Welcome to Northbank and Midtown: Why it’s not enough to simply rebrand London

So long, Fleet Street. Hello, Northbank. Image: Getty.

Rebranding has become all the rage in London. There’s now a Northbank and a Midtown where once there was only a confusing mess of Middle English names, big roads and expensive shops.

Don’t get me wrong, the latter two both still exist; but they are now apparently located in areas known by entirely different names.

Northbank stretches from Trafalgar Square to the west end of Fleet Street; an obvious rival to the Southbank, the bustling strip along the south of the Thames that’s seemingly wildly popular among everyone in the world except actual Londoners.

Even with all the mimes, people flock to the Southbank in their thousands. And it’s easy to see why: it’s an attractive stretch of pedestrianised land with great views of the river and some of the best cultural attractions in the country: the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, to name a few.

Meanwhile, Northbank is essentially two parallel A-roads. It still has its fair share of attractions – the National Gallery, Somerset House, the odd theatre and some great pubs – but they’re all clustered around two very busy roads in one of most polluted parts of London.

A stroll along the Thames in Northbank would see you confined to a thin stretch of pavement and hemmed in by a four-lane road, while sitting outside a cafe would be made less enjoyable by being able to taste the car fumes alongside your coffee.

Darker areas indicate higher levels of NO2 pollution. The top half of the image shows the heavily polluted Northbank, while the pedestrianised Southbank in the bottom of the image has much lower levels of pollution. Image: London Air, by King’s College London.

Midtown, on the other hand, is loosely defined as the area between Tottenham Court Road and Clerkenwell, centred around Holborn and stretching to Farringdon in the east.

It tactfully encompasses Bloomsbury so as to also include British Museum, but it still has much the same problem as Northbank: this is an area built around roads. Big, smelly, polluted roads.

Even the main picture on the area’s website is of the four-lane interchange by Chancery Lane station.  

I don’t want to come down too harshly on these projects. They are ultimately local businesses banding together to improve their part of the city and that’s always going to be admirable. Both schemes are already miles ahead of other developer-led rebrands such as the nauseating attempt to rename Fitzrovia as Noho.

But concerted attempts at making these areas more brandable completely miss the point of what draws people to popular parts of London. It’s not an easily pronounceable, swish name they’re after, but a reason to be there. A pleasant place to spend some time wandering around – maybe taking in some light street entertainment, perhaps dropping £3.50 on a latte.

It’s not enough to forget about about the fascinating urban history that led to the naming of such areas and just go Orwellian, naming all parts of the city vaguely based on where they are located. Holborn? Midtown. Then Shoreditch is Eastown. Stratford? Really Eastown.

If people are going to start seeing areas like Holborn or the Strand as destinations in their own right, local businesses need to work with TfL and the relevant borough councils to make the streets more about the pedestrians and less about cars. Only then will tourists be able to swan around sipping their coffees and enjoy the area, instead of flinching every time a bus goes past.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.