Public meeting at Croydon's Town Hall
led a public discussion on Croydon’s regeneration on 12 July at the Town Hall.
The audience was about 100 residents. The audience was somewhat older and more affluent than the Croydon norm. Many of those present are habitual attendees at all of Croydon’s public meetings. Interestingly, both Westfield and Hammerson had senior employees in the audience to gauge the public temperature.
It’s always interesting to see who’s absent from such meetings. Croydon council’s chief executive (Jon Rouse), the council cabinet member for Planning & Regeneration (Jason Perry) and the cabinet member for Communities & Economic Development (Vidhi Mohan) didn’t attend. Neither did the council leader (Mike Fisher) or the newly appointed chair of CCURV
(Jayne McGivern). To give Gavin Barwell his due, unlike many of Croydon’s elite, he does engage with the public.
Menta's proposed residential skyscraper.
Gavin commenced his presentation with a run through of Croydon’s strengths and “challenges”. His take on its challenges was its economic decline of the last 30 years, dated office stock, high parking prices, a limited cultural offer, poor public realm and an image problem
. He spoke at some length on the (relatively small) investment funds that have been earmarked for Croydon – in particular the London Mayor’s £23m. There was a quick exposition of each of Croydon’s multitude of masterplans. He highlighted the intention to concentrate 17,000 newcomers in central Croydon in high rise residential tower blocks.
He made no apologies for regeneration being focused on central Croydon. He argued that central Croydon was the key area for jobs, had the most potential to absorb more housing and was disproportionately important for the borough’s overall image. He touched briefly on CCURV noting that it embodied an element of financial risk as the council had a 50% equity stake in this joint venture. However, on the upside, he noted that this same equity stake gave the council an element of control over the CCURV developments.
The Whitgift Shopping Centre.
He wrapped up his presentation by referring to Westfield
’s competing plans for the Whitgift. He disclosed he was a Whitgift Foundation trustee – but stressed he had no input into the Foundation’s choice of Westfield as its development partner. He gave his personal views on the relative merits of the two competing schemes. He suggested that Westfield is a strong brand who incorporates a high degree of homogeneity into its developments. Hammerson - by comparison - tailors its development to suit local requirements. In the case of Croydon, Hammerson’s scheme may integrate better with the existing street plans – what’s called “permeability” in the planning profession.
Much of Gavin’s presentation covered old ground. But there were some interesting snippets of new information. Perhaps the statistic that best captures the troubles of Croydon’s retail sector is its fall in turnover from 2005 (£909m) to 2010 (£777m). We also had confirmation that no start dates exist for the Menta
residential towers. It was a surprise to learn that Berkeley Homes is only building the low level section of its Saffron Square
development – the tower is on hold. We learnt that much of the Mayor’s £23m will be spent in providing business rates relief for new companies setting up in the borough – essentially creating an Enterprise Zone
. Gavin suggested that redeveloping the Whitgift was important in making many of the proposed residential developments financially viable. One (rare) positive development is that Croydon College will be collaborating with the highly regarded Innovation centre at the University of Sussex
The iconic image of Croydon's riots.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of his presentation was the omissions. Although great play was made as recently as a year ago of persuading large government departments to relocate from central London to Croydon, no mention whatsoever was made of this strategy goal. Allders
was referenced but silence was maintained on the Nestle
and Bank of America
departures. Perhaps the most surprising omission of all was the “R” word. Dare we even whisper it, the riots
? There was some bemusement in the audience when Gavin contended that the two biggest blots on Croydon's image were IYLO
and St George's Walk
. It was bizarre that the riots – of all things – should be the elephant in the room.
After the presentation, the audience commented. Gavin was lucky – it was a kindly audience. Surprisingly, the audience didn’t raise some of the difficult questions: the musical chairs on regeneration management
, the bridge to nowhere
, the dire state of so many of the borough's district centres, the woeful tale of Westfield’s destruction of Bradford’s town centre
and the wisdom of spending £145m on glitzy new council offices
in these punishing times. However, the audience put forward many thoughtful observations and questions.
Christian Wilcox noted that the £23m of promised investment is tiny compared to what Croydon has lost through the early closure of LEGI
(a £77m regeneration fund) and the scrapping of “Building Schools for the Future”. Gavin responded that cuts were inevitable given the prevailing austerity.
Jonny Rose highlighted the great changes in consumer spending patterns which are killing huge swathes of the high street. He questioned the wisdom of over-reliance on retail development. Gavin agreed there would be further attrition in the UK’s overall retail sector - but he believed that Hammerson and Westfield would be survivors in this shake out.
Paul Collins spoke with conviction on the need to help Croydon’s small and medium sized enterprises (“SMEs”). He noted the current lack of central government support for SMEs and the infrastructure problems they face. Gavin agreed that more needs to be done to help SMEs.
Susan Oliver questioned whether Croydon’s regeneration strategy was focussed enough on the technological and digital sectors – the future growth areas. Gavin agreed that these would be the future growth areas and referenced the encouraging collaboration with the Innovation Centre.
A rarity at this type of Croydon public meeting was an audience member who admitted to earning close to Croydon’s average income – which is just £30k p.a. In this case, the gentleman earns £27k p.a. He noted that on his salary, he would never be able to afford any of the flats that were being proposed for central Croydon. Gavin agreed that Britain’s house prices were unaffordable for many. He believed that lack of supply was the primary cause of Britain’s high prices. Croydon’s huge flat building effort should be replicated at the national level so as to address the country’s shortage of supply.
John Ingman made the most telling contribution from the floor. He was brave enough to articulate the cynicism that so many Croydonians feel. He noted that demand for Croydon flats was saturated - as the vacancy rate in Altitude 25
evidences. Why should such an avalanche of additional flats find ready buyers? He observed that as Croydon is awash with existing vacant office space
, why would there be demand for additional space? He noted that Croydon has lost its existing iconic retailer – Allders. How can there be sufficient consumer demand to support an enlarged retail sector? It was telling that the audience burst into spontaneous applause at John’s honest assessment of Croydon’s reality.
The overall impression from the meeting is that most of Croydon’s proposed flat and office projects have stalled. The only big project that seems to have a reasonable chance of completion is the Whitgift redevelopment. However, the audience’s feedback evidences unease that Croydon is placing so much reliance on the retail sector. Also, there was unease that Croydon may be unable to develop its SME and digital/technology sectors – which are more likely to be resilient over the long term.
The detailed slide presentation on Croydon's regeneration is available from this link:Gavin Barwell's website