Croydon's Future
Gavin Barwell addressing public meeting on Croydon's regeneration at the Town Hall.
Public meeting at Croydon's Town Hall
Gavin Barwell 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 in Croydon.
The Whitgift Shopping Centre.
He wrapped up his presentation by referring to Westfield and Hammerson’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 and Guildhouse/Rosepride 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.
The Altitude 25 residential tower block in Croydon
Altitude 25
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.

Further reading
The detailed slide presentation on Croydon's regeneration is available from this link:
Gavin Barwell's website

Croydon – taking the political temperature

_ Long time Croydonians tend to be sceptical of press releases promising major investment.  In the last 10 years, despite an initial blaze of publicity on the Croydon Arena and the Park Place retail development, both schemes eventually failed.  Ruskin Square continues to be a case of “building Croydon tomorrow” – no work has started despite previous promises from Stanhope and Schroders as recently as October 2010 that construction work would commence in Q1 2012.
Will Westfield secure a deal with to acquire the Whitgift Centre in Croydon?
Westfield comes to Croydon?
_ In recent months, there have been a number of new development announcements.  Hammerson says it will invest £40m in its recently acquired Centrale shopping centre.  Guildhouse/Rosepride seek to surpass Menta with an even higher residential skyscraper.  But the standout announcement is Westfield’s tentative discussions with the freeholders of the Whitgift shopping centre.  Are our politicians being honest in suggesting that a new future is dawning for Croydon?

_ The ever astute InsideCroydon noted that the elections for London mayor and Assembly are fast approaching – they will be held on 3 May 2012.  It is certainly politically convenient to maximise the flow of “good” news in the run up to the elections.
Will Boris Johnson be able to maintain the support of outer London boroughs like Croydon?
Does Croydon love Boris?
_ On the 2012 mayoral elections, the bedrock of Boris’ success in the 2008 elections was his support in the outer London boroughs.  In my humble opinion, the inflation busting transport price hikes and the police cuts will make it hard for Boris to retain his support in the outer London boroughs.  In Croydon specifically, the savagery of the Council's spending cuts, the inept policing of the August riots and the failure to secure Enterprise Zone status will hurt Boris.  Most fundamentally, at the overall London level, as the riots happened on Boris’ watch, he is likely to pay the political price.

_ On predicting the outcome of the 2012 Croydon & Sutton London Assembly seat elections, a good starting point is to study the 2008 results - which can be summarised as follows:
            Conservative                  43
            Labour                          19
            Libdems                        18
            UKIP                              5
            Greens                           5
            Others                          10

Louisa Woodley is the Labour Candiade for the Croydon & Sutton London Assembly seat.
Louisa Woodley
_ The 2008 results show a massive Conservative lead.  Labour and the Libdems share of the vote was roughly equal – but they were well behind the Conservatives.  In my opinion, the Libdem vote in 2012 could suffer a sharp fall.  Even if many Libdems vote tactically for Labour’s candidate (Louisa Woodley), it is hard to see her overhauling the Conservatives’ 24% lead.  I wonder if Louisa’s Assembly seat campaign is to position her as Malcolm Wicks’ successor for the next general election?

_ If there is a large protest vote against the coalition government in the 2012 Assembly elections, then it may be UKIP and the Greens – as opposed to Labour – who are the most notable beneficiaries.  In particular, the decision to site an incinerator at Beddington Lane may provide a substantial boost to the Green vote.
Croydon & Sutton London Assembly member Steve O'Connell
Steve O'Connell
_In my crystal ball, the Croydon & Sutton London Assembly seat seems to be a safe hold for the Conservative incumbent - Steve O’Connell – even if his majority is much reduced.  But are Steve's talents best utilised by restricting him to Croydon Council and the London Assembly?

The Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway has been the subject of much controversy
Richard Ottaway
_ The real political mystery is why the Conservatives haven’t yet made an announcement on the succession for Richard Ottaway’s Croydon South seat (soon to be the new Purley & Carshalton constituency).  Even by Richard’s low standards, his handling of the riots’ aftermath left much to be desired – a story covered not only by InsideCroydon but also by the Mail on Sunday.  The usually obsequent Croydon Advertiser recently ran two prominent critical stories on Richard.  The Advertiser’s first story was Richard’s suggestion that a 4 year old child should cycle 3 miles to a faraway school as a place hadn’t been offered at her local school – which backs onto her home.  More damaging was the Advertiser's second story reporting on Richard’s trip to America which was financed by Liam Fox’s notorious political fund.

