Famous tourist landmarks, much-loved theatres and cultural hotspots: millions visitors flock annually to all that South Bank has to offer. But it wasn’t always so: the area struggled from a lack of love and a bad reputation until a group of local employers decided 25 years ago to do something about it. Noella Pio Kivlehan reports
Nic Durston’s office directly overlooks a massive building site. A 75,000sq m building site to be precise, complete with its opera of banging, clanging and workmen shouting. And he couldn’t be happier about it.
The operatic scene making up Durston’s view is the £1.3billion mixed-use Shell centre redevelopment. Now re-named Southbank Place, the scheme, by joint venture developers Canary Wharf Group and Qatari Group, will herald another transformation of London’s South Bank when finished in 2019.
As chief executive of South Bank Employers’ Group (SBEG), Durston is proud of South Bank’s continuing development. With SBEG having celebrated its 25-year anniversary last year, the area could not have changed more in that quarter of a decade.
“South Bank in the late 1980s was certainly not the success it now is,” says Durston, who has been at the helm of SBEG since 2015. He adds: “It was an area suffering with a lack of investment and had image and social problems.”
A very visible part of the issues stemmed from Cardboard city, which housed up to 200 homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes from 1983 until 1998, and is now the home of BFI IMAX cinema.
There was also a lack of resources for South Bank from the two councils the area straddles – Lambeth and Southwark, who, Durston says, “had other priorities at the time”.
It was in this context that a group of local employers, including major corporations, charities, not-for-profit firms and an NHS Foundation Trust, came together. Says Durston: “They asked each other: ‘what can we do about our area?’ And their solution was SBEG.”
The group’s aim was and is, states its official website, “to focus on physically improving the urban environment and the facilities available for residents and employees”. The statement continues: “We promote the area as a destination for leisure and business, encouraging visitors to contribute to its economic success.”
Durston points to the redevelopment of Jubilee Gardens, behind the London Eye, as a prime example of SBEG’s work.
Given the pedigree of its 20 members, who each pay a flat rate, irrespective of size, SBEG is a force to be reckoned with. Included are broadcaster ITV, the National Theatre, Network Rail, Merlin Entertainments and Shell UK. And it covers a geographical area stretching from Lambeth Bridge to Blackfriars Road and south to St George’s Circus.
While SBEG has spent the last 25 years improving and promoting South Bank, the shot in the arm for its regeneration can be traced back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. A national exhibition and fair attended by millions of visitors, and held just six years after the end of World War II, the festival’s manifesto was to give battle beleaguered Britons a sense of recovery and progress. And South Bank, which featured the 300ft Skylon tower and Dome of Discovery (on the site of Jubilee Gardens), and demonstrated the contribution made by British advances in science, technology and industrial design, was at its heart.
Home to The National Theatre, Southbank Centre, the London Dungeon, and the London Eye, among a plethora of others, “what you have on South Bank is an example of how culture has led a regeneration success story”, Durston says.
With over 12,000 residents and 50,000 employees, mixed with 50,000 university and college students living, working and studying in South Bank, SBEG wanted to do more than physically improve the area.
In 2014, through the initiative of SBEG, a South Bank Business Improvement District was set up to give enterprises a mechanism to improve the environment they operate in, to benefit their business, their employees, their clients and customers.
SBEG also helps Lambeth and Southwark residents secure work, through the Waterloo Job Shop on Lower Marsh, which SBEG has run since 2002.
As Durston surveys the ongoing construction of Southbank Place from his office in Elizabeth House, itself set to be redeveloped, he reflects on 25 years of regeneration and change, and predicts that the next 25 years will see even further developments and continued work for SBEG, which he calls “a true collaboration”.