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.
“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.
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.”
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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Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema, Effie Gray, Nov 20
- Norwood Society Talk: Lambeth’s Archives, Nov 20
- Choose Your Own Documentary, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 21-22
- David Lean Cinema, Lilting, Nov 22
- Streatham-Croydon women’s rugby training, Frant Road, Nov 23
- David Lean Cinema, Wakolda, Nov 27
- The Last Sense of Sudden, Spread Eagle Theatre, Nov 27-29
- Ghost Stories for Christmas, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 3
- St Andrew’s churchyard gardening session, 10am, Dec 6
- Fog Horn Funnies, Spread Eagle Theatre, Dec 6
- Croydon Philharmonic Handel’s Messiah, Fairfield Halls, Dec 6
- Coulsdon Yulefest, Dec 6-7
- Oval Tavern Folk Club, Dec 7
- Mayor of Croydon’s charity Christmas dinner, Dec 12
- South Croydon business breakfast, Dec 13
- Concert of Christmas music, St Luke’s, Woodside, Dec 13
- Friends of the Earth Green Beanfeast, Dec 15 (book by Dec 1)
- Croydon Philharmonic Christmas concert, St Matthew’s, Dec 16
- Norwood Society talk: Penge, the making of a suburb, Jan 15
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
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