CROYDON COMMENTARY: The honeymoon is over for Tony Newman’s Labour council which was elected in May, says DAVID CALLAM
Labour has settled back into power in Croydon Town Hall and many of the same old problems are as intractable as ever.
There’s a housing crisis across the borough. Labour, like its Tory predecessors, keeps repeating the mantra of “affordable homes” for “hard-working people”. No doubt, it is part of some “long-term economic plan”. There is no mention of social housing.
The town centre remains substantially empty: nobody wants the stock of ageing office blocks that remain unsuitable for modern commerce.
The council’s planning chief has a stratagem. Building homes and offices is easy, she says, and they could all come with large amounts of extra income for the council in the form of property sales tax (stamp duty) retained locally. If the council can persuade a similarly cash-strapped Treasury to play ball, this extra money, which central government presently pockets, would be available to offset the next round of local government budget cuts that are likely to follow next year’s General Election.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, there are plans for a modernised and enlarged retail centre in Croydon from a company that has the expertise and the money to make them happen. Westfield now expects to start building its replacement for the Whitgift Centre in 2016 and to open it three years later.
But as with the Croydon Gateway and Park Place proposals in times past, there are influential vested interests determined to throw spanners into the works. And the council seems powerless to stop them.
The retail development wouldn’t have been even as modestly far advanced as it is without the intervention of regional government, in the sartorially dishevelled form of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Maybe he’s the solution to planning problems that have made the terminally declining Croydon town centre such a monument to municipal mismanagement.
He is certainly influential in bringing players to the table, as he proved conclusively with Westfield and Hammerson, who might otherwise have continued dogging each other’s footsteps for decades with their rival retail proposals for the Whitgift Centre and Centrale.
And he might work his magic again to move Minerva from its present collision course with Croydon Council over the compulsory purchase of the Allders site, which is so crucial to the new retail development. Godfather BoJo has fingers in pies all over the place, so he might be able to make Minerva an offer they can’t refuse.
Then there’s the problem of excess office space in the town centre. It seems it isn’t economic to demolish and rebuild, so the sensible thing to do is convert as much as possible into housing, offering more affordable homes and repopulating the town centre. Such a policy would also reduce the glut of commercial space, making the remaining stock more valuable.
Unfortunately, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has devised a cunning plan to allow the Conservative party’s property developer chums to make lots of money and to massage up the house-building figures by creating large numbers of bijou apartments (rabbit-hutch flats) from former offices, bypassing local authority planning regulations on the way.
Boris to the rescue again, possibly: he has a plan of his own to make new residential developments in Greater London, including conversions, conform to an updated version of a long tried and tested set of standards called Parker Morris, originally devised for council houses (remember them?), which specify minimum room sizes and other tenant-friendly requirements.
Big Eric is reluctant to give up his flatlet wheeze; he has already dismissed Croydon Council’s exhortations. But surely he would respond more favourably to a reasoned argument from the future leader of his party?
Social housing is a more intractable problem, but Boris is nothing if not adaptable. Once he realises there is nobody living within travelling distance of central London to clean the palatial apartments or penthouse offices of his banker chums or serve them in swanky restaurants or expensive coffee shops, he will quickly devise a scheme to provide rented housing for the hard-working people we need to service our great city.
Seriously, Croydon Council is too lightweight to cope with the tough guys of urban property development. The empty spaces in the town centre and the length of time they have remained unoccupied are surely all the proof we need. Oh yes, and there’s CCURV, the Croydon Council Urban Regeneration Vehicle, a supposedly hot-shot property deal that looks like it may cost council tax-payers the thick end of £1 billion.
The frightening thing is that the council thinks it’s the bees’ knees. It continues to produce glossy plans full of meaningless jargon that suggest it knows what’s what. This hubris allows smooth operators to run rings around naive council staff to produce agreements in which the tax-paying public take all the risk while the developers take all the profit.
Politicians agonise over “poor doors” developments in the town centre, but they are missing chances to generate cash from the private sector to subsidise the building of social housing across the rest of the borough.
Boris could do the job better (yes, really!). Or rather a specialist section within the Greater London Authority could; commissioning construction industry experts to negotiate the deals we need to allow Croydon residents to share properly in the added value that large-scale property development brings to the area.
Once upon a time, Croydon town centre was an asset that kept on giving; an asset the council returned to every year to meet a large proportion of its spending requirements from non-domestic rates. Croydon residents enjoyed some of the highest standards of local government services in the country, while paying some of the lowest domestic rates, thanks to money generated in the commercial heart of the borough.
Margaret Thatcher put the kybosh on that nice little earner when she made Business Rates a central government tax, but there are still ways to extract cash from commerce, providing you have the people to do it properly.
Croydon Council has shown itself to be too parochial and too inexperienced for the job: an enhanced GLA, with a pan-London property development remit, could be a better way forward.
Coming to Croydon
- This Was The World and I Was King, Spread Eagle, Oct 23-25
- South Norwood Country Park Family Fun Day, Oct 25
- Upper Norwood Library Book Club, 2.30pm, Oct 25
- SNATH free film festival, Stanley Halls, Oct 25
- SNATH free film festival, Pawson’s Arms, Oct 26
- David Lean Cinema: Ilo Ilo, Oct 28
- SNATH free film festival, Scratchley Hall, Oct 28
- CODA’s Wind In The Willows, Charles Cryer, Carshalton, Oct 29-Nov 1
- SNATH free film festival, Lord Napier, Oct 29
- David Lean Cinema: Belle, Oct 30
- SNATH free film festival, Norbury Park tennis club, Oct 30
- NHS free health fair, Central Parade, New Addington, Oct 31
- SNATH free film festival Halloween event, Stanley Halls, Oct 31
- World War I centenary concert, Ruskin House, Nov 2
- MOPAC policing meeting, Surrey Street, Nov 4
- Personal safety training for volunteers, Nov 4
- St Giles School opening morning, Nov 5
- Grange Park bulb-planting event, Nov 8
- Brook recording studio open day and party, Nov 9
- Albert Einstein – Relativity Speaking, Spread Eagle, Nov 12-15
- Oval Tavern Folk Club, Nov 14
- South Croydon business breakfast, Nov 15
- Personal safety training for volunteers, Nov 17
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
- Choose Your Own Documentary, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 21-22
- The Last Sense of Sudden, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 27-29
- Ghost Stories for Christmas, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 3
- Fog Horn Funnies, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 6
- Coulsdon Yulefest, Dec 6-7
- Oval Tavern Folk Club, Dec 7
- South Croydon business breakfast, Dec 13
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
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