It is not only in Croydon town centre that big business is contriving to destroy the fabric of the high street.
As our retail correspondent MT WALLETTE reports, in Crystal Palace a precious corner of independent stores and old-style character is under threat from the arrival of a McDonald’s ‘fast food factory’
There’s growing concern among residents in Crystal Palace that their much-loved, trendy Triangle at the top of the hill, nestled between a couple of conservation areas and buzzing with characterful independent shops, bars and the inevitable cafés, is about to be stripped of its identity, thanks to the buying power of one of the world’s biggest businesses, and some greedy landlords.
And all the while, Croydon Council’s planning officials are standing by, doing nothing to intervene in the interests of the residents and local businesses they are supposed to serve.
Many of the shops around the Crystal Palace Triangle have their own version of a heritage blue plaque on their often Victorian brick walls, identifying the crafts and trades which once used the building more than a century ago.
“The way things are going, with the little shops being forced out, they will soon have to change the blue plaques to things like ‘once the site of a book shop’, or ‘this was once a place where you could buy bicycles and get them repaired’,” said one gloomy local this week, an avid book-reader and enthusiatic cyclist, who had been attracted to move to the area because of the eclectic mix and village feel of the Triangle.
Under threat are thought to be notable stores such as La Bruschetta Italian restaurant, the Bookseller Crow and Crystal Palace Reptiles, all on Westow Street, and the long-established Blue Door Bicycles, on Central Hill. All have been subject to massive rent hikes, or face the possibility of rent rises.
One ward councillor has claimed publicly that their rents have been doubled.
At the root of all this is a planning application for a McDonald’s takeaway.
David Hibbs, who runs Blue Door Bicycles on premises that have been home to a bike shop since 1922, was the first to break cover and announce he would be pulling down the shutters for the final time next month.
“After 97 years, we may be coming to the end of the line as a bike shop,” he posted online. “We need to reduce our costs and will either be shrinking or closing this September.
“The market for bike shops is changing rapidly – many people prefer to buy online and others expect online prices in store. We understand this – we do not take it personally! However, it does mean that it is no longer possible to run as we have been.
“So the future will either be smaller premises with a focus on bike repairs: or if that is not viable we will close.”
There are ample bargains to be had, as Hibbs seeks to unload his stock. But his business has been caught in the vice of rising costs and competition from online retailers.
“We tried to do it properly,” he said this week. “We have been open seven days a week, from 8am to 6.30pm during the week, so we could provide people with a service. We had some great, loyal customers, but not enough to pay, sadly.”
The tipping point for many of the Triangle’s traders has been the dramatic rent rise, implemented by the American-owned real estate agents CBRE. The premises which McDonald’s are looking to move into was marketed at £70,000 per year. CBRE’s argument has been that if McDonald’s want to move in and pay tens of thousands of pounds per year in ground rent for a shop, then it demonstrates the commercial attractiveness of the area.
It has prompted one Labour ward councillor, Stephen Mann, to tweet to his Town Hall leadership a plaintive appeal last week, asking Tony Newman and Simon Hall to buy up what was once known as Norwood Heights, just as the council had recently bought the Colonnades centre on the Purley Way.
“It’s times like these that with doubling rents and unsuitable potential tenants that I wish my predecessors in the 1990s did not sell the Norwood Heights development,” Mann wrote.
Mann’s Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood ward colleague, veteran councillor Pat Ryan, echoed the sentiments. “It is sad to see any business close, but I am particularly sad to see this business close down,” Ryan said of Blue Door.
Ryan claims that the latest round of rent hikes follows previous moves by landlords who seek to push out smaller, independent traders, in favour of higher margin deals with multi-nationals. “I have seen a constituent invest his retirement savings in a business on the Triangle and close after one year as the landlord doubled his annual rent to £14,000 after the first year. Sad, sad, sad.”
Mann said that the councillors are working together with the MP for Croydon North, Steve Reed OBE, “to get all businesses on the Triangle to organise to fight back against the suffocation of our independents through extortionate rents”.
Yet meanwhile, officials in Croydon Council’s planning department are said to be supportive of a change of use application from McDonald’s for 46-48 Westow Street, which locals are convinced will ultimately destroy everything about their neighbourhood that they hold precious.
As one resident puts it: “This is not a restaurant or, in any conventional understanding of the term, a ‘takeaway’. It is a ‘dark kitchen’, a 24-hour food manufacturing and distribution centre, which is better-suited to an industrial estate.”
Indeed, residents not only regret the closure of some of their favourite, community-run shops, but they hold a real fear of the likely impact that a 24/7 McDonald’s will have on the locality, in terms of noise, dirt, extra traffic, and they are also suspicious of the almost predatory manner in which the “fast food factory” appears to be targeting hungry kids from nearby schools and a Barnardo’s children’s centre.
“Some multi-national firms are adopting aggressive new commercial models that can operate in smaller footprint high street units,” another Crystal Palace resident said.
“What is proposed is a fast food factory shoehorned into a small site, employing 65 staff (full- and part-time) operating 24 hours a day as takeaway only, offering limited parking, no customer toilets and no customer seating.
“It’s this that has created the premium local rents, at a level well out of the reach of most independents.”
McDonald’s proposals for Westow Street are, clearly to anyone who does not work for Croydon’s planning department, aimed at the Uber-ised delivery market, and will rely on zero hours moped and motorbike riders whizzing back and forth around the already busy one-way system every hour of the day, and night.
“McDonald’s have no control over drivers and riders,” the local said. “They aren’t their employees. In fact, they are no one’s employees.”
It is reckoned that up to 70 per cent of the branch’s trade will be collections by Uber Eats and Deliveroo (the Penge branch has around 65 per cent collections).
Such a business model would ignore a long-standing, council-brokered restriction on night-time deliveries in the delivery yard to the rear of Westow Street. Residents fear that the Haynes Lane cul de sac will effectively become the riders’ waiting area throughout the night, and that the mopeds will use the residential back streets as rat runs.
The planning application claims that most night-time deliveries will be undertaken by cyclists. “Ho, ho, ho,” said the unconvinced resident.
“We are the highest point in south London, 320 feet above sea level, hills everywhere. Any delivery rider using a bicycle around here will end up with thighs like Chris Hoy’s, and a lot of dissatisfied customers whose Big Macs will arrive cold.”
The lack of any toilet provision means that delivery drivers and riders and night-time customers just out of the local pubs will be pissing in Haynes Lane and other side streets. The lack of hand-washing facilities for the delivery riders should also be a health concern for customers.
The application includes a large industrial extraction unit placed on the roof, which will be pumping out cooking fat odours at all hours – particularly bad news for the poor residents of the flat at 44a Westow Street, which is just feet away and on the same level as the proposed extractor.
But given Croydon Council’s often stated opposition to allowing fast food outlets to operate anywhere near schools, the proximity of the proposed Westow Street McDonald’s ought to be a matter of grave concern for councillors and parents in and around Upper Norwood, whose children go to one of the schools within a one-mile radius of the site, or who catch or change buses nearby. The Barnado’s Triangle Children’s Centre is approximately 300 metres away.
And then, as is familiar with most planning applications, there is the issue of traffic congestion and parking. The existing, struggling independent businesses already complain that there is not enough available parking spaces for their customers. With Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders hanging around waiting for McDonald’s orders, that situation is only going to get worse.
As the gloomy resident put it: “This is the state of things to come.”
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