The 73ha development, masterplanned by Allies and Morrison, will deliver thousands of homes, hundreds of thousands of square metres of offices as well as retail and leisure facilities and 20ha of new or rejuvenated parkland
Most will associate the north London suburb of Brent Cross with its eponymous shopping centre. Opened in 1976 as the UK’s first out-of-town covered retail centre, it was the model for a host of later developments elsewhere in the country. At the time, it was marketed as a retail nirvana. Its high-end, futuristic interiors contrasted with a concrete exterior that was far more reflective of its surroundings. Bordered to the east by the A41, the south by the North Circular Road and with the M1 to the west, along with associated flyovers, its unforgiving context is offset by the superlative connectivity that made the original decision to site the shopping centre here such a no-brainer.
Which is precisely what has proved the spur for the new Brent Cross Town on the south side of the North Circular opposite the centre, a joint venture development between the London Borough of Barnet and King’s Cross Central developer Related Argent. Its blocks can be seen rising as one approaches from any of these roads, with good views to be had from a Thameslink train as you look east past architect IF_DO’s wrap of the site’s new electricity substation. Its 21m-tall curve of multicoloured steel fins acts as a larger-then-life signpost for one of London’s most significant suburban regeneration projects.
Masterplanned by Allies and Morrison, Brent Cross Town is an £8 billion, 73ha ‘park town’ which will deliver 280,000m2 of office space, 6,700 new homes across a variety of tenures, along with retail, sport, leisure facilities and parking. Not only that but, with the Brent Cross West Thameslink rail 'bridge' station opening in December 2023, the area is being served up a whole new level of pedestrian and public transport connectivity. The remodelling of the existing Clitterhouse Fields by Gustafson Porter + Bowman and the creation of a linear park, meanwhile, will realise 20ha of new or rejuvenated parkland. In short, this is a well-connected connected urban quarter to rival the scale of any of London’s past ‘towns’.
Getting to this point has taken almost 30 years, says Barnet Council deputy chief executive Cath Shaw, explaining that its history is bound into that of the shopping centre. She recounts that it was owners Hammerson and Standard Life’s mid-1990s rejected planning application to double the indoor mall’s size that forced the council’s hand to seriously consider a unified approach to the planning of the whole area. This resulted in the drafting of supplementary planning guidance in the early 2000s, pulling in both the council and GLA. Concurrently, parcels of land were being assembled, not just the council’s own Whitefield Estate to the east but land owned by Standard Life, Hammerson and Network Rail among others.
But just as Allies and Morrison’s masterplan gained consent in 2010, the financial crash hit and Hammerson et al baulked, opting not to take the risk of diversifying out of retail specialisation and seemingly leaving the council high and dry. ‘But with the vision in place,’ recalls Shaw, ‘in 2012 Barnet chose to step into the development space. But it meant finding a partner to see how it could be moved forward.’ Shaw notes that place-making priorities were formalised in Barnet’s discussions with urban designer Mindfolio. Barnet entered into a joint venture (JV) with Related Argent in 2015, inspired by its work in Birmingham and Manchester and its ongoing transformation of King’s Cross,
The timeframe is a long one. As a projected net zero carbon development, the JV is looking at around 2050 to realise a significant portion of the larger site area of 1.4 million m2, but the initial 280,000m2, forming the central heart of Brent Cross Town, is due to be complete by 2030. Shaw explains that the awareness that it would take decades, involving changes of governance, economic or social priorities ‘means that the planning consent contains a whole series of mechanisms that allow it to be adjusted on a phase-by-phase basis and via cumulative delivery across the site.’
Barnet Council has a statutory duty to realise best value for land and the 50/50 joint venture means it retains an ongoing interest secured in the site itself. It works like this: the JV as master developer puts the infrastructure in place, creates the plots and sells them. Once a plot is sold to a Related Argent entity or a third party, it then becomes its detailed planning issue. The JV employs Related Argent as development manager – ‘it’s their expertise and we don’t interfere with them on a day-to-day basis,’ says Shaw. She adds that Barnet can then take profits out or reinvest them ‘to get what we need out of the scheme, like creating more affordable housing at later stages than the original consent had maybe allowed for’.
