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Silicon Beach, the techie festival that sees digital entrepreneurs flock to Bournemouth every September, might be an apt name for the town as a whole. In January it was named the UK’s fastest-growing digital economy in a report by Tech City UK, a publicly funded organisation set up to promote digital technology.
It seems an unlikely departure for the sedate south coast town known as a honeypot for the over-60s and host to what one estate agent calls a “braying mob” of tourists in summer. Bournemouth has seen its number of digital start-ups increase 212 per cent since 2010, with homegrown companies including Amuzo, who produce Lego’s online games, and 3 Sided Cube, whose hurricane notification app became the third most downloaded app in the US in 2012.
But why Bournemouth? Having a beach at hand is an attraction for the young teams who work for tech start-ups, as are the low overheads of being on the south coast rather than in London. Local digital agency weclickmedia lists two more reasons on its website: “being part of an exciting and growing community” and “having the best media school in the country on our doorstep”, referring to Bournemouth University.
Many attribute Bournemouth’s changing identity to the success of its two universities (the other is the Arts University Bournemouth), which are nurturing digital talent and encouraging a younger generation to migrate to the resort and, increasingly, stay there. “The universities feed local businesses, which has a positive effect on youth employment. They are also becoming more international, with Far Eastern families in particular looking to invest in property in the town for their student children,” says George Long of Savills.
“It’s early days for Bournemouth’s tech scene and it’s not like walking through London’s tech city — Bournemouth is still, after all, predominantly a seaside town — but tech start-ups with a couple of people can easily find small, cheap premises and a young population,” he says.
Bournemouth’s prime residential addresses have traditionally been those on its surrounding hillsides, such as West Cliff, where Winkworth is marketing a four-bedroom, 3,000 sq ft apartment in an Edwardian mansion for £1.15m; and Talbot Woods, inland, where Savills is selling a modern five-bed detached house for £1.425m.
Living in the town centre is gaining popularity among younger buyers who want to be within walking distance of shops, the seven miles of beaches and, by summer 2016, the £50m West Central leisure complex that will include a 10-screen cinema and chain restaurants such as Ask Italian and Nando’s.
The Citrus Building — a sold-out development by Bournemouth council and Morgan Sindall Investments — is held up by local agents as proof for the demand for town-centre living.
A joint scheme by developers Redrow and That Group, majority owned by Ray Kelvin, the founder of Ted Baker, is taking shape on a town-centre site near the beach. Redrow is handling the residential side, called the Summit, a collection of 45 flats starting at £259,950, and That Group is taking care of its two Hilton-branded hotels and the penthouse scheme, called Terrace Mount, where a four-bedroom apartment is on sale for £3m through Tailor Made estate agency.
Though Bournemouth boasts plenty of handsome Victorian architecture, some less inspiring central landmarks are seeing a new lease of life. The 1970s office block, Heron House, is being turned into The Chocolate Box by Acorn Property Group, with 94 flats, many with sea views, starting at £120,000, while the faded clifftop Bournemouth International Hotel and Ocean Palace restaurant will become Coast, a Taylor Wimpey development of 86 one- and two-bedroom flats and three-bedroom penthouses, with prices to be released later this month. Despite the investment, Bournemouth still lacks a decent shopping area in the town centre, says Savills’ George Long. “There’s no Apple Store, John Lewis or a big Marks and Spencer. It needs something like Southampton’s West Quay,” he adds. But the town benefits from the big banks and insurance companies who have moved to the area, including JPMorgan and Barclay’s, who have an office in Poole, about six miles away. “It gives a general sense of strong local employment and means people don’t need to go to London for work,” says James Barnes, sales director at Redrow Homes Southern Counties.
The football factor may also bring a boost to the city, with AFC Bournemouth’s promotion to the Premier League prompting the local airport to plan a makeover, which will include a dedicated lounge for players and special rates for private jets on match days.
While local agents say neighbouring Boscombe and Southbourne have been benefiting from Bournemouth’s uplift, some of its more well-heeled neighbours are still well out in front. The average price for a property in Poole is £313,663, about 40 per cent higher than Bournemouth, which only manages £223,384, according to Savills. But both are dwarfed by Sandbanks, the peninsula five miles to the southwest, where houses cost an average of £905,180 — making Dorset the most expensive county for coastal property.
● Bournemouth’s population of 183,500 expands to welcome 5m tourists a year
● Its cultural offering includes a prestigious symphony orchestra, arts, food, festivals and a summer carnival
● Flats in Bournemouth out-price the Dorset average at £176,838 compared with £172,138, but house prices are lower than the county average, according to Savills
● Bournemouth house prices rose 4.4% from April 2014 to April 2015, compared with 3.8% in Poole, according to Savills
What you can buy for . . .
£250,000 A two-bedroom flat in a mansion block in East Cliff
£500,000 Modern two-bedroom flat overlooking Boscombe Pier
£1m Eight-bedroom detached house in Talbot Woods, near Talbot Heath independent school for girls
Top photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images