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
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.
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.
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.
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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- The Croydon man at the heart of the Hammersfield deal
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
- Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or local event, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Plan for biggest UK mall in Croydon (independent.co.uk)
- Getting trollied: Croydon’s uncharitable councillors (insidecroydon.com)
- Lollipop patrols face the axe on danger roads in Croydon (standard.co.uk)