Brent Cross West station, which Allies and Morrison founder Bob Allies notes was first envisaged on his sketch of a nascent development at the tail end of the 1990s, is critical to the development’s viability, taking its PTAL rating (public transport accessibility level) from 3 to 6. The £40 million 'bridge' station, which allows people to cross the Midland Main Line for the first time in 150 years, was designed by Studio Egret West and WSP, and built by Network Rail/ Mace and VolkerFitzpatrick.
It was originally intended to be paid for by profits from six phases of housing and business rates from the expanded shopping centre. When the latter fell away, the funding model had to be rethought. As part of the Brent Cross Cricklewood Regeneration Programme, Barnet applied for and won a partially refundable central government grant to cover its £400 million total cost, due to be repaid out of future site profits. Shaw adds that revised scheduling of the station was key. ‘Changing the consent to deliver the station up-front lifted land values to make the whole scheme financially viable,’ she explains.
‘Without the station the development doesn’t work,’ agrees Related Argent partner Nick Searl, who’ll be using Thameslink to get to his offices at King’s Cross Central in 12 minutes, or indeed to travel to Related’s New York HQ from Heathrow or Gatwick via Farringdon. ‘We got involved because we loved its scale. Its developed area is twice that of King’s Cross Central – three times with the parks. But also because Barnet had bought into the proposition and wanted long-term involvement in Brent Cross Town as a place to live and work.’
The success the borough had in securing the station grant was emulated by Related Argent when ‘in April 2020 we were approved for a £148 million Homes England loan to deliver infrastructure, allowing us to get £450 million in low-cost infrastructure loans over 10 years. This proved to be a rocket boost for the development.’
The scale of the development is palpable as the first of the central blocks go up: a 13-storey block of affordable housing for 120 families moved from the Whitefield estate, as well as The Delamarre, 170 mansion-style market sale units, both designed by Maccreanor Lavington for RSL L&Q. These will soon be joined by other housing plots: the 107-unit market-sale Ashbee arts & crafts-inspired apartments by Squire & Partners, 279 homes over four buildings by dRMM and 286 build-for-rent flats by Allies and Morrison, complete with gym, pool, cinema and roof terraces.
While King’s Cross had historic infrastructure, here Related Argent had the proximity of the underused Clitterhouse Fields to the south. ‘What’s unique about this place,’ says Searl, ‘is the size of this green space and the potential it offers to create a park town – an urban experience embedded in nature.’ He adds that they’re spending £25 million not just on improving biodiversity and SUDs resilience with 400 trees but also building pavilions (Moxon’s visitor pavilion is already there), paths and playspace to bring the park into good use.
Claremont Park, a new 3ha linear green space by Townshends/ HTA running east-west, will ultimately provide a green route linking Brent Cross underground station to the new Thameslink station. The park is already up and running and used by the local community, waiting to be bordered to its north by handsomely scaled, market-sale mansion blocks. Such upfront commissioning of new public space has been well-employed by Argent on previous projects, serving to ‘embed’ potential benefits of disruptive development on existing residents at the outset.
Related Argent is very clear that this was never about a dormitory town around green spaces, but a living, breathing community. Incorporation of office, workspace, retail, leisure and food and beverage offerings is built into the project’s DNA. Searl explains that, despite a strong culture of microbusiness in the borough, ‘there’s been no history of Grade A office provision in north London; it was all distributed east-west. This development will change that by eventually creating enough office space for 25,000 workers. The first elements will evidence themselves alongside and opposite the new station – notably Bennetts Associates’ 2 Copper Square, a nine-storey, mass timber structure of stepped roof terraces, festooned with climbing plants. This 13,000m2 workspace building will aim to be a sustainable landmark on the new station square.
It is set to be joined by education use too in shedkm’s BREEAM Excellent block adjacent to the station. Related Argent recently signed up Sheffield Hallam University as the project’s higher education partner, lured in by the potential of Clitterhouse Fields. ‘They’ve got the UK’s most advanced health and wellbeing research centre and we all felt that a London campus here was a good fit,’ explains Searl. He adds that it will also be making 10,000m2 of civic presence felt on the station square. Bringing in 5,000 students, it makes good economic sense too. Three blocks ranging from 9 to 22 storeys, designed by Howells, will create 662 units with ground-loor retail for student housing provider Fusion on Neighbourhood Square. The same client is likely to double that on-site provision in the near future, says Searl.
Future flexibility, as Barnet’s Shaw stated, was built into the outline consent and Related Argent, not surprisingly accords. ‘The world changes fast and if you try and nail down everything on a scheme like this at the start you are fencing in some form of failure, as you can’t adapt,’ says Related Argent partner Morwenna Hall. ‘My experience at King’s Cross was that outline permission allowed for more office and residential than we were planning on building, so we could “waterbed” it. Some space initially earmarked as office became residential or vice versa. There was a degree to which we could shift uses around the site within agreed parameters.’ And that’s what’s happening here.
It’s been a journey for Hall too. Starting as a mechanical engineer at Arup, she led the design and delivery of projects at King’s Cross Central. Now as Related Argent partner, she’s responsible for the ‘ground plane experience’ across all of its projects – that is, ‘basically everything below 6m’. Hall is charged with curating and realising everything that will make Brent Cross Town, well, feel like a town.
This includes making its proposed high street, with traffic and all, work for the locality as well as providing higher-end food and beverage experiences. It involves an element of nurturing. Three local businesses – a café, roastery and bakery – are currently being incubated in units of an existing council terrace, looking to grow and be eventually absorbed into the new high street, running east-west via its ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘market’ squares as well as residential garden spaces.
‘We want to have amazing restaurants from which to enjoy the public space,’ says Hall. ‘But that’s about thinking where’s the sun or where might they sit? The ground plane is critical because, for most people who visit, that will be their experience. But the conversation is framed in talk about municipal clock towers or key corners that might draw users into the development, and also practicalities.
‘It’s about the everyday things too: the vet, the local doctor, dentist or dry cleaners. If you ask people about their favourite high street, it would have use and a sense of rhythm and elements that link spaces together as part of a delightful journey. We’d like retailers to show personality in a stronger way than they could at King’s Cross as we have a tabula rasa here – we’re starting from scratch.’ Governance and ‘soft power’ too are noted as being key urban concepts but not embellished upon.
Much is yet to be decided at Brent Cross Town. Knitted into all of this need to be three new schools – a replacement secondary, a new primary and a special-needs school – and a health centre, all developed around the phase-by-phase viability assessments built into the outline consent. Barnet’s Shaw says that, as the consent is a historic one, this is being delivered through phased Section 106 agreements rather than major CIL payments. She adds that the site’s higher PTAL rating due to the station allowed site-wide parking requirements to be taken down to 0.7/ unit and on the Brent Cross Town site itself, Related Argent managed to negotiate it down further to 0.3 – quite an achievement for a development surrounded on three sides by A roads and a motorway interchange.
And there’s the future of the larger site outside of Related Argent’s: the 100m-tall residential and office towers to the north-west, bound into the area’s planning guidance; and development of the much-maligned Holiday Inn block and faceless retail park on the north edge, jarringly photobombing Related Argent’s garden city vision; and of course the difficult relationship of Brent Cross Town to the shopping centre itself over the divisive North Circular Road. Hammerson and Abrdn haven’t approached Barnet yet with plans for their huge site. ‘It’s up to them to propose something,’ says Shaw. ‘My expectation is that it will involve a significant leisure and food and beverage offer more along the lines of the new Westfield, but we’ll have to wait and see.’
‘We’ve drawn hundreds of versions of bridges across it – vehicular, pedestrian, ones with buildings on them, living bridges, endless permutations,’ says Allies and Morrison’s Bob Allies, who reckons the challenge is the huge cost of building a new bridge across it when mediocre road access exists now. ‘The quality of a future connection across it is all,’ he says, ‘and we’ve left a street on our masterplan to link to where a bridge might go.’
His view, based on nearly 30 years’ involvement, is that a shift in land values will ultimately dictate whether this remains the site’s Rubicon. ‘My guess is that if the Argent scheme motors on, then the potential value of the car park site on the road’s north side will go up and it will all be revisited,’ he says. ‘Everything is up for grabs.’