In to the Valley: Croydon’s wrong turn on road to future

CROYDON COMMENTARY: So a massive retail-based regeneration scheme in the centre of town will go ahead. DAVID CALLAM says it may yet prove to be yesterday’s solution for tomorrow’s problems

Croydon BID's irony-bypass posters in the windows of the now-closed Allders: "More going on, thanks to Croydon BID", they state

Croydon BID’s irony-bypass posters in the windows of the now-closed Allders: “More going on, thanks to Croydon BID”, they state

Behold Boris Johnson, Croydon’s saviour, appearing in person at the Fairfield Halls to announce a £1 billion shoppers’ paradise development deal.

Interesting that the Mayor of London made the announcement, rather than Croydon Council leader, Mike Fisher – maybe the deal is too big for a borough councillor to handle?

It sounds like good news for our benighted borough, at long last. Linking the town’s two shopping centres is a long-overdue improvement. Let’s see if Hammerson and Westfield, our two intrepid investors, can also wrestle management of North End away from Croydon Council.

We are promised a swanky town centre development with more shops and (yet another) cinema complex, all of which will create thousands of jobs by restoring Croydon to its former glory as the shopping and entertainment Mecca of south London.

What’s not to like? Let me put it this way: I’m concerned we may be embracing yesterday’s solution to solve tomorrow’s problem.

  • More shops need more shoppers to make the venture a commercial success.
  • More shoppers mean more cars queuing for longer on more congested roads to get to all these attractive new shops.
  • Longer queues mean a surfeit of frustrated shoppers looking for somewhere else to shop.
  • And that makes the future even worse than the present: a permanently depressed town centre, with even more empty shops.

Maybe we can create our shoppers’ paradise elsewhere? But it will have to be somewhere in or close to Croydon if the local economy is to benefit fully.

Let me take you back to an idea that was first mooted more than a decade ago, one that was given serious consideration by the likes of Boots and Marks and Spencer, but one that was finally shelved largely because Allders was actively opposed to it – sadly, no longer a consideration.

The idea is to expand Valley Park to make it the primary shopping centre for both Croydon and Sutton, and a serious rival to Bluewater.

Valley Park: was once proposed as a new, out-of-town retail centre, to rival Bluewater

Valley Park: was once proposed as a new, out-of-town retail centre, to rival Bluewater

What brings the idea back to mind now, after all this time? Maybe it’s because we are witnessing a sea change in retailing.

The inexorable increase in the volume of online sales is a serious rival to high street shopping. Consider the generally poor performance of high street retailers in the recent Christmas and New Year period: a 0.1 per cent decline in December sales compared with November.

This is not just a blip. Many retailers will tell you that the future of their business is “click and collect”: order online from an all bells and whistles website and collect from a modest outlet where you can park easily, often without charge.

This kind of operation lends itself much more readily to a bargain-basement type outlet than it does to a glitzy, expensive unit in a town centre, premium rent location.

Edge-of-town retailers, like those in Valley Park, are already paying much less per square metre than those in town centres like central Croydon. That allows them to compete more effectively with online rivals.

Central Croydon lost more than its largest department store when Allders closed. The town is no longer a special place to shop. The two remaining department stores have no particular affinity with the town; each has plenty of outlets elsewhere.

Croydon’s town centre has become just another collection of shops, one that is already difficult to reach by car at busy times and one that is poorly served by expensive car parks.

Maybe the redevelopment will tackle some of these problems. It will also need to address the reality that Croydon is a south London byword for congestion.

How Croydon North End looked in the 1960s, before the Whitgift Centre or Centrale: how many retailers are to go the same way as Woolworths?

How Croydon North End looked in the 1960s, before the Whitgift Centre or Centrale: how many retailers are to go the same way as Woolworths, whose store is to the left of this image?

Drawings for the upgrading of the out-of-town development already exist, gathering dust in City Hall or Taberner House, that show proposals to upgrade the A23 to dual carriageway from Coulsdon to Streatham, with motorway-style junctions at Fiveways and Purley Cross.

Such an initiative might only be possible with a substantial contribution from a private-sector developer. What a coup that would be for Boris.

