CROYDON COMMENTARY: Britain’s exit from Europe has played a major part in the collapse of the town’s Westfield scheme, says SIMON SPRAGUE
During the General Election campaign in December, I made the perhaps unwise decision to join Twitter. I set up notifications for the local “key players”, especially those who, like me, were also candidates in Croydon Central, so that I knew whenever they posted.
Since the end of the campaign, I have taken a step back from Twitter, but I still get the occasional notification in the middle of a meeting, while sitting on the bus, or (inevitably) standing on the train. There have been times over the past few weeks that it seemed as if my phone was about to blow up.
First, there was the welcome news that Croydon had been selected as London Borough of Culture for 2023, followed soon after by the much less favourable news that Westfield had dropped Croydon from their “pipeline” of developments. This prompted a barrage of tit-for-tat between the borough’s Labour and Conservative councillors.
The tit-for-tatter-in-chief (whose Twitter style was best described by one local commentator as “screechy”) was surely my former Conservative opponent, Mario Creatura.
The flow of bile, laying all the blame for the Westfield plan’s abandonment at Labour’s door, was unrelenting and was reflected in the social media echo chamber by his Tory colleagues. The claims were naturally refuted by Labour, who suggested that Brexit (or whatever we’re meant to call it these days) might have had something to do with it.
I am not sure what reaction the rest of us are meant to have to this back-and-forth – I opted for a rolling of the eyes and a deep sigh.
While the Westfield development was never going to be a magic bullet for central Croydon (and indeed, carried its own risks, particularly with uncontrolled gentrification), its anticipation has undoubtedly kept Croydon in limbo for many years and the news that the plan has gone off track is a hammer blow for our town. The situation escalated this week with a statement from the Croydon Partnership, which came to a head in the extraordinary council meeting on Monday night.
The tone of the meeting was anything but extraordinary, with Labour being accused of incompetence by the Tories, and Labour trying to claim that the development being put on hold was actually good news.
So why am I, a political nobody, piping up? I don’t pretend for one second to have any political relevance in Croydon at this stage. I took the General Election seriously and, had I won, I would have quit my job and represented the people of Croydon Central to the best of my ability. However, as someone with little more sway currently than any other frustrated Croydon resident, I think I can safely say we deserve better for our town than screechy tit-for-tat on Twitter that is masquerading as scrutiny.
While it is likely that both the Labour and Conservative attack dogs have a point, it also means that there is plenty of blame to go around.
I find it hard to believe that the plan handed from the Conservatives to Labour in 2014 was as “oven-ready” as has been claimed. It was perhaps as oven-ready as the Tory government’s Withdrawal Agreement, which even in two months has been shown to be both over-egged and half-baked… but that’s probably enough food metaphors for now.
As I understand it, there were requests from some of the flagship tenants to make changes to the plans. So yes, there was perhaps some dithering from Labour contributing to the current situation. It may be that they thought the council should itself have been more involved in the development.
Perhaps, in 2014 or 2015, the Labour council did want to put their stamp on it – to claim a political victory over the Tories they had just displaced. The council leader recently claimed that the scheme his administration inherited was “a mess”, though it had taken six years for them to provide this insight.
Meanwhile, in the blue corner, it is inconceivable that Brexit – and in particular the type of Brexit being foisted on us by an emboldened Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings – is not to blame.
Mario and his Conservative colleagues told us during the election campaign that “Brexit uncertainty” was responsible for the delay to Westfield. It appears that the certainty which they craved has now put the development on life support.
In just over two months since Boris Johnson won the Election, what was already a hard Brexit has been coated in concrete and sprinkled with xenophobic glitter by the Conservative government. Insistence on the divergence of British standards from EU standards (whether or not this makes sense for British businesses); confirmation of full customs checks on goods travelling to and from the EU; the EU’s confirmation that equivalence on financial services would by no means be guaranteed and the Home Secretary’s economically illiterate immigration policy, all contribute to an environment where investing more than a billion pounds in a new shopping centre looks less appealing.
Wherever the fault lies, we need a new plan.
It is not totally clear from the somewhat ambiguous statement issued by the developers this week exactly what they are proposing, but it is certainly plausible that the scheme requires considerable reworking. It may be that some totally new scheme is required. However, this plan needs to be part of a coherent vision for central Croydon for the next 50 years that creates a town centre that people will want to use, visit and enjoy.
I remember Croydon in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember as a child the Willy Wonka-like wonder of taking the glass elevator in the then Drummond Centre for the first time, amazing independent shops like Turtles, and being treated to sausage, beans and chips in the BHS restaurant after a tough morning trying on school uniform.
Central Croydon today has lost so much of the magic and hustle and bustle which it used to have, and the long period of waiting for something to happen with Westfield is in no small part to blame.
But we also need to realise that we don’t use our high streets in the same way we once did.
The convenience of online shopping means bricks and mortar stores are having a very tough time, with department stores under particular pressure. We should all be making an effort to buy locally to support our high streets, but even this is unlikely to turn the tide.
To come up with a way forward for central Croydon’s regeneration, we need a solution that (a) reflects how people use town centres in the 2020s beyond retail, and (b) which reflects how the people of Croydon, with all our diversity and varied needs, want to use ours.
This solution is not to be arrived at by slinging mud on Twitter and barking blame at one another, but rather by a genuine public consultation. Public consultations in Croydon these days have become rather a “speak now or forever hold your peace” situation, rather than a Citizens’ Assembly of the type advocated by the LibDems and other parties at the last election. If we really do need to start from scratch, it seems to me that the people of Croydon really ought to be properly consulted at the design stage, rather than just being given a chance to object when things are all but set in stone.
It would be great if a solution could be arrived at which helped support small independent businesses and community groups as well as attracting back national chains. Not least on environmental grounds, the plan should make good use of the existing assets, while ensuring that neighbouring town centres in places like Shirley, Addiscombe and New Addington don’t get hollowed out in the process.
If the development is to include more housing, as surely it will, it would be great if a decent proportion of it could be social or genuinely affordable, and if someone – anyone – gave more than a cursory consideration of the public services which would be needed to support an ever-growing population in Fairfield.
Croydon can once again be a destination, bolstered by a reinvigorated retail offering. But it also needs community facilities, nightlife, culture, and great food and drink. Such a mix would also help to fight back against the transition of Croydon to being a dormitory town, where people live in flats near the great transport links, work up in the centre of London and spend nearly all their time (and money) there. Even for commuters, Croydon could also be a great place to spend evenings and weekends.
I remain hopeful that the people of Croydon will get more clarity about the state of the development – transparency and a collaborative, creative approach involving developers, the council, businesses, community organisations and residents will be needed.
The last thing we need is this whole thing becoming even more of a political football and certain councillors tossing around yet more outrage on Twitter.
- Simon Sprague is the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary spokesperson for Croydon Central
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