown for unscrupulous ministers from constituencies within much closer distance of Parliament also to claim these grants simply in order to get their foot on the rung of the lucrative Westminster property ladder. The official figure of only 26 MPs living in central London is misleading, because it only takes account of those who have registered London properties as their main homes - it leaves out the many other MPs who own or rent property in the area in addition to their homes in their constituencies.

Bensons estate agents has been specialising in residential property in Westminster for 20 years. Partner James Benson, the son of the founder, reckons that a more accurate headcount of MPs with property in the area "definitely runs into the hundreds". And there is certainly no shortage of prime sites for them to choose from. One of the most desirable addresses is undoubtedly the 18th-century Vincent Square, which lies within a conservation area and whose 10 glorious acres of greenery at its centre serve as playing fields for nearby Westminster School. It is popular among frontbenchers, and Harold Wilson once had a house there before becoming PM and moving on to 10 Downing Street.

Another plum spot is Smith Square, the former home of the Conservative Party's HQ, where elegant Georgian terraces overlook the baroque splendour of St John's Church, in which classical music recitals are often held.

Houses and flats just around the corner from there, in Lord North Street, are also much sought after. The disgraced former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken had a home there until he had to sell to help clear his debts.

But it isn't all grand houses and swanky Georgian architecture. Labour MPs, who are traditionally less well-off than Tory ones, may opt for more modest living arrangements. Especially good deals can be found in former local authority properties. For example, Tothill House in Page Street is part of the Grosvenor estate and is a Grade II-listed building with distinctive chequerboard brickwork that was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

However, most newly elected MPs will be looking to buy or rent mid-range properties, typically one- or two-bed apartments. Do they have any special requirements? "Some are fussier than others," says Benson. "But high on their list of priorities is always good security and parking facilities. To get that in a modest one-bed flat in a modern block, you are looking at about £325 to £400 a week to rent or upwards of £275,000 to buy." Popular blocks in this bracket include Ormond House in Medway Street, Emanuel House in Rochester Row and the Parliamentarian in Matthew Parker Street.

However, there is no shortage of more expensive pied-à-terre options on the market - such as the luxurious St John's in Marsham Street, which offers its residents 24-hour porterage and valet parking as well as an on-site gym, spa and fitness centre, and boardroom facilities.

All this doesn't come cheap, however, with two-bedroom flats selling for upwards of £550,000 and incurring an additional annual service charge of about £4,000.

That there is no shortage of interest even at these prices has not escaped the attention of local developers, and there are plenty of new luxury apartment complexes in the pipeline as well. Berkeley Homes (020-7821 7525), for instance, is currently completing a 65-flat development at Neville House on Marsham Street, due for completion later this summer, in which two-bed apartments will go on sale from £500,000.

Meanwhile, DTZ Residential (020-7630 9333) is currently converting the former Westminster Police Station on Vincent Square into residential properties. They will be finished next year and priced from £340,000 for a one-bed apartment up to £650,000 for a three-bedroom flat.

When you get a calling to the house

* The division bell tradition dates back 150 years.

* Originally, House of Commons flunkeys in morning coats were despatched to page MPs.

* Today, there are 200 bells linked directly to the House of Commons via telephone lines.

* All the ministries, as well as many Westminster clubs, pubs and private residences, are equipped with division bells.

* MPs with division bells in their own homes have included Michael Portillo, Douglas Home and Michael Heseltine.

* Tourists often mistake the ringing of the division bell in the Red Lion pub in Parliament Street for the fire alarm, and evacuate it.