Risks ahead if only thing cool in Croydon is property market

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Delays in Westfield’s delivery dates, “speculative” office builds and dire economic warnings make an unhappy mix for those with a stake in our borough. STEVEN DOWNES asks: where’s the Plan B?

As an observer of modern trends, Simon Jenkins has an uncanny ability to look down the telescope from the wrong end.

Croydon Council's deputy leader, Alison Butler, right, at yesterday's Ruskin Square ground-breaking with Ian Mason – Head of UK Specialist Funds at Schroder Real Estate   Mary Parsons – Group Director of Placemaking & Regeneration at Places for People

Croydon Council’s deputy leader, Alison Butler, right, at yesterday’s Ruskin Square ground-breaking with Ian Mason of Schroder and Mary Parsons from the property managers Places for People

“Sir” Simon – the judgement of journalists who accept honours are about as trustworthy as politicians who seek similar awards – has been pontificating from on high, whether atop a column in the Grauniad, or weekly in the Evening Boris, for a quarter of a century.

The thing about Jenkins is that he takes a position and then sticks to it, however wrong-headed it may prove to be. According to Jenkins (circa 2004), the London Olympics would be a utter disaster, a total waste of money, we ought never have spent a penny in bidding for them. Two years on since London hosted what were almost universally acknowledged as the apogee of an international festival of sport, delivering massive dollops of joy, considerable new sporting infrastructure (at least north of the river), and the public capital spend of £9 billion has already been returned. “Sir” Simon’s not returned to that subject much lately.

Before that, Jenkins was shouting from the battlements that Canary Wharf would be a utter disaster, and so on and so forth…  Yesterday, with Qatari investors bidding £2.2billion for the east London property enclave, even Jenkins was forced to write those three little words, “I was wrong”, about the development.

“Today Canary Wharf houses more than 100,000 workers. It may be a gated, gilded temple to Mammon, in perpetual isolation from the poor of east London, but as a development it has lifted off. It works,” Jenkins wrote in the Standard, presumably while munching on a mega-slice of humble pie.

“What does any of this have to do with Croydon?” I sensed you asking about three sentences ago. Because in his same weekly column, Jenkins also wrote about Croydon. Croydon, Jenkins proclaimed, is not “cool”.

Jenkins is not alone in his view. Tory MP Gavin Barwell admitted in his maiden speech to the House of Commons that, “Croydon has an image problem”. And that was before the riots.

For as bad as Jenkins might be as a prophet, he is entitled to a point of view. “Canary Wharf is a superior Croydon,” Jenkins wrote. Anyone disagree? Jenkins explained how commercial property prices in the capital continue to be led by the West End, while Canary Wharf’s vast tracts of modern offices serve only to depress market rates elsewhere in London, and where Croydon is now a long way down the league table.

The revised plans for Ruskin Square are much more restrained than the original proposal for 2msqft of office space

The revised plans for Ruskin Square are much more restrained than the original proposal for 2m sqft of office space

Around the time that the Standard’s lunchtime editions with Jenkins’s bon mots were thudding on to the forecourt at East Croydon, less than a couple of hundred yards away from the station a sod-turning ceremony was taking place, on a building site which is currently known by its third (or is it fourth?), project title: Ruskin Square.

The site of the old coal depot on the western side of the railway station has been derelict for more than 40 years, so there was a celebration that work was actually beginning at last.

But what they are starting to build now is a modest “first phase”.

“The ceremony marks the start of work on the first phase of residential development of 161 homes,” the official statement said. No offices, no mixed use development of retail, bars and restaurants. Just a “first phase”, and flats and apartments – which are not usually as lucrative as commercial property.

Any progress at Ruskin Square is welcome. Schroders, the property investors, and their building partners, Stanhope, have been generally good neighbours since moving on to the site a decade ago. They’ve patiently put up with the local authority clumsily delaying their scheme, and they have spent the past six years waiting out for the worst of the recession to recede.

Ha! How the blue-chip execs at Schroders must have laughed when, just the day before their carefully planned sod-turning ceremony, they heard the Tory Chancellor, Gideon Osborne, the man who has managed to almost double the deficit he inherited, start talking about red warning lights flashing over the Eurozone’s economy.

Whatever property boom Gideon has managed to create with cheap credit, all the signs are that it may not last much longer. Which is not the sort of news you want to hear if you have a prime location lump of land, and no demand for the offices that you plan to build upon it.

In the meantime, Stanhope and Schroders will plug on, working on a 22-storey residential tower which will offer a range of tenures including sale, shared ownership and rent, with
penthouses, a roof garden and a private communal open space at ground level.

Is Simon Jenkins the only one who thinks that Croydon is not “cool”? Judge this, from the press release issued to mark yesterday’s ground-breaking ceremony. “The homes will benefit from a superb location next to East Croydon station, just 13 minutes from London Bridge and the central London lifestyle.”

Quick exit: anyone buying flats in Ruskin Square will want to get on a train into central London, according to the developers

Quick exit: anyone buying flats in Ruskin Square will want to get on a train into central London, according to the developers

It is as if they want to flog the homes to people who cannot wait to get out of Croydon quickly enough.

What will attract people into buying these apartments at Ruskin Square from which they can quickly reach the “cool” of central London lifestyle? Price. Jenkins put it bluntly: “Croydon is a great place if you want a cheap office and property for £250,000,” he said, channelling his inner Mylene Klass.

Judging by other straws in the wind from Schroders-Stanhope, Croydon is still struggling to attract businesses seeking even our lower-cost office space. “Stanhope and Schroders anticipate starting the construction of a speculative office development on the site in the second quarter of 2015,” the press release states, “underlining confidence in the Croydon market.”

If anything, that news underlines the absence of confidence in the Croydon market.

“Speculative” means that Ruskin Square still has yet to secure an anchor tenant, or any tenant likely to want some of the 2 million sq ft of offices for which they obtained outline planning permission more than three years ago. “Second quarter of 2015” suggests that they are not rushing to spend any money on the build, just in case the European economy does dive off the edge of a cliff for a second time in seven years.

If Croydon is ever to be considered “cool”, Ruskin Square could be as important as anything which Hammersfield might be planning for the town centre. The Foster and Partners-designed scheme on that nine-acre gateway site – which is promising its own 100,000 sq ft of shops, cafes and restaurants and 1.25 million sq ft of office space – has the ability to “wow” passengers arriving at East Croydon.

The lingering worry must be that if Schroders and Stanhope have yet to find commercial buyers for their proposition, how are Hammerson and Westfield doing in finding businesses to rent the offices and retailers to lease their shop space in the £1 billion supermall?

The delivery date for Hammersfield has already been delayed to 2019. What will our shopping habits be like by then? Will a 20th century temple to retailing really work a quarter of a century into our new digital world? How much of 2014’s Christmas shopping will be done online? Take a look around Centrale, and count the empty stores…

At present, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, Barwell, as the MP for the Whitgift Foundation, and every other politico in Croydon have hitched all their hopes for Croydon’s regeneration to the Westfield and Hammerson project, 5,000 jobs mainly low-skilled in retailing, and more Yuppie flats. But what happens if Chancellor Osborne’s warnings prove accurate? Or if Westfield “do a Bradford” on us? What is the Plan B?

Simon Jenkins may not get many things right, and nor has he ever been accused of being “cool”. But he had a warning for Croydon when he wrote, “The iron law of post-digital is that today’s cool is tomorrow’s boom”. He might have added that there is never a boom when the overwhelmingly “cool” thing is Croydon’s commercial property market.

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3 Responses to Risks ahead if only thing cool in Croydon is property market

  1. Rod Davies says:

    The long standing problem with Croydon’s approach to regeneration has been that it has been far too narrowly focused on retail and office based activities, many of which are also service sector. The problem with the service sector, besides the low skill, wage & security jobs, is that it is at the bottom of the economic food chain. As soon as there’s the hint of recession, people stop spending money. The other problem is that the service sector has been begulingly attractive as a source of quick low investment job creation that every other borough has rushed towards it. That means customers have greater choice and the number and the wealth of customers has not grown in proportion to the number of shopping centres. In addition Croydon’s retail strategy has been positively schizophrenic – promoting out of town retail development and then promoting the town centre in a desperate attempt to sustain it.
    Had Croydon attempted a wider approach encouraging secondary industries that actually make or do something, and create wealth, there wouldn’t be the sense of deprivation (or at least not as bad) as prevails in some areas.
    Finally the service sector doesn’t employ the type of men who previously found work in metal-bashing etc. In fact retail doesn’t seek to recruit many men at all and few men want to work in it as the wages are so poor. So male under / unemployment becomes entrenched and society becomes unbalanced.

  2. davidcallam says:

    How much longer will it take people in Croydon to come to terms with the simple fact that large-scale manufacturing, what Rod Davies calls tin bashing, has gone for good. It left because Greater London is the most expensive area in Britain in which to run a business.
    Those who want a job in tin bashing will need to follow the factories. Or if they wish to remain in south London they will have to stop banging on about the ‘good old days’ and learn some new skills, which may include aspects of retailing.

  3. Rod Davies says:

    I can readily accept that all forms of manufacture are effectively gone from Croydon’s economy, never to return. That being the case then Croydon must address the uncomfortable fact that its schools are not focused on preparing young people for employment in those service sectors that can provide a reasonable living, far too many young people enter the labour market functionality illiterate and innumerate. That’s not to claim they cant read & count, but their standard is insufficient for them to secure stable employment. For the bottom quarter, the service sector offers little more than roles in retail or fast food outlets with very low wages and little prospect of advancement. Even “low cost” social housing is beyond their reach without state intervention in the form of welfare.
    The problem for us with our current model is that if a significant proportion of our population have no realistic opportunity of participating in the wealth that the average and above average person enjoys, then those excluded people have little incentive to sustain the social model. In practical terms that means they will ultimately break the law to keep their heads above water and most sanctions carry insufficient threat to deter them. If you and your family live (exist?) in a squalid one room, because that’s all you can afford, and a bunch of other people reside adjacent to you in very expensive accommodation, the cost of which may be the equivalent of several decades of your income, then you are likely to regard your wealthy neighbours with a significant degree of antipathy.
    To compound this, you may find that in those work areas where you might reasonably expect to be able to make a moderate living that large numbers of migrant workers from low cost countries in the EU are undercutting your basic hourly rate. (The minimum wage and LLW don’t apply in practice to self employed construction workers.) These migrant workers, primary men without accompanying families, are willing to work long hours, live in densely packed accommodation, work for perhaps 40% of your basic rate and remit the money home. They are willing to do this because many are here for a short period and will go home to a fairly normal family existence. (This is exactly what predominantly northern British workers did in the 70’s & 80’s in Germany & elsewhere.)
    All of this is a recipe for social disaster. Croydon Riots should have been the catalyst for some profound thinking about the nature of the society we have. Instead we alighted on some exceptional incidents and tried to dismiss the whole thing as opportunism.

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