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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

South of the South Bank

Mail on Sunday, 2005

Until recently the divide between inner city Southwark and the buzzing riverside neighbourhoods of Bankside and Shad Thames, just a few minutes away, could not have been greater. Tatty and transient Elephant and Castle, with its ugly Sixties shopping centre, has long been a traffic bottleneck, while Bermondsey Spa was a backwater of desolate looking council estates and bombsights left derelict since the blitz.

But with development along the river now reaching saturation point, the wedge of land below it is on the verge of a multi-million pound transformation. As a major landowner, Southwark Council expects to finalise a commercial partner for an ambitious £1.5billion redevelopment of Elephant and Castle by early next year.

And, over the following decade, its Norman Foster masterplan envisages the rerouting of traffic and the demolition of the shopping centre and sprawling Seventies Heygate Estate. This will make way for a new city quarter with a large civic space, two mixed use towers, a market square, new parks and a tree-lined boulevard with shops, offices, bars and restaurants.

In the immediate future, choreographer Shioban Davies will open a new home for her dance company in a Victorian school conversion. Further ahead, the Cross River Tram - expected in 2011 subject to a public inquiry - will provide direct links to King's Cross and Peckham Rye.

A total of 5,300 new homes are planned, many in mixed tenure schemes designed by emerging British architects and built by housing associations, often in partnership with private developers. Work on a 31-unit block at Wansey Street has started and more homes will come on stream next year.

The sense of momentum is pulling in private developers, convinced of the untapped potential of a location with two zone one tube stations and within easy reach of Westminster, Waterloo and the City. "The Elephant is the last piece of central London that's undeveloped", says Martin Lent, a director of Oakmayne Properties which specialises in developing in areas, such as Borough, before they become popular.

Oakmayne is close to completing the first phase of its Piers Gough designed South Central scheme, sandwiched between the Walworth Road and a railway track. Nearly 60 per cent of the 88 flats for private sale have been snapped up. A show flat is now open with prices starting from £275,000 for two bedrooms.

In September Oakmayne will start demolishing industrial sheds to make way for another 136 flats and commercial units. Eventually the idea is to open up the railway arches to create a pedestrian link and encourage small business.

Also off the Walworth Road, Cedar Larch is nearing completion of Balmoral Court and Spectrum Place, a scheme of 27 flats and houses, starting from £225,000 and £400,000 respectively. And, north of the Elephant, specialist developer Deco Design, is building The Bench, 12 luxury flats above an office scheme, which start at £265,000.

Further east, the Jubilee Line extension and the booming design enclave of Bermondsey Street, have encouraged investment to spread inland from the river. When Hank and Samantha Lake Coghlan bought their home in an enclave of Victorian railway workers' terraces near the Bricklayer's Arms eight years ago, they were pioneers.

But they've seen the southern end of Tower Bridge Road come to life on the back of design led developments like the Jam Factory - a 250 flat conversion by Angel.

"When we bought, this was one of the few places we could afford a house, yet it was central enough for Samantha to have an easy cycle to work in the City," says Hank, a business consultant who became a househusband following the birth of the couple's son, George.

"It was quite dodgy but the surrounding houses have been refurbished as buyers discover the area's convenience. Also, the opening of the Hartley gastro pub and Sobo art gallery and cafe have brought a more relaxed feel to the community."

This sense of revival is spreading to the once fashionable Georgian resort of Bermondsey Spa. Here, Southwark Council kickstarted a £500,000 million regeneration initiative by selling off land to developers and reinvesting the profits in the locality.

New schemes, like Deco Design's The Cube - a trendy block of 13 flats, offices and a couple of live/work units on Spa Road - are bringing colour and vibrancy to a long neglected area and - with prices 10-20 per cent lower than on the river - they're selling well. Currently Hyde Housing Association is building 300 homes, a third of which will be for private sale, with another 300 planned.

There's also been a surge of independent development around the main regeneration sites, including small schemes like The Icon Building and The Barrow Stores. The latest is Futura House by Vision Homes. Prices at this block of 18 duplexes, two bedroom flats and live/work units, start from £285,000 and Vision recently purchased land for an 81-unit scheme next door.

Student Laura Burkitt's parents bought a £235,000 two bedroom flat at The Cube 18 months ago so that she could live there while studying for her fashion degree. "We loved the modern look of this place and the fact that it is only a 10 minute walk from London Bridge station and the river," says Laura, 21.

With Spa Park opposite undergoing a facelift, Laura is confident about the future: "I got to know a lot of local people when I worked at the SoBo gallery and there's a great sense of pride in this area."