GENE BRODIE, education correspondent, on the increasingly desperate-looking moves to salvage anything from the town centre regeneration
Croydon Council’s “cunning plan” to dig the town centre out of the hole created for it by the Whitgift Foundation and Westfield is to have a campus… for the 95th-best university in Britain.
After nearly a decade of the supine local authority doing the bidding of big business and the borough’s biggest land-owner, it has become glaringly obvious that neither Westfield nor Hammerson have any appetite for spending £1.4billion on a large retail development in the increasingly shabby and run-down town centre.
Even with a significantly scaled-down, residential-led development, centred around building thousands of flats – or “luxury apartments” – in tower blocks all along the Wellesley Road, it has been plain that any regeneration project will need to offer something more.
In the past, when asked what her “Plan B” might be, Jo Negrini, the council chief executive and self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner” has responded, unhelpfully, “We’re not stupid”.
Yet what is about to be formally announced is a scheme which some suggest will prove exactly the opposite of Negrini’s contention.
With Baldrick-like cunning, Negrini and the council revealed their hand a year ago, when she waltzed off for her annual spring break to the South of France, showing up for a few receptions at the MIPIM property conference. There, it was announced that the council was courting South Bank University to move into the borough.
No matter that Croydon College – with its range of A-Level, catering, hairdressing and technical courses – has a well-established presence in the town centre.
No matter that Croydon College already has a long-standing arrangement to offer degree courses with the University of Sussex, which has also run a business incubator base at No1 Croydon.
Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour-run council, now finds himself surrounded by failures and disasters. Under Negrini, Newman’s council has managed to accumulate a deficit of £1.5billion, with no obvious or immediate prospect of paying down the debts.
Having decided to give the council’s uncritical backing to Westfield and Hammerson’s massive private regeneration, all to be based around retailing when the high street was already in crisis, Newman is now confronted with the ruins of that project.
And having poured at least £260million into the council’s Brick by Brick speculative housing scheme, there’s now a real fear of a crash in housing prices in the recession that is expected following the covid-19 crisis.
There was, therefore, a real sense of straws being grasped at when the Labour councillor emailed party supporters to tell them of the news that “within the coming weeks an important university will publicly announce its opening of a major site in the borough”.
By “important university”, Newman is understood to be referring to South Bank Poly.
That’s the same South Bank University that in annual rankings of higher education institutions for 2020 just scraped into the best 100, at No96.
That puts them behind the likes of the University of Wolverhampton.
According to The Times Higher Education Supplement, even Kingston Poly (at 79th) is higher ranked than South Bank.
The University of Sussex, with its existing association with Croydon College, is ranked a very respectable 19th by THES.
The notion of turning Croydon into a university town has been around for decades but has never been delivered. Even attempts to get Roehampton University to take up floorspace in the council’s headquarters building, Fisher’s Folly, turned to dust.
Becoming a university town would provide obvious advantages for Croydon, with a more youthful profile to the area, and all the economic benefits that the spending power of hundreds of teenagers and twentysomethings would bring.
The world’s tallest co-living tower at East Croydon, providing rooms for more than 800, was recently granted planning permission and could provide ample student accommodation (notwithstanding the clear and growing health concerns surrounding this kind of close-quarters housing in the wake of coronavirus).
Having spent a fortune in CPO-ing a large chunk of what used to be Allders and the Whitgift Centre, Negrini’s council needs to have something to make use of some of that space.
But the council’s apparent deliberate blind-siding in all this of Croydon College and Sussex appears to be an act of deliberate, and petulant, spite (Croydon College turned over Brick by Brick in a property deal which left Negrini smarting).
The usual gormless cheerleaders, such as Croydon BID, have already made up their minds that the arrival of South Bank Poly is in some way the salvation of the town centre. They called it “the next exciting step in the borough’s regeneration”.
According to Croydon BID, “The new partnership is the first step in the council’s ambition to develop the Croydon Creative Campus, which would see the town centre develop as a global centre of higher education.” Yet South Bank Poly (it was a polytechnic for 100 years, before further education was turned into a degree factory process by the Tories) doesn’t even make it into the top 1,000 of global further education institutions, according to THES.
The flawed notion, peddled by Newman, Croydon BID and others, is that having a university in the town centre will somehow make it easier for the borough’s younger residents to embark on degree courses. It is as if they have never considered that 18-year-olds might be capable of getting the 109 bus to the Elephant and Castle each morning to study, if South Bank Poly was the extent of their academic ambitions.
Newman has spoken of being “very proud” about the arrival of South Bank Poly, saying it is “fantastic news for Croydon’s future” and an “incredibly important development”. Not for the first time, Newman – who has no experience of attending university – might be guilty of over-promising and under-delivering.
Given the ruinous state of the economy in Croydon town centre, following the riots and subsequent years of neglect and decay, perhaps Newman and Negrini, in their mounting desperation, have pinned their hopes on South Bank because of the name of the Poly’s vice-chancellor: Dave Phoenix.
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