Busy Boris means business with £5.7m streets scheme

London Mayor Boris Johnson: showing a very keen interest in Croydon

London Mayor Boris Johnson: showing a very keen interest in Croydon

CROYDON COMMENTARY: The Mayor of London has stepped in again to clear a path – and several roads – for the £1.5 billion Hammersfield development, or “Croydon Partnership” as Westfield and Hammerson call it. DAVID CALLAM advises existing businesses on London Road, George Street and the High Street to take notice and act now

Boris Johnson is a busy boy: between running London single-handedly, doing his £250,000 per year column for the Torygraph and writing his Winston Churchill biography.

But he has still found time to start the transformation of central Croydon in preparation for the development of Britain’s second largest shopping destination.

If all goes according to plan, Croydon Partnership in the south of Greater London  will have more shopping and entertainment space (200,000 sq m) than Stratford City in the east (175,000 sq m) and White City in the west (150,000 sq m).

Australian developer Westfield is substantially involved in all three.

The £1.5 billion south London complex will cover the area presently occupied by the Whitgift Centre and Centrale. Expect something in excess of 300 shops, which the developers confidently predict will create 5,000 jobs.

Nationally, Croydon Partnership (I bet they end up calling it Croydon City) will be second only in retail floor space to the Trafford Centre, Manchester (207,000 sq m), which attracts 35 million shopping visits a year.

Before developers begin the transformation of land bordering North End, Boris and his team believe we must upgrade what we might call the Partnership Approaches: Church Street, George Street, High Street, and London Road.

A press release from Croydon Council says the authority has appointed urban design consultants to advise it on these matters, but since the £5.7 million to pay the piper will come from the Mayor, it would be naive to believe that team BoJo won’t be calling the tune.

Indeed, the four consultancies working as a consortium in Croydon – Project Centre as lead, with Jan Kattein Architects, Studio Weave and Urban Movement – all have proven track records working for Transport for London to reduce congestion and improve townscapes on some of Greater London’s busiest streets.

This BoJo coup is bad news if you are someone who believes we were better as a county borough in days of yore before the existence of the Greater London Council, or the advent of an executive mayor and yet another capital-wide authority.

But if you see Croydon as an important centre within the Greater London city region – the commercial heart of south London with a vibrant economy bringing jobs to the whole of the borough and beyond – Boris’s intervention is a breath of fresh air.

Stratford City in east London: plans for Croydon are bigger than this Westfield development

Stratford City in east London: plans for Croydon are bigger than this Westfield development

Instead of a damaging stand-off over the Croydon redevelopment between Hammerson and Westfield, Boris brokered the deal to bring them together and he is now about to prepare the town for the arrival of the Croydon Partnership. In the process, he may also be about to break the stranglehold on the town of the Croydon mafia, which survived the commercial development of the 1950s and 1960s, and has inhibited progress since.

Unlike the many navel-gazing exercises instituted by Croydon Council to determine a future for the town centre, none of which has any money behind them, this latest initiative already has funding in place to make things happen quickly.

Expect the BoJo consortium to recommend wider pavements, improved lighting, less signage clutter and more trees. At last we may see an end to perpetual loading (or is it unloading?) in London Road.

Some of the Mayor’s money will be available to smaller retailers for shop front improvements, but the businesses in question will need to change more than their appearance if they are to prosper in Croydon’s new retailing environment.

No small business could hope to compete directly, so the sensible advice to all concerned must be to complement the offer from Croydon Partnership. And that means opening a dialogue now, not when the Partnership is ready to trade.

I HAD ACCESSS to Bluewater Retail Park (154,000 sq m) during its planning and development. The owners wouldn’t share data, they deemed it too sensitive, but they were happy to show me the scope of their questions.

I was impressed by the detail of the research commissioned. Before builders put one brick on another, the park owners knew all they needed to know, including:

  • Who would visit the complex?
  • How long would they spend there?
  • What kind of shops did visitors want?
  • What facilities did visitors want in addition to shops?

The curve to each of the malls at Bluewater is not an architectural accident, the result of dodgy surveying; it too is a product of market research, which shows that we prefer our shopping streets to bend – apparently, we find a road less long if it is also winding.

I confidently expect Croydon Partnership to acquire equally detailed research and to apply it equally intelligently. And I expect such a well-researched development to be at least as successful as Bluewater.

Clear Bluewater: the retail development in Kent was put together with meticulous research

Clear Bluewater: the retail development in Kent was put together with meticulous research

But what fate awaits Croydon’s secondary and tertiary retailers? I assume all the Partnership approach roads have traders’ associations: I suggest amalgamation to gain strength in numbers. But if they can’t bring themselves to amalgamate, at least create a joint group to talk to the Partnership.

The best option might be to set up a Croydon Approaches Business Improvement District (BID), with financial criteria set to encompass all the smaller businesses.

A BID that remained independent of large interests, particularly of Croydon Council, could command the necessary respect to engage the Partnership. It would also ensure that free-loaders paid their dues in the form of the business rate levy.

Smaller retailers cannot expect to go on trading in the way they do now. Some may be best advised to take a unit in the Partnership, accepting that the rent will be higher, but so will the footfall.

Others will need to renovate their premises and up their game to match the new competition. Others still may need to go elsewhere, or to establish a strong online presence, or to change the nature of their business altogether – to specialise in something Partnership traders don’t sell.

A recent report from the Centre for Retail Research predicts that over the next five years – coincidentally the period in which the Partnership will redevelop Croydon town centre – Britain’s high streets will lose 1 in 5 shops. It believes most of those losses will occur in secondary and tertiary shopping streets, some of which, it warns, will disappear.

There could be a good living to be earned in the made-over Partnership Approaches, but smaller traders will need to embrace change with enthusiasm.

Previous columns by David Callam:

  • David Callam spent 20 years as correspondent and editor, reporting business for a south London regional newspaper group
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Watford or Redhill
  • 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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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About insidecroydon

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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