London gets a facelift at last

The new 'capital of cool' is in the throes of a building boom, writes Catherine Pepinster. And, for a change, it should make life better for all
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London is the cool city once more, says Time magazine and every publication dedicated to the hip and happening. But has it got the looks to go with it? Or is it just a decaying capital with creaky tube trains, dilapidated buildings, and the vague possibility of a Millennium Exhibition being built on a peninsula in the Thames?

Judging by our map, a New London is indeed being built and planned, just as tourists and those in search of the zeitgeist arrive here in droves.

Theatres, skyscrapers, shops, Underground stations, tube and railway lines, arts venues and sports stadiums are all in the pipeline across the capital. In the next few years, buildings designed by some of the most prominent - and controversial - architects working today, from Sir Norman Foster and Lord (Richard) Rogers to Santiago Calatrava, Michael Hopkins and Zaha Hadid, will be going up.

London's last building boom, during the late Eighties, shaped the City, and made atriums and wall-climber lifts everyday features of commercial buildings. But this time the cranes on the skyline are dotted across town.

London is, of course, a financial city. The City of London ranks alongside New York and Tokyo as one of the world's leading business centres. But it's also a city for the arts, a city for visitors and, most important of all, a city for Londoners.

As our map shows, one of the most pleasing aspects of New London will be a much-needed series of rail links. Work on the structure of new stations along the Jubilee Line, linking Greenwich and Canary Wharf to Westminster and the West End, will be completed next year. Other connections, including two new rail lines to Heathrow, are also in the pipeline. The future of Heathrow's Terminal Five is in the hands of a public inquiry, but work on a Terminal Two extension should be finished in 1999.

The plane's arch-rival, the Channel Tunnel train, received a knock-back this year with the devastating fire which has closed half of the tunnel. But preliminary work should start at the end of next year on the dedicated Channel Tunnel high-speed link.

An even more delayed project, the new British Library, is also due to open next year and, together with the new Channel Tunnel link terminus at St Pancras, should transform that run-down neighbourhood. Watch out for the opening of cafes, bookshops and other stores in an area until now more noted for muggings and prostitution.

Just as the north-west pocket of St Pancras is likely to change because of the construction of major landmarks, so the south of the river is being transformed by a chain of improvements and new buildings. The opening of the first Channel Tunnel terminus at Waterloo, together with closure of the dilapidated Bullring roundabout and, further along the river, the launch of the Globe Theatre is helping to revive the fortunes of the South Bank.

The next few years will also see the start of the refurbishment of the South Bank, under the auspices of Richard Rogers, the creation of a Waterloo piazza, sponsored by local employers, the opening of the London Aquarium in the former GLC headquarters at County Hall, and the building of the new Tate Gallery at the old Bankside power station. Put all those together with the world-class theatre and music on offer at the South Bank's Festival Hall and Royal National Theatre, and the stunning Oxo Tower restaurant, and you have a winning arts and entertainment city-within-a-city for Londoners and tourists alike.

But what of local people who have lived in the area all their lives? These new developments on the South Bank are certainly helping to provide extra jobs and attract new residents. Just watch the loft-style apartments springing up around Southwark and the escalating prices. They will rise even more, and in Bermondsey as well, when the Jubilee Line stations are built.

The problem for this area of London, as for so many others, is that few homes are being built that can be afforded by those Londoners who are waiters, shop assistants, postmen, bank staff and Tube drivers - all essential to the City's economy.

Not even enough expensive housing is being built: according to a report by London Property Research the capital needs more than 150,000 new homes by 2006, but only 9,000 a year are being built.

Just as investment in affordable housing has fallen in London in the past 10 years, so has money spent on infrastructure. And while the many new rail links will be welcomed, there is some evidence that London is finally taking seriously its greatest, overlooked asset: the river.

Both the Government Office for London and London First, the business- led consortium formed to promote the needs of the capital, have unveiled strategies to boost the river. The Government Office has produced proposals to protect and enhance the river's environment, while London First has devised a plan for new boats, upgrading piers and extra moorings for the Thames. It is also investigating how pounds 22m could be raised towards a hop- on, hop-off boat service, linking all the Thameside attractions.

And for those who relish life along the river, our map shows three welcome proposals: a trio of new bridges, forging links between the north and south banks of the Thames, old London and the new.