It’s long overdue that we move on from the local High Street

CROYDON COMMENTARY: £148,000 on tonight’s bike race, a few more thousand on the South Croydon Food Festival, and millions of Riot Recovery money on some paving and saplings, all to replace paving and saplings. DAVID CALLAM responds to our report about the decline of neighbourhood high streets

Croydon Council is incompetent not just because it throws money around willy-nilly, but because it thinks this largesse will make a difference, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The historic Swan and Sugarloaf in South Croydon, pictured before it was taken over by Tesco

The historic Swan and Sugarloaf in South Croydon, pictured before it was taken over by Tesco

In the past it has spent significant sums of public money in secondary shopping areas in Coulsdon, Norbury, Thornton Heath and South Norwood, without any noticeable improvement in trade.

The problem is the council is torn between the political imperative – the local authority must be seen to be doing something – and the reality – that consumers have long since moved on.

I have lived in South Croydon for more than 30 years. When I arrived and for some years afterwards, there was a viable shopping offer centred on Ye Market on Selsdon Road, which included two or three butchers’ shops and a wonderful greengrocers from which the Saturday morning queue would snake down the road and around the corner. I can even remember when Candy Box, now long-abandoned, was still a working specialist sweet shop.

All have gone and none of them replaced, because we, the general public, now shop elsewhere. We didn’t abandon the local shopping parade because of council parking restrictions, although that didn’t help. We weren’t fed up with the standards of service, although supermarkets are open longer and offer a wider range of products at keener prices. We opted for greater convenience, including free parking (on which the supermarkets spent a fortune).

And because we have moved on, nothing that secondary parades can do, with or without council hand-outs, will tempt us back.

Time to move on from quaint neighbourhood shopping parades, says David Callam

Time to move on from quaint neighbourhood shopping parades, says David Callam

Smaller firms with ambition will move to retail complexes, where lots of low-cost or free parking attracts lots of potential customers. The rest will continue to moan about parking costs or traffic congestion. They will complain about the landlords’ standards of maintenance, but strenuously resist any increase in rent which might trigger much-needed capital investment.

It must be 50 years or more since an influential report from the GLC revealed that Greater London was substantially over-supplied with shop units in secondary and tertiary parades.

The report correctly predicted the demise of smaller traders.

We need to move on. We should encourage landlords to concentrate retail units in one small part of the shopping area and redevelop the rest as social housing.

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2 Responses to It’s long overdue that we move on from the local High Street

  1. Rod Davies says:

    I would largely agree with David, except on the point of Croydon Council being incompetent.

    The overriding objective of Croydon’s planners, driven by long-standing political interests, has been to sustain the appearance of a large proportion of Croydon as being a “leafy suburb” that echoes the 1960s. There are, I would suggest, very large numbers of voters who want to see the recreation of 1960s Croydon, that they regard as the halcyon days. Integral to this vision is the local shopping parade.

    To achieve this vision requires an explicit recognition that these parades are not an economic function but a social amenity and no more likely to generate profit than a local park. Unfortunately the owners of the retail properties want to receive a “market” rent for their shops, and not simply a peppercorn rent that one might expect from a social amenity provider. It is alleged that the Whitgift Foundation has a vast portfolio composed of these shops, and manages its portfolio aggressively to generate profit.

    I would also suggest that the “real money” is no longer in the shops, but the flats above them, and as a consequence many landlords have very little interest in actively sustaining the shops. Indeed, if they allow them to decline, it is possible that out of desperation the Council lets them convert the retail units into residential accommodation. Alternatively, the Council gives permission to demolish the entire block and replace it with purpose-built flats, for which there appears to be insatiable demand.

    However, the local communities are resistant to such redevelopment, and the planners have to date wanted to prevent any medium- to high-rise development outside of the town centre, the immediate periphery and a few other locations. On the other hand, the local communities don’t want to spend the bulk of their income in these local shops, preferring the lower prices, greater choice and convenience of the big supermarkets.

    Over the years Croydon has assiduously avoided the fundamental and complex debate of how we create a sustainable borough that can satisfy most people’s needs to a great extent. Instead the Council has pursued whatever route will attract votes, and avoided the uncomfortable truths.

  2. Good article – many thanks.

    I agree with some of the premise, but I think the high street is a long way from dead. There certainly has been a move towards online and convenience which has and will continue to hurt those selling what can be bought more quickly or more cheaply online. The number of banks and butchers is only going one way.

    But at the same time we seem to be moving towards a high street where services dominate. You can’t sit and drink a coffee online, get your nails done or your hair cut. The number of convenience supermarket stores is proliferating as shoppers shun out of town retail in favour of picking up dinner on their way home from work.

    Croydon Council (or anyone else for that matter) cannot reverse this change however much it thinks it can, but spending money on creating a high quality environment helps to attract business and footfall into the town centre. As much as many people don’t like it, Westfield very successfully trade on doing something similar: a high quality destination (cinema, coffee, foot court, entertainment) with a shopping centre tacked on the side.

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