Oxford and Cambridge colleges collectively own more land than the Church of England and have a portfolio of properties across the UK worth £3.5bn, a Guardian investigation has found.
From a Scottish castle conquered by Robert the Bruce and the O2 arena in Greenwich to a betting shop in Brent, north-west London, the land and buildings owned by the universities’ colleges encompass ancient and modern possessions amounting to 51,000 hectares (126,000 acres) – an area more than four times the size of Manchester.
The Oxbridge holdings dwarf the 42,000 hectares owned across 41 dioceses by the Church of England, which is often said to be the UK’s largest private landowner.
The figures follow the revelation on Monday that estates, endowments, investments and other assets held by Oxford and Cambridge are collectively worth almost £21bn. The property details come from the most extensive survey of Oxbridge landholdings since 1873, through a combination of freedom of information requests, archival research and Land Registry records.
The property holdings of Oxbridge colleges are worth a combined £3.5bn, while the universities collectively hold property investments worth £863m. These figures do not take into account the value of many historic college sites, which are held at depreciated cost.
The total size does not include unmeasured land held by several colleges “under ancient possession”, or the holdings of the universities, which could not give a full account of their land ownership but own at least 1,800 hectares, according to information available online.
The two major Cambridge landowners are St John’s and Trinity, which have 10,500 hectares worth £1.1bn and make up more than half of the 17,000 hectares owned by Cambridge colleges.
Trinity values its property investments at £850m, and in early January, the college sold a block of retail and residential space in Kensington High Street, central London, to Unitum Ltd, a Malta-based holding company, for £28m.
All Souls, Christ Church and Merton are Oxbridge’s biggest UK landowners, owning 14,000 of the 34,000 hectares held by Oxford colleges at a value of about £460m.
The oldest property owned by any college is Buittle Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, built in the 12th century and given to the Scottish nobleman John de Balliol, who, with his wife, Lady Dervorguilla, founded Balliol College, Oxford, in 1263.
Though the castle was captured by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, it later reverted to the crown and is now back in the hands of Balliol College.
One of the most lucrative holdings is the O2 arena, originally known as the Millennium Dome, which Trinity College owns on a 999-year lease after buying it for £24m in 2009.
Trinity collects rent from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the concert arena, and over the past two years, the college has registered a profit of nearly £22m from the site.
Other well-known holdings include the site of the Top Gear test track, also owned by Trinity, and the Rose Bowl, the home of Hampshire cricket club, owned by Queen’s College, Oxford.
One of the most unlikely holdings belongs to St John’s College, the alma mater of the former prime minister Tony Blair, and Oxford’s wealthiest college. It is the landlord of Millwall’s training ground.
Less glamorous are swaths of rural farmland and woodland, which include an Isle of Wight farm bought by Queen’s College from Henry VIII, multiple Leeds industrial estates, several gastropubs across England, and the freeholds to more than 100 retail outlets and shops, including branches of Caffè Nero and HSBC.
The most concentrated commercial land ownership is in Brent, where All Souls College, one of Oxford’s wealthiest, owns more than 300 properties. The vast majority are residential houses, but they also include the freehold of a Ladbrokes betting shop.
The London borough had the highest proportion of housing benefit claims by private tenants in the country, according to research by the Financial Times in 2015.
Several colleges have received agricultural subsidies amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
These include £117,000 in common agricultural policy subsidies paid in 2016 to Waterside farm in Berkshire, owned by St John’s College, Oxford, which sits on wealth of £582m.
The farm has received the taxpayer-funded grants, intended to conserve the environment by protecting wildlife and maintaining rural landscapes, despite West Berkshire council putting forward plans in 2016 to extract 200,000 tons of gravel over an 11-year period from the farm, located in the North Wessex Downs – an area of outstanding natural beauty.
The plans were met with widespread anger at the time from locals, including one who wrote a letter to the college vowing to “highlight the damage that St John’s College is intent on inflicting on the environment, the ecosystem, the neighbourhood, the town, and not least, the residents”.
Meanwhile, Cambridge, which holds net assets of £4.8bn, also received £180,000 in CAP subsidies in 2016 for its university farm. That is despite research from the university in 2015 describing such funding as “perverse” subsidies “promoting negative actions in both the long and short term by being bad for the environment and costly to the economy”.
An Oxford spokesperson said: “The central university’s strong balance sheet allows us to fund new initiatives for our students, staff and outstanding teaching and research.”
Oxford’s endowment includes 600 trusts with funds earmarked for specific purposes such as teaching posts, buildings and research. About £270m of the endowment supports student scholarships.
Cambridge declined to reply to requests for a response.