CROYDON COMMENTARY: As the council abandons 10 years of delusion over the retail regeneration of the town centre, regular reader LEWIS WHITE, right, goes on a shopping trip to witness the state of the Whitgift Centre for himself
I popped into the Whitgift Centre a few days ago to see if my favourite shirt shop (a well-known company based in Jermyn Street) was still trading in this post-covid, lockdown world.
I had been informed, thankfully wrongly, by someone working in central London that their Croydon branch was no more. So I was delighted to find that the Croydon outpost is still trading.
According to the staff, the Whitgift Centre branch is one of the company’s most profitable branches. Apparently, during lockdown, customers had emailed the company HQ to demand that Croydon reopened at the earliest opportunity.
I bought my shirts (lovely quality) and enjoyed reconnecting with the friendly staff.
They certainly know the meaning of customer service.
It’s amazing that, in spite of the many empty shops around them in the Whitgift Centre, their products and service seems to bring customers like me back, year on year. As I can’t keep a shop going alone, there must be many others who appreciate this shop and the service its superb staff give.
After leaving the shop with my new shirts, I walked past a well-known national chain of fashion retailers who cater for women, and wondered why, in this day and age, the shop window mannequins were all “white”. Has the management of the store not realised that it needs to welcome everyone to its stores?
The empty shops are sad, and the area is crying out for some kind of redevelopment scheme, even though that is now not going to be as originally promised by Westfield and Hammerson, and is liable to take even longer.
It could become a new combination of shops, flats and new, open spaces, as well as the covered malls.
En route to Whitgift, I had walked along much of London Road, and enjoyed the feeling of West Croydon’s bustle and ethnic shopping mix, buying some flat breads in a large clay pot, and some fresh fruit that was not wrapped in plastic. This road is open to road traffic.
I appreciated the fact that the council renewed the footways and planted some street trees just a few years back. These have made the area feel greener and fresher, but the footways are getting dirty and need steam cleaning to avoid them getting greasy again. It’s something which is done regularly in the more central area, as part of the service provided by the Croydon Business Improvement District. But that area stops at West Croydon railway station…
I walked along two sections of North End’s pedestrianised high street and was amazed that the majority of the smaller shops there still seem to be trading.
The trouble with pedestrianisation, though, is a strange feeling of life at half-cock. A talented violinist was performing to a small but appreciative crowd, but the fresh air did not really make up for the unnaturally quiet street.
Then I got to the once-bustling area by Allders, the junction of George Street and Crown Hill, and the middle section of Croydon High Street. Allders has long gone, and now Debenhams has followed it.
It felt like and looked as if aliens had abducted about 80 per cent of the people you’d normally have expected to encounter here. Was this due alone to the redevelopment of St George’s Walk? Or to the absence of buses ?
The High Street, from George Street along outside the old Grant’s building, down as far as the Flyover, has been divided up to create two-way cycle lanes, protected by long lines of bollards, and empty tarmac where buses once plied their trade. There were no buses going southwards.
The bus stops – formerly packed with people queuing to travel southwards and to many points east and west – were closed. The streets were empty of people — buses, traffic and even bikes, other than one cyclist on the pavement.
I was now laden with fruit and veg as well as shirts, and I had to lug my bags down beyond the Flyoverto find a bus stop. It was quite a long way. Is this a permanent arrangement? What exactly is happening here?
Is this the way to help people travel by bus? Is this the way to help the beleaguered market and shop traders of the nearby Surrey Street?
For a town centre, it was all eerily empty.
I then noticed that the Town Hall is fronted by thousands of bollards, very reminiscent of Northern Ireland in the Troubles. Are the council worried that angry residents will stage demos and attack the Town Hall? The municipal area is bollarded off, so no buses, cars or taxis can now pass by, never mind stopping outside it.
It seemed to me to be another separation between the people of Croydon and the council that is supposed to serve them.
On the way home, Purley and Coulsdon seemed to be thronged with people. There, the buses still stop right outside the shops.
I was glad to escape the people-deserted middle of Croydon. I felt very sorry for the traders and wondered whether the council really wants the town centre to survive and thrive?
Do we really need panels of experts to tell us that accessibility for shoppers by bus is key to success of the high street? If we do, get Mary Portas down and let her and her team tell it the way it is.
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