Croydon’s Black Friday: Allders a sad sign of wider decline

Not much to celebrate: Allders will close within days, in the middle of its 150th year

Friday, September 7, 2012 will go down as the latest dark day in the history of Croydon. The announcement of the closure of Allders may not seem as tragic or dramatic as the events of the 8/8 riots of a year ago. Yet in many ways, today’s announcement was a direct by-product of the wanton destruction committed just over a year ago, as well as the lack of real leadership provided by our local politicians in the 12 months since.

Allders’ pulling down the shutters for a final time, and with it the loss of up to 1,000 jobs from the borough, is bad enough. But there were two other pieces of bleak news today that say much about Croydon’s continuing decline.

The trustees of the Warehouse Theatre announced that they have been forced to abandon their campaign to save the venue, unable to raise the cash needed. The theatre has been dark since Croydon Council cynically and calculatedly withdrew a vital grant earlier this year. The genuine fear now must be that the £3 million development fund promised by Stanhope will be grabbed by the council for a half-arsed attempt to create a studio threatre for their chums at the Fairfield Halls.

In other news emerging today, the local newspaper group that publishes the Croydon Sadvertiser has announced a “restructuring” across its titles in south-east England that will see 38 people lose their jobs.

For the failing Redhill-based Sadvertiser, which has lost nearly half of its readership in the past year, that seems likely to see at least two more people having their posts axed from the staff. The Sadvertiser is, like Allders, another Croydon institution that is on the brink (it will be no consolation for the redundant journalists that the senior executive who introduced the wizard scheme to split the Croydon title’s distribution as part paid-for and part-free is to leave the company to take up a position in Uganda, to lecture on how to run newspapers).

The decline of all aspects of Croydon business, culture and life appears to be in a fatal spiral.

The loss of so many jobs at Allders, from shop staff, back-office workers and those employed in concessions, is also a massive blow to the the “master plan” for Croydon’s future, devised under council chief executive Jon Rouse.

Blot on the landscape: the unfinished, and unfinanced, IYLO Tower, is another sign of Croydon’s decline and poses questions about a dubious regeneration scheme based on high-priced flats and retail

The expensively compiled plans are based overwhelmingly on building 17,000 high-rise flats and loads of retail space.

This despite the under-occupation of existing tower blocks, such as Altitude 25, or unfinished and unfinanced eye-sores like IYLO. And Croydon Council pursues these plans despite all models for the retail sector suggesting a growing shift away from high street stores – such as Allders – to ever greater volumes of online shopping.

The demise of a retail business so closely associated with Croydon since Joshua Allder opened his draper’s store in 1862 needs to be taken as a serious warning by the council’s planners. Allders is undoubtedly the biggest casualty so far of the double whammy of the recession created in No11 Downing Street and last August’s riots.

But the closure also fits a pattern of decline and neglect that has been going on in Croydon for years. The Allders closure follows the departure from Croydon of blue chip businesses such as Nestle and Bank of America: all in, that is getting on for 3,000 jobs lost to the borough in the space of nine months, with an estimated loss to the local economy of more than £50 million in salaries alone.

That’s where other businesses are feeling the impact. As first reported by Inside Croydon, Malcolm John’s prestigious restaurant, which depended on expense account trade from the likes of Nestle, has been forced to close. Other, small businesses have also been forced to lay-off staff following the effect of the riots, and more than 100 established shops are now closed.

Schemes such as the £100,000 government grant to allow Mary Portas to give Croydon’s high street a TV “makeover” are made to look increasingly like a sticking plaster being applied to a patient in intensive care. As we said earlier this week, “fears were expressed… that such a modest amount might be ‘too little, too late’ for Croydon town centre’s struggling retail outlets”.

And despite widespread calls from traders, large and small, for some emergency business rates relief, our council sits on its hands and watches as the shutters come down across the borough.

The uncomfortable truth is that under a ConDem government, in a Tory-run city, with a Conservative-controlled council, Croydon is becoming a toxic location for business.

In their statement this morning, Allders’ administrators said that although they tried to find a buyer for the business, no one wanted to take it on, and when late on Wednesday the final bidder – thought to be the previous owner, Harold Tillman, who had cashed in the majority of his interest in Allders earlier this year – pulled out, they had no option but to abandon their search.

The Mexican stand-off between developers Westfield and Hammerson over the adjoining Whitgift Centre hampered the Allders administrators. That damaging £1 billion contest has been instigated through some hubris from the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation.