Richard has long been a subject of satire for InsideCroydon.  However, in recent months, an increasing number of letters from the public criticising Richard are being published in the local press.  I particularly enjoyed a recent letter in the Advertiser.  This letter joked that Richard’s constituency is so solidly Tory that its constituents would vote for a monkey – so long as it was running on the Conservative ticket.  The writer suggested – tongue in cheek – that this theory should be tested as a monkey would be harder working and cheaper!

_ Richard seems to be well past his “sell by” date.  The logical successor would be Steve – his Kenley political base is in the constituency.  Also, as the new Purley & Carshalton constituency incorporates a number of Sutton electoral wards, Steve's existing profile in Sutton gives him an advantage.  In a sensible world, Steve would be formally anointed as Richard’s successor and would forgo the Assembly seat so as to concentrate on the parliamentary seat.  But when did good sense ever enter into political calculations?

The recent blaze of positive publicity also nicely coincided with the Develop Croydon conference on 22 November.  Develop Croydon is the pressure group of Croydon’s large developers.  Following the damage to Croydon’s image caused by the August riots, the developers are desperate to “big up” Croydon’s future potential.  The conference provided a superb conjunction for both the politicians and developers’ desire to paint a rosy picture of Croydon’s future.  Boris was keen to milk the political advantage as the conference’s keynote speaker.

At the conference, as well as highlighting Westfield’s interest in the Whitgift centre, the other big story was that the £10m earmarked for Croydon’s regeneration had been increased to £23m.  However, despite the PR spin, £23m is wholly inadequate to make a serious dent on Croydon’s deep rooted problems.  To put the £23m in context, the government’s austerity programme is forcing Croydon Council to make cuts of £90m over the next 3 years.  InsideCroydon separates the reality from the PR spin in a scathing - but brutally honest - post of 23 November on the £23m grant.

The local press – as always – has swallowed the positive publicity on Croydon’s regeneration.  In particular, the local press has run a number of breathlessly enthusiastic articles on Croydon’s retail renaissance given the disclosures from Westfield and Hammerson.  But is it a new dawn or a false start for Croydon’s retail sector?  In two future posts, I will discuss:
- the historical evolution of Croydon’s shopping centre and the “big picture” retail trends
- the current poor state of Croydon’s retail offering and the reality behind Westfield and Hammerson’s announcements

In writing this post, I realise that making political predictions makes a fool of even the most diligent observer.  The views expressed are mine alone and I’m fully prepared to swallow a large chunk of humble pie if I'm proved wrong.

Croydon riots – a seismic media shift

Monika Konczyk jumps to safety from a blazing flat at Reeves' Corner in Croydon
Jumping from a blazing flat at Reeves' Corner
Over a month has passed since the appalling events of 8/8.  Both during and after the riots, Croydonians had a huge appetite for news and analysis.  How did the local media perform in reporting the riots?  In particular, has there been a shift in the relative importance of Croydon’s media sources?

A previous post on 1 May discussed the poor state of Croydon’s local papers.  It noted the very young ages of the reporters who are paid peanuts – which results in constant staff turnover.  However, on the positive side, the post discussed the emergence of InsideCroydon, the development of the twitter #Croydon feed and the use by some Croydon politicians of blogs/social networking.

Croydon’s two local papers exhibited their strengths and weaknesses on their 8/8 reporting.  The young reporters were energetic on documenting what happened and to whom.  Their reporting was enhanced by numerous photos.  However, although their coverage of the “what” and “whom” was comprehensive, their subsequent analysis of the “why” and the “who” was very poor.

By contrast, the excellent InsideCroydon reached new heights on its riots’ reporting.  Amazingly, it had three eye witness reporters on Croydon’s burning streets on the night of 8/8.  It posted a very prescient report on the brewing trouble at 7.00 p.m. on 8/8 itself.  Its remarkable late night eyewitness report of 8 August on the unfolding looting and arson as it happened made for compelling reading.  This particular article was highlighted by the Guardian's media expert - Professor Roy Greenslade - as "excellent".


Croydon's police

Croydon police during the night of the riots
Croydon's thin blue line
The events of 8/8 have given us much to reflect on regarding Croydon’s policing.  Undoubtedly, the police on Croydon’s streets on 8/8 were brave in the face of a very dangerous situation.  They deserve our gratitude and admiration.  However, the dogged journalism of InsideCroydon has raised many uncomfortable questions on the adequacy of police resourcing on 8/8.  In the aftermath of 8/8, we learn of the loss of the borough’s top police officer – Adrian Roberts.  But perhaps the most disturbing revelation is that Croