Sun Lounge fails to shed much light on future of Croydon

An exhibition of architectural plans for a “New Croydon” is long on waffle and short on fresh ideas, says a disappointed CRO CRUSADER

You might have expected that the grandly titled “New Croydon Architecture & Design Exhibition”, which is open to the public in the Sun Lounge of the Fairfield Halls, would seek to offer some answers to whether Croydon in 2012 is on the verge of something big.

This exhibition is organised by Develop Croydon – the pressure group of Croydon’s bigger developers, operating out of the offices of White Label, Croydon Council’s preferred PR agency.

Develop Croydon (DC) is one of Croydon’s strange beasts. It continually proclaims its love of Croydon, but its actions are at variance with its words.

In the aftermath of last August’s riots, you would have imagined that DC would have dug deep to help the burned out small traders on London Road. Given the financial strength of DC’s members, a £50,000  donation would have been loose change, but would have provided a lifeline for the riot victims. DC made no direct donation.

Our council bends over backwards to grant planning permission for projects proposed by companies signed up to DC – even when local people object in droves (as was the case with Menta’s skyscraper).

In 2010, our council spent an eye-watering £165,000 of public money supporting DC’s efforts for private corporations to market Croydon at the MIPIM property exhibition staged at Cannes in the south of France. Only last week, White Label, in the guise of Develop Croydon, confirmed that they will be attending another jolly on the Cote d’Azur in March 2013.

Develop Croydon’s display, familiar from a campaign seen earlier this year, complete with the trademark bogus claims and factual inexactitudes

As the “New Croydon” exhibition is in a public space, one would assume that its primary objective is to inform the ordinary residents and businesses of Croydon. And as most of the people of Croydon “know the score” about their borough, you might hope that DC’s exhibition would be short on waffle but long on hard facts. Most importantly, the exhibition should reveal whether there really is a grand vision or a big idea underlying Croydon’s regeneration.

Any such high hopes are quickly dashed. The exhibit certainly doesn’t answer the big questions. In fact, the exhibition is overwhelmingly bland.

As architecture is a very visible thing, you might imagine that architects’ models would dominate the exhibition. You could expect the architects’ models to be of stellar quality given the proclaimed price tags of the projects: Westfield’s mooted £1 billion Whitgift transformation; the hundreds of millions that Hammerson says it will spend on Whitgift, given the chance; Stanhope/Schroders’ £500 million Ruskin Square scheme; the £250 million “Mental” tower…

The exhibition does not feature a single architect’s model, even from existing schemes, never mind anything to capture the imagination with inspired ideas for the “New Croydon”.

Instead, the visitor is confronted with poorly executed display boards. Many of the display boards (Mott McDonald, Flora & Associates, Geraghty Taylor) promote Croydon-based architects. But as these firms are not directly involved in any of Croydon’s current projects, their boards are of little relevance or interest.

The unfortunate visitor will scratch their head in bemusement at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) board. The board tells us that LMU students have sought the “pockets of generosity” in Croydon and San Paulo. This is intriguing stuff – but the board fails to explain what LMU’s work entails.

The dense information on the Manchester School of Architecture (MSA) board is also intriguing. It’s hard for the visitor to gauge whether the MSA students are taking the piss out of Croydon’s grand delusions. Alas, the “golden tetrahedral-styled pedestrian bridges that can be moved as and when Croydon has another new strategic planning review” cited in Andrew Pelling’s recent post for Inside Croydon didn’t make the official display board.

Undoubtedly, the exhibition’s big draw is enlightenment on the rival schemes for the Whitgift Centre. A successful redevelopment of the Whitgift could be a real game changer for Croydon.

The Hammerson display at the New Croydon exhibit that does not mention Hammerson, but manages to suggest that 1+1 = 3

Bizarrely, given the multi-billion pound value of the rival schemes, neither Westfield nor Hammerson can do any better than produce relatively vague display boards. Hammerson doesn’t even have the conviction to highlight its own identity on its display board. Instead, it uses the moniker “Croydon Alliance”. The display is a disappointing example of uninformative waffle.

Westfield may consider that its public consultation, which is being staged in central Croydon this week, serves its purpose, backed up with tens of thousands of glossy leaflets being distributed through the letter boxes of Croydon residents. We shall see.

Most visitors to the exhibit will be keen to understand the bigger picture. Do the combined projects yield a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts? Is there an underlying big idea or grand vision? At the practical level, how will jobs, social services and culture be provided for the 17,000 new residents who will be squeezed into central Croydon?

Obviously, given that each developer is focused on its own project, you would hope that our council would draw the various regeneration strands together. As Jon Rouse has assumed executive responsibility for regeneration, surely we’re in capable hands? After all, he’s the man who wrote the book on urban regeneration.

Alas, our council has also failed to offer any models to illustrate how central Croydon might be changed if these projects go ahead. Instead, the visitor has to settle for a small map indicating the location of each project.

Our council does have a display board, though. It is notable for being probably the worst display in the entire exhibition. A monkey could have done a better job of putting together a collection of meaningless buzzwords – Vision; Collaboration; Delivery – and slogans.

Our council makes prominent reference to the planning equivalent of the tooth fairy – the Open Area Opportunity Framework. But perhaps the proclamation on our council’s display board that will really strike fear into residents is that it is shortlisted for an award (the obscure New London awards). Our council has form on “garnering” awards.

DC has supplemented the exhibition with a booklet entitled Croydon – The Facts. We suggest that this publication needs to be registered with the British Library, under fiction.

The booklet is remarkably similar to the document produced by the council last year for its doomed city bid. Indeed, someone at White Label has confirmed that most of the material used in Croydon – The Facts “came from the council”.

Trouble is, especially for a publication that includes “The Facts” in its title, this includes the factual errors from the city bid, such as the bogus claim of a Croydon connection with Lord Byron which saw the borough made into a national laughing stock (again).

Poetic licence with the facts: Develop Croydon’s brochure regurgitates many of the errors that were in Croydon’s woeful city bid document, including claiming a connection to the poet Lord Byron that never existed

There are other examples. On the “Arts & Culture” facts, we are told that the “Fairfield Halls and the Warehouse Theatre will play a major part in the town’s regeneration”. Is that the same Warehouse Theatre that is in administration?

On “Retail” facts, we’re told that “Allders… is the fourth largest department store in the UK”.Is that the same Allders that is in administration?

On “People & Lifestyle” facts, there’s a prominent picture of the Croydon Summer Festival – which was axed by our council more than a year ago.

The brochure and its online version is riddled with other basic errors: Katie Melua is described as a “singe”, Cicely Mary Barker wrote “flower faires”, Havelock Ellis was a “Victorian sexologis”. Leaving aside these howlers, the brochure is simply second-rate.

This, and the poor quality of the exhibition, raises serious questions on the marketing competence of Develop Croydon and White Label. There’s a suspicion that many of the bland display boards have been recycled from the stand at the annual MIPIM exhibition.

Since the council and DC, when they are justifying the expense of attending the event, constantly remind us that MIPIM is the world’s premier property showcase,  might they go equipped with a stand of the very highest quality to show Croydon in the best possible light? Although this latest exhibit is held in the Sun Lounge, it provides little in the way of enlightenment.

  • The exhibition runs to July 6 at the Sun Lounge, Fairfield Halls.
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Redhill.
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