Green light for £1bn renaissance of King's Cross

Development of the Channel Tunnel rail terminal will transform industrial wasteland into a commercial hub
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The Independent Online

At last the race to develop what is potentially one of the most important commercial centres in Europe has left the starting blocks.

At last the race to develop what is potentially one of the most important commercial centres in Europe has left the starting blocks.

In prospect is a new £1bn commercial centre of gravity for London in the 50 acres of industrial wasteland just north of King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations.

The centrepiece will be the main British terminal for the new Channel Tunnel rail link currently being carved out of the Kentish chalk. However, the project has now gone a critical stage further with a deal aimed at bringing a touch of 21st-century civilisation to a dark and derelict part of central London.

London & Continental Railways, the consortium building the rail link, has signed an agreement with a joint venture group involving Argent Group and St George to develop the area immediately surrounding what will be the most important transport interchange in the capital.

The partnership, announced yesterday, has been established to build offices, homes, shops, clubs and entertainment venues on a site haunted by prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers.

The area has endured 20 years of uncertainty amid doubts over rail privatisation and arguments over the route of the Channel Tunnel rail link and who should pay for it.

Master plans have come and gone and local scepticism has long changed to cynicism. For much of the last century the area immediately north of the present two stations was owned by the British Railways Board. Grubby depots for rail carriages stood shoulder to shoulder with workshops and warehouses for goods coming in and out of the stations, providing work for local people.

Gradually, the rail business left, making way for haphazard, but none the less welcome development by small businesses. The site plays host to a golfing range, go-kart track, artists' studios and small construction and building firms.

Tony Carey, managing director of St George, which is also developing the centre of Kingston upon Thames, said there were no hard and fast plans for the area yet - the joint venture has yet to appoint an architect.

However, the central aim will be to create an area which will attract people back into central London. Mr Carey believes the residents will be drawn from all income brackets - the accommodation, he says, will range from housing association properties for rent, to up-market apartments.

He can expect a thorough grilling from local authorities and community groups in the area, anxious to avoid the creation of an island of privilege in a sea of deprivation.

However, the King's Cross Partnership, a combination of public and private interests established five years ago to encourage development of the area, yesterday said it was "thrilled" that Argent-St George had been appointed. Joan Toovey, chief executive of the organisation, pointed out that the site in question is equal in area to the financial district of New York and the possibilities for development were "immense".

Mr Carey believes that people who choose to live there will be less dependent on cars. "It will be possible to live, work and take your leisure all in one place," he says. His idea is to create space for restaurants, gymnasiums, museums and other "vibrant public places".

He says it will be "bigger and better" than the Canary Wharf development in east London and become a catalyst for development between the West End and the City.

But Mr Carey's vision is dependent on the construction of the Channel Tunnel rail terminal. Without the terminal his strategy becomes a pipe dream.

The first section of the new link - between the tunnel on the eastern coast and Swanley in Kent - is due for completion in 2003. Trains will go from the new track on to the existing route for their journey into Waterloo.

It is hoped that the next section, which will extend the new track through to St Pancras via Ebbsfleet near Dartford and Stratford in the East End, will be completed by 2007.

London & Continental hopes to start work on the second phase in July 2001. The consortium says it has secured most of the planning permission it needs under an accelerated process and sees no difficulty in obtaining the rest.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the Argent-St George joint venture turns the first sod. The area on which it wants to build will be a building site for the next seven years And the developers accept that the complex will not be finished until 2012 or even 2015.

There are two substantial imponderables as far as phase two of the Channel Tunnel link is concerned. First is the difficulty of building 23 kilometres of tunnels through Essex and east London.

And the second is whether Railtrack, the rail infrastructure company, will exercise its first refusal on the purchase of phase two of the project. In its Network Management Statement last week, the company said it was still committed to buying the newly built infrastructure.

However, it does not need to exercise the option until the middle of 2003 and company policy could change. If Railtrack decided not to go ahead, London & Continental would have to find another buyer and that could delay the project.

The King's Cross area is the site for extensive rebuilding of the Underground station following the recommendations of the Fennel report into the King's Cross fire. Tube management is also to begin work this year on two new ticket halls at the adjacent St Pancras Underground station to smooth the way for passengers changing between international, national and local train services.

Another new rail project, Thameslink 2000, adds to the complication. Subject to legal processes this will increase capacity on the current Thameslink route across London. A new station will be built under St Pancras to accommodate the services.

Meanwhile BAA, the airport operator, is planning a new 35-minute link to Heathrow from the site, which would further enhance its importance as an international transport hub.

So while the redevelopment of King's Cross and St Pancras is a mouth-watering prospect for developers, Argent-St George is stoking up for a very long haul.