CROYDON COMMENTARY: A 15 per cent fall in turnover in the Croydon retail sector in five years? Solution: Build more shops! Expensive residential tower blocks left unfinished, unbuilt or unsold? Solution: Build more towers!
When attending public meetings at Croydon Town Hall, as well as noting who is present, it’s always worth considering who is not there.
So it was at Gavin Barwell’s meeting on regeneration on Thursday night, attended by around a hundred people. But where was Croydon council’s chief executive Jon Rouse (the man who “wrote the book on urban regeneration”)? Was he skulking at the back of the room? Why was he not more involved in such an event? And where was the council cabinet member for planning and regeneration, Jason Perry, or the cabinet member for communities and economic development, Vidhi Mohan?
Couldn’t the council leader, Mike Fisher, or the newly appointed chair of CCURV, Jayne McGivern, have shown an interest and attended to the views of residents?
To give Barwell his due, he does engage the public. But it appears that many of Croydon’s elite don’t give a fig for what ordinary residents are thinking.
Barwell commenced his presentation with a run through of Croydon’s strengths and “challenges”. His take on its challenges was the economic decline of the last 30 years, dated office stock, high parking prices, limited cultural offer, poor public realm and an “image problem”. He spoke at some length on the (relatively small) investment funds that have been earmarked for Croydon – in particular the London Mayor’s £23 million.
There was a quick exposition of each of Croydon’s multitude of masterplans. He highlighted the intention to concentrate 17,000 newcomers in central Croydon in high-rise residential tower blocks.
Barwell made no apologies for regeneration being focused on central Croydon. He argued that central Croydon was the key area for jobs, had the most potential to absorb more housing and was disproportionately important for the borough’s overall image.
CCURV is the £450 million urban regeneration joint venture deal between Croydon Council and Laing which includes the council’s £145 million headquarters block. Barwell touched briefly on CCURV, noting that it embodied an element of financial risk as the council had a 50 per cent equity stake. However, on the upside, he noted that this same equity stake gave the council an element of control over the CCURV developments.
He wrapped up his presentation by referring to Westfield and Hammerson’s competing plans for the Whitgift Centre. He disclosed he was a Whitgift Foundation governor – but stressed he had no input into the Foundation’s choice of Westfield as its development partner. He gave his personal views on the relative merits of the two competing schemes.
He suggested that Westfield is a strong brand which incorporates a high degree of homogeneity into its developments. Hammerson – by comparison – tailors its development to suit local requirements. In the case of Croydon, Hammerson’s scheme may integrate better with the existing street plans – what’s called “permeability” in the planning profession.
Much of his presentation covered old ground. But there were some interesting snippets of new information. Perhaps the statistic that best captures the troubles of Croydon’s retail sector is its fall in turnover from 2005 (£909m) to 2010 (£777m). We also had confirmation that no start dates exist for Menta and Guildhouse/Rosepride’s residential towers. It was a surprise to learn that Berkeley Homes is only building the low level section of its Saffron Square development – the tower is on hold.
Barwell told the audience that most of the Mayor of London’s £23 million post-riots fund will not be spent on helping those businesses or residents worst affected by the riots, but will be spent in providing business rates relief for new companies setting up in the borough – essentially creating an Enterprise Zone, something that had been offered previously by the government, and rejected by our council.
Barwell argued that redeveloping the Whitgift Centre was vital in making many of the proposed residential developments financially viable. One (rare) positive development is that Croydon College will be collaborating with the highly regarded innovation centre at the University of Sussex.
But like the absentees from the audience, perhaps the most revealing aspect of his presentation was the omissions. Although since his election to parliament Barwell had made great play of his strenuous efforts to persuade large government departments to relocate to Croydon, no mention was made of this whatsoever.
Allders was referenced but silence was maintained on the Nestle and Bank of America departures. Perhaps the most surprising omission of all was the “R” word. Dare we even whisper it, the riots? There was some bemusement in the audience when Barwell contended that the two single biggest blots on Croydon’s image were IYLO and St George’s Walk. It was bizarre that the riots – of all things – should be the elephant in the room.
After the presentation, the audience commented. Barwell was lucky – it was a very kindly audience. The audience spared his blushes by suppressing many of the difficult questions: the musical chairs on regeneration management, the “award-winning” £20 million Bridge to Nowhere, the dire state of so many of the district centres, the woeful tale of Westfield’s destruction of Bradford’s town centre and the wisdom of spending £145 million on glitzy new council offices in these punishing times.
However, the audience put forward many thoughtful observations and questions.
Jonny Rose highlighted the great changes in consumer spending patterns which are killing huge swathes of the high street. He questioned the wisdom of relying on retail development for the engine of Croydon’s regeneration. Barwell agreed there would be further attrition in the retail sector – but he believed that Hammerson and Westfield would be survivors in this shake out.
Paul Collins spoke with conviction on the need to help Croydon’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). He noted the current lack of central government support for SMEs and the infrastructure and banking problems they face. Barwell agreed but didn’t elaborate on how Croydon is helping its existing SMEs or its strategy for attracting new SMEs.
Susan Oliver subtly questioned whether Croydon’s regeneration strategy was focused enough on the technological and digital sectors – the future growth areas. Barwell gave the politician’s usual platitudes on wanting to support these sectors, without specifying how.
A rarity at this type of Croydon public meeting was an audience member who admitted to earning close to Croydon’s average income. In this case, the gentleman earns £27,000pa. He noted that on his salary, he would never be able to afford any of the flats that were being proposed for central Croydon. Barwell’s response was that house prices were high in Britain due to the lack of supply. Croydon’s huge flat building effort was what needed at the national level.
John Ingman made the most telling contribution from the floor. He was brave enough to articulate the cynicism that so many of the audience felt. He noted that demand for Croydon flats was saturated – as the vacancy rate in Altitude 25 evidences.
Why should such an avalanche of additional flats find ready buyers? He observed that as Croydon is awash with existing vacant office space, why would there be demand for additional space? He noted that Croydon has lost its existing iconic retailer – Allders. How can there be sufficient consumer demand to support an enlarged retail sector?
It was telling that the audience burst into spontaneous applause at Ingman’s honest assessment of Croydon’s reality. Barwell disagreed. Barwell believes rosier times lie ahead for Croydon.
The overall impression from the meeting is that most of the proposed flat and office projects have stalled. The only big project that seems to have a reasonable chance of completion is the Whitgift Centre redevelopment. However, the audience’s feedback evidences unease that Croydon is placing so much reliance on the retail sector. There was a real sense that Croydon has no effective strategy to support SMEs or to develop new, digital, green or technology businesses that are likely to be resilient for the long term.
One of the few moments of mirth during the meeting was when Barwell posed the rhetorical question: “Do I look like a mugger?”
Maybe not of our wallets, but perhaps of our credulity.
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