The same drawings also show a ring road snaking around an expanded Valley Park retail area to minimise the number of junctions on Purley Way and to cope with the anticipated increase in shopping traffic. Car parking isn’t a problem, there’s enough space to create as much of it as you need.

As for public transport, the area is already served by tram, linking it quickly to a myriad of train services at East and West Croydon, and to neighbouring towns like Beckenham, Mitcham and Wimbledon. Bus services could expand easily to support extra shoppers.

Valley Park is already a regional retail destination with proven pulling power: IKEA regularly draws shoppers from as far afield as the south coast.

Just for a moment, imagine the borough was to acquiesce in this idea. Would it be the end of life as we know it in central Croydon? Not necessarily: we’ve been here before, remember.

In the 1950s and 1960s a forward-thinking Croydon Council gave permission for the remodelling of the town centre; Trinity School became a shopping mall; Wellesley Road became a six-lane urban motorway with its now familiar high-rise skyline; and the Davis and Grand theatres were demolished, to be replaced by the Fairfield Halls.

Wellesley Road is the six-lane urban motorway that divides the centre of Croydon

Wellesley Road is the six-lane urban motorway that divides the centre of Croydon

All these then new amenities are now showing their age –some are long past their use-by date, but in their time they were monuments to modernity of which Croydon people were justly proud.

Maybe going back to the future has advantages. By common consent we need more people living in the town centre, though we continue to debate the best way in which to provide the necessary accommodation.

Here’s a chance to re-invent the town as a predominantly residential centre easily linked by public transport to the rest of London, Britain, continental Europe and, via Gatwick Airport, to the rest of the world.

The town would still need some retailing, as well as restaurants, places of entertainment and more and better connected open spaces. Such a central Croydon could be a very pleasant place to live.

On the other hand, we could reject such calumnies.

We could continue to tie ourselves to planning decisions made half-a-century ago to suit the economic conditions of that time.

We could continue to pander to the financial interests of a small number of organisations who still believe they can extract large sums of money from town centre real estate, despite market expectations to the contrary.

And we could end up with a hole in the ground where the Whitgift Centre once stood: beware the Bradford experience.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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16 Responses to In to the Valley: Croydon’s wrong turn on road to future

  1. catswiskas says:

    This excellent article perfectly illustrates what we stand to lose if Croydon’s archive and local studies library is cut back: intelligent, well-informed commentary and suggestion on Croydon’s future, whilst referring back to the mistakes and successes of the past. Accompanying photos are evocative in a most effective way. Definite food for thought.

  2. If you’ve ever sat in the long queues waiting to get out of Valley Park on to the A23 (in either direction) then it’s going to take a serious amount of road remodelling and rebuilding (=serious ££££s) before any expansion would be viable there.

    It’s a shame the original plan for the M23 was scrapped, turning it into a single carriage traffic jam through most of south London.

    • Is it really a shame that there aren’t more dual carriageways in Croydon? Is that what we are screaming out for? If you put more resources into making the driving experience better, aren’t you giving people little choice other than to choose to drive? With a growing population to add to that, where are all these cars going to go? Go to the next council traffic management meeting if you can spare the time, listen to people moan about car parking spaces for 2 hours. Situation is already out of hand.

      Car ownership is declining in Croydon and the population is growing, thus the road space dedicated to private motoring continues to serve a smaller percentage of the population. Other transport modes are better suited to serve the transport needs of an increasingly more densely populated city. Taking into account the other problems of mass motoring including rising obesity, deaths and serious injuries due to collisions, air pollution, climate change, oil dependence, congestion and noise pollution, it should be clear that investments in increased road traffic capacity have been bad investments for some time.

      • Not sure that “it’s a shame there aren’t more dual carriageways” is the conclusion most people would reach on reading this, Kristian.

        Thing is, the still very high levels of motor traffic that races along Wellesley Road will still exist, and if central Croydon is made a “shopping destination”, traffic levels seem certain to increase.

        It will be important to get the road plans and the plans for parking at the “Hammersfield” development, not out-of-town but at the centre of Croydon, absolutely right.

        • Fair enough if I’ve misunderstood, I’m not familiar with the old plans for M23 but assumed since the result is a “single carriage traffic jam” then the plans involved a dual carriageway, presumably where the A23 now lies?

          Anyway, doesn’t matter. I guess what really bothers me is that this kind of planning seems to assume that the key to boosting Croydon’s economy is to attract as many cars to the area as possible. As I believe this would come at a cost to the quality of life here, I’d quite like to see some alternatives on the table.

          • You know that stretch of three-lane road alongside Wandsworth nick? The urban myth is that the M23 would have run all the way from Brighton to the Thames, and that piece of road would have been the northern-most end, linking to the South Circular.

            Have you ever noticed – hopefully when in a car rather than on a bicycle, since you’re not supposed to pedal along on morotways – the odd way that the M23 sort of peters out just north of the M25 junction? That, too, is part of the legacy of the old plans for the motorway.

            Fortunately – in our view – for south Londoners, the planning issues for this monstrous motorway proved insurmountable, the CPO costs too great. Otherwise the whole of south London would have had a scar running through it just like Wellesley Road…

            • Yikes, not only would that have been pretty nasty, would made a hell of a lot of cycling journeys to the city incredibly difficult.

              One has cycled southbound out of Croydon on occasion and almost taken the left fork… Fortunately motorways tend to be clearly signposted.

      • Whilst I agree that building new roads isn’t the solution to our problems, I visit Valley park to buy the likes of wardrobes from Ikea and paving slabs from B&Q and you won’t catch me with any of those strapped to my bike!

        • mmm but I’m willing to wager that if people only used their cars when they needed to carry large and heavy items a few things would follow:
          1) People wouldn’t use their cars very often
          2) Due to (1) the cost per journey over a year would be extortionate. on-street car rental would be much more cost effective
          3) When you arrive at any shop there will be very little competition for parking spaces
          4) When you depart, a single carriageway will be fine and uncongested, and you won’t have problems pulling out of the junction

          There are other considerations (that I’ll mention but won’t go into any detail on); Smaller, more widely distributed outlets would require shorter travel distances, making walking and cycling to the shops more feasible. Smaller, local shops would foster more competition in the market, resulting in a better deal for the consumer, revitalising high streets and lowering barriers to entry for new small/medium enterprises. If conditions for cycling were vastly improved, owning a cargo bike wouldn’t seem like such an outlandish idea. etc etc etc

  3. ndavies144 says:

    The M23 was scrapped because it didn’t have anywhere to terminate. It depended on the motorway box/ringways plans – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Ringways – which were abandoned in the seventies. Without a motorway standard upgrade of the South Circular for the traffic to disperse onto the M23 if built would end up at a roundabout somewhere in Streatham and the traffic would have no way of moving on quickly enough to prevent a permanent three-lane traffic jam through most of south London.

  4. Interesting article.

    At risk of beating my familiar tune – you need shops that are not all exactly the same identi-kit brands that you find in EVERY shopping mall anywhere in the UK or what is the incentive to come to Croydon rather than Bromley or Bluewater etc?

    Years ago, Croydon had certain unique stores both big and small that made it a great shopping destination – Allders, Beanos records, Turtles tools etc. But over the last 10 years these all disappeared and all we we are left with is the same predictable multiples that you see in any shopping mall. Without “special shops” and being faced with expensive parking or any other off-putting factors, other shopping destinations hold more appeal.

    Our town’s shopping experience shouldn’t only be viewed as Whitgift and Drummond Centre. Why can’t it extend outwards from the centre, with some areas being full of independently owned traders offering a variety of interesting and “must have” items not catered for by the big shops.

    There has been no hope of seeing these shops anywhere near the centre of town in recent years – if Disney can’t keep a store open in Croydon, then it’d prove to be too expensive for a start-up entrepreneur.

    Maybe such businesses would be well-placed south of the town centre, as eateries and arty type shops are well-suited to co-existing providing that daytime parking isn’t so onerous that trade becomes all but impossible in those areas, and that such areas are valued and publicised along with the main town centre by both the council and those planning Croydon’s shopping experience. Are you listening White Label??

  5. The thrust of the argument seems to be that a town centre-based retail redevelopment is economically unviable because of the rental premium for town centre locations.

    Why, then, does a rental premium exist that businesses apparently can’t, or won’t pay? The regular laws of supply and demand should make that an impossibility – if town centres are empty because rents are high compared to out-of-town tin sheds, rents should come down to a level businesses will pay. My limited undestanding is that various financial players are in a state of denial about their unrealistic values & want to keep nominal rents high – they’d rather leave units empty and valued at £500/sqm than admit they’ll only keep them full at £100/sqm. How long we have to live with high streets blighted by empty units before the bubble finally pops, I don’t know.

    I’m not convinced by the buy-online, collect-instore model for most things. Maybe for a few high-value items that benefit from a little set-up at the point of delivery – cars, musical instruments, suits – but once Google gets the bugs worked out of its autonomous electric vehicles, same-day delivery for small items purchased online will be the norm. Why sit in a jam on the way to Valley Park, when you can get on with your day while a robo-van trundles across town with your purchase?

    At the same time, small shops can thrive and add value through convenience, destination shopping, and well-trained staff who actually know and care what they’re selling – and the town centre is the right place for that. Not every purchase is driven by price comparison, and savvy owners can put a substantial mark-up on small items & still sell them in quantity.

  6. ndavies144 says:

    I’ve said here before that one way to address the parking and traffic issues Croydon suffers is to build a big park and ride on the Purley Way about where Sainsbury’s is, then buy a couple of trams (nice vintage Blackpool ones would make an attraction but not vital) and run a dedicated, and crucially, free service between East Croydon station and Mr Callam’s extended Valley Park.

    Such an arrangement would provide easy access to both areas and remove the need for much commuter and visitor parking in the town centre. However the bean counters will want the ‘business plan’ for such a scheme to guarantee to make their money back on the current account, which it won’t, and are more likely to build a helipad on Mint Walk for porcine aviators than do anything that benefts the common good.

  7. djfisher81 says:

    South London road schemes and the M23: an excellent reference is http://www.cbrd.co.uk/histories/m23.

    It suggests that Trinity Road was actually part of a different scheme, but no matter.

    I agree with the “large objects/large amounts of shopping = car” logic, but surely there are a lot of shoppers who will just leave, having had lunch or a coffee, with a handful of easily-carried bags (clothes etc)? Croydon has excellent public transport links, and people flock to Westfield Shepherds Bush and Stratford on the train/tube, so why not to Croydon if marketed right?

    A Valley Park park-and-ride already exists, sort of – there’s loads of parking out there for the big boxes (and plenty of space for more if required), you’d just need to come to an arrangement with the car park operators to allow shoppers to leave their cars there and hop on the tram to the High Street.

    Also, if proper cycle lanes existed around Purley Way/Valley Park, locals could pop out for a browse (or for smaller stuff) and then come back later with their car for the big stuff once they’ve made up their minds.

  8. Personally I can’t wait for the development and I really hope it is able to progress and be delivered on time.

    We moved to north Croydon 2.5 years ago and I can count the number of times we have been into central Croydon as a family on one hand, we hate going there. We much prefer to get the direct train to Westfield London as the shopping experience is so much more rewarding.

    West Croydon station is an intimidating place and the current Whitgift and Centrale are fine for shops but not for the overall experience, we have no desire to stick around and the lack of restaurants around the two shopping centres is deplorable – the South End restaurants, though good, are not practical for trips from West Croydon station.

    Valley Park is great for trips in the car, but before we had a car trips to Ikea on the train and tram were not fun, especially if we ever bought anything and had to carry it back with us and I disagree that this should be turned into the new Croydon retail space – it is fine as it is.

    I grew up in Bromley in the 1980s and it was always seen as a treat to go shopping in Croydon for the bigger and better shops, the new Hammerson/Westfield development will hopefully bring this back and make going into Croydon a more rewarding all round experience and one that is easy to get to on public transport.

    If the development can help with access to other things like Croydon Museum and Croydon Central library, we might be able to bring back a sense of community. This investment is so badly needed and we will never return to the days of the nostalgic photos in this article, but we have to move on and embrace the diverse vibrant place that Croydon has the potential to be.

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