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The promotion of the area around the Strand in central London as “the Northbank” could be regarded as a brazen attempt at rebranding in response to the major regeneration of the South Bank.
Of course, the name has existed for centuries, but is only now being used as part of an orchestrated campaign. The Northbank business improvement district (BID) – which covers the mile-long stretch of the city between The Mall and the Royal Courts of Justice – is the largest of London’s 37 BIDs, in which local businesses are urged to invest, and people are encouraged to live, work and socialise.
“We’re not looking to be the South Bank of the north,” says Ruth Duston, chief executive of the Northbank BID. “We have a very different commercial mix, some of the best hotels in the world and great history. But we lack the lovely riverfront pedestrian area they have due to the heavy traffic along Victoria Embankment, and the Strand lacks identity. People tend to view it as a thoroughfare to other places such as Covent Garden and ‘Theatreland’. We’re trying to galvanise the area again and put it back on the map.”
It has much to compete with. A quarter of all new tower schemes in central London are located on the South Bank, according to Knight Frank’s South Bank 2014 report, which describes the riverside stretch from London Bridge to Battersea Power Station as “London’s third city”, after the City of London and City of Westminster.
The South Bank’s transformation, boosted by strengthening transport links, has been a prime example of “Vancouverism”, according to the report – a regeneration process that blends work, leisure and living pioneered in Canada from the 1970s.
The latest residential projects include Berkeley Homes’s One Tower Bridge, where off-plan flats opposite the Tower of London start at £1.1m through Knight Frank, and South Bank Tower, the former King’s Reach Tower, which will feature 191 flats, priced from £885,000 through Savills, with commercial and retail units below. “There will be even more substantial change over the next five to 10 years,” says Mark Wilkinson, a partner at Knight Frank, who points out that development opportunities are scarce on the Northbank, especially on the riverfront.
However, property values on the Northbank are beginning to catch up with its neighbour across the water, according to James Hyman, head of Cluttons’ residential agency, who cites the South Bank average as £1,700 per sq ft compared with the Northbank’s £1,600 per sq ft.
“There are standout new projects such as Trinity House near Tower Hill, which is commanding values of £2,600 per sq ft. And when flats go on sale at Sugar Quay, the Candy Brothers’ development on the north side of Tower Bridge, I can’t believe they will start at less than £2,000 to £2,500 per sq ft. If you take the two locations as a whole, the South Bank is more popular and just ahead value-wise,” says Hyman. “But by the time the Northbank’s regeneration is complete, it will be more expensive again due to the limited stock and constraint on development opportunity.”
Helping to bridge the gap, literally, will be the proposed £180m Garden Bridge linking Temple in the north with the Southbank Centre. “It will transform how people move about London and cross the river,” says Duston. By raising £8.6m over the next four years from local business, and (it is hoped) a further £3m from the likes of Westminster City Council and Transport for London, the Northbank BID plans to revamp Villiers Street and Victoria Embankment Gardens and re-route the one-way traffic around Aldwych.
A number of new residential projects are also helping to change attitudes to the area. The biggest scheme is St Edward’s 190 Strand, next to King’s College London, which consists of 200 flats priced between £2.93m and £14m.
“Proximity to Charing Cross is a real pull and prices in this Temple area, which hasn’t traditionally been seen as a place to live, are being pulled upwards by significant price growth in neighbouring Covent Garden,” says Knight Frank’s Wilkinson.
A development to rival the views from One Tower Bridge is Trafalgar One, where all but the £15.25m penthouse overlooking Trafalgar Square, have been sold. A relaxation of Westminster council’s planning rules on change of use from commercial to residential is also paving the way for boutique schemes such as 353 The Strand, opposite Somerset House. The four apartments here, priced from £2.35m, are all under offer.
“With Land Securities building nearly 1m sq ft of modern office space around Victoria that will appeal to businesses from all over Europe, other areas of Westminster are left with less suitable, older buildings that are being left empty. The council is allowing some of them to be turned back into residential,” says Ben Babington, director of residential development at Jackson-Stops & Staff. He is marketing 19 Buckingham Street, consisting of 11 apartments priced from £3m in a Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse, previously used as offices. “Though the Northbank BID is fundamentally about business, it is also about giving the area an identity, which residents will benefit from too,” says Babington. “We have clients walking into our Mayfair office saying the WC1 postcode is non-negotiable. But there are others who, when we point out the Northbank offers the same quality for half the cost, are prepared to consider WC2 for the first time.”
There is still some catching up to do before the Strand – where heavy traffic is just one problem – inspires the same “destination” status as the South Bank’s entertainment-lined riverfront promenade. “The South Bank has had a head start, focused around Tate Modern, Neo Bankside and other key schemes, leading to a fundamental change in perception of the area,” says Wilkinson.
The Northbank’s transformation is “moving at a similar pace to the South Bank 15 years ago,” says Hyman. “It’s a more popular residential address than it ever has been.”