Will the council or the local MP intervene to bring the multi-million-pound charitable foundation to act in the best interests of the wider community?

That seems highly unlikely as long as Croydon is being strangled by a tangle of conflicts of interest: deputy leader of the Conservative group that controls Croydon Council is Dudley Mead. He and his wife, Councillor Margaret Mead, both hold influential positions with the Whitgift Foundation, as does the Croydon Central MP and another Trinity School old boy, Gavin Barwell.

The question that Croydon needs answering on Black Friday is who do the Meads and Barwell really represent?

Mike Fisher, leader of Croydon Council: is the council in thrall to the Whitgift Foundation?

It is very telling that Mike Fisher, the leader of Croydon Council, today chose to express his confidence in the Croydon Establishment’s status quo by backing the Whitgift Foundation’s “plans”.

“What I am confident about is that the current plans for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre will see this site given a new lease of life. We will be working closely with the landlords to bring the space back into use as quickly as possible,” Fisher said, amply demonstrating the council’s subservient position with the Foundation.

The council has announced that it is to offer traders support and advice to help them find new premises.

In an official statement, the council claimed that, “Since the announcement in June that Allders had experienced further financial difficulties the council has worked hard to help those responsible for the store to find a workable solution to enable it to remain open.”

This, however, is also at odds with statements from the former management of Allders, who state that they begged to be given a brief “holiday” from paying their business rates. Croydon Council refused this request, and even claimed that they did not know that the store was in financial difficulties.

“The council remains determined to ensure that as many as possible of the small businesses that traded from the store will continue to operate in the town,” said a statement issued from Taberner House today. “Support and advice is being offered to those concessions who are now trying to establish themselves in other premises, and negotiations are underway with local commercial landlords and agents to try and broker advantageous deals on vacant shops.

“The council is also coordinating the Allders Staff Support Group. This includes advisers from Jobcentre Plus, the Skills Funding Agency, Croydon Adult Learning Services, Croydon College and local retailers and will provide an employment support package for anyone who will be made redundant following the closure. In addition, plans are in place for a one-stop training and employment advice shop in the Whitgift Shopping Centre for staff affected by the closure.”

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2 Responses to Croydon’s Black Friday: Allders a sad sign of wider decline

  1. derekthrower says:

    It feels like a death spiral. I spose we have nothing to fear now but fear itself.

  2. Allders’ demise has two main causes, neither of which is directly due to Croydon Council, though its insistence on meddling where it has little or no expertise is a contributory factor.

    The immediate cause of the problem is the effect of a prolonged recession on a store whose premises have long been past their use by date. If you want to see a good example of modern department store design in central Croydon you need look no further than House of Fraser.

    The Allders store, by comparison, is a rambling old pile, large parts of which date back to before the First World War when retailing was a wholly different business. It has been extended piecemeal ever since, creating a rabbit warren of a shop.

    Allders is Britain’s third largest department store – only Harrods and Selfridges are bigger. Croydon Council has often trumpeted this statistic, betraying its ignorance of modern retailing. In fact the store has 450,000 square feet of retail space – almost twice as much as required by John Lewis for a fully service department store.

    The additional floor space is a disadvantage, making Allders of Croydon an expensive store to run; which reflects in either uncompetitive prices or wafer-thin margins that are susceptible to the slightest downturn in trade.

    Before the Allders Group went bust and Harold Tillman took over the Croydon business, there were advanced plans to rebuild the flagship store behind the familiar North End facade, but with half its present retail floor area and a simpler layout.

    That would have cut its rent and business rates at a stroke, but would not have reduced its turnover by anything like the same proportion, if at all. The plans were muddied by the Group’s decision to opt for an alternative store in the ill-fated Park Place development. And they were further delayed by the political machinations that inevitably followed contemplation of a move away from the Whitgift Centre.

    But Allders has been in chronic decline for decades, losing business steadily for the same reason that smaller High Street independents have found themselves in such dire straits – namely Britain’s decision to shop in supermarkets.

    In 1981 my then wife and I furnished and equipped our new home almost exclusively from Allders. By the time I came to repeat the exercise with my second wife, some years later, IKEA and other warehouse operations had opened on Purley Way and we shopped there instead.

    We believed the newcomers offered better value for money.

    Multiply our decision by the millions of people across the country who did the same and you begin to see how stores like Allders – particularly those in outdated buildings – were terminally damaged by this sea-change in our shopping habits.

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