Sir Hugh Cubitt, scion of a famous building family who led planning in 20th-century Westminster – obituary

Hugh Cubitt's ancestor Thomas built the grand stucco terraces of Pimlico

Hugh Cubitt
Hugh Cubitt: as Conservative leader of Westminster council in the 1970s he argued for the abolition of the Labour-dominated Greater London Council as an additional layer of cost and bureaucracy

Sir Hugh Cubitt, who has died aged 91, was leader of Westminster city council and chairman of the Housing Corporation and the Peabody Trust; in these and other roles, he maintained a tradition set by his 19th Century forebears of Cubitt family involvement in the built environment of London.

The grand stucco terraces and squares of Belgravia, Pimlico and Bloomsbury, as well as the east front of Buckingham Palace, were the work of the builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) who originated as a carpenter from Norfolk. Thomas’s brothers William (who built Covent Garden) and Lewis (who designed King’s Cross station) also left their mark on the capital.

Thomas’s great-great-grandson Hugh came to prominence as the chair of Westminster’s planning committee in the late 1960s – an era of radical change for many London streetscapes. Most controversial were a series of proposals for Piccadilly Circus, which Hugh Cubitt had described as “little more than a down-at-heel, neon-lit slum”.

Sir Hugh and Lady Cubitt at St Barnabas, Ranmore, the estate church for Denbies, the estate owned by the Cubitt family Credit: ANDREW SHAYLOR

The scheme finally approved by his committee in 1972 involved new office towers with raised pedestrian walkways, demolition of the Criterion theatre and a repositioning of the statue of Eros – but was never built.

As Conservative leader of Westminster council from 1972 to 1976 (and lord mayor in 1977-78), Cubitt fought to keep expenditure under control and spoke out vigorously for the abolition of the Labour-dominated Greater London Council as an additional layer of cost and bureaucracy which he called “a ridiculous organisation for what it achieves”.

He went on in the 1980s to chair the Housing Corporation, overseeing the work of housing associations which provided half a million homes across the country; the Peabody Trust, a major social landlord in London; and the Anchor Trust, which provided housing for older people.

He also exercised a powerful voice as chair of English Heritage’s advisory committee for London, speaking out in 1993 against plans to hand control of 30,000 historic buildings in the capital to borough councils.

Hugh Guy Cubitt was born on July 2 1928, the son of Col Guy Cubitt and his wife Rosamond, daughter of Sir Montague Cholmeley, 4th Bt. The family home was Denbies, a large estate at Dorking in Surrey on which Thomas Cubitt had erected a 100-room Italianate mansion in the style to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, which he had built for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Guy Cubitt was in turn the sixth son of Thomas’s grandson Henry, 2nd Lord Ashcombe, whose three eldest sons were all killed in the first world war. Among the grandchildren of the fourth (Roland, who was spared service on the Western Front on compassionate grounds after his brothers’ deaths) is the Duchess of Cornwall.

Hugh Cubitt’s education was chiefly as a cadet at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth, and later at Greenwich. He was commissioned lieutenant in 1949 and served during the Korean War in the destroyer Charity, which set a fleet record by steaming 126,000 nautical miles during the conflict.

Cubitt: a robust letter-writer to the national press

He went on to be flag lieutenant to the Admiral, British Joint Services Mission in Washington, and Commander-in-Chief, The Nore (the command for the Thames Estuary and its approaches, based at Chatham).

Leaving the Navy in 1953, he qualified as an auctioneer, estate agent and chartered surveyor; he was a partner in the firm of Rogers Chapman & Thomas from 1958 and his own firm of Cubitt & West from 1962. In parallel with careers in property and politics, his boardroom roles included the chairmanships of the NatWest leasing subsidiary Lombard North Central and the merchant bank Rea Brothers.

A deputy lieutenant of Greater London and former high sheriff of Surrey, he was appointed CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1983. He was chief steward of Westminster Abbey and a member of the Board of Green Cloth Verge of Palaces, an ancient body which controlled alcohol and gaming licences in the vicinity of royal residences.

He was also a governor of the Royal Academy of Music and chair of governors of West Heath school – where in 1987 he welcomed, as visiting old girls, Diana Princess of Wales and her sisters.

As a longserving JP, Cubitt chaired the Dorking Bench, one colleague recalled, by “putting the fear of God into everyone, from the accused in the dock to his fellow magistrates”.

A robust letter-writer to the national press, Cubitt held forth in 1991 on the subject of “what makes motorists angry”, on behalf of “the 251 law-abiding ones (including myself) who … were inconvenienced by being randomly breathalysed by the Thames Valley police as they were driving away from Ascot races”.

His other interests included photography and painting. His home in Dorking was close to Denbies (now the site of a successful vineyard) and he was present in 2000 at the unveiling in the town of a statue of Thomas, its plaque commemorating “a great builder and good man”.

Hugh Cubitt married, in 1958, Linda Campbell, granddaughter of the 1st Lord Colgrain; she survives him with their son and two daughters.

Sir Hugh Cubitt, born July 2 1928, died February 6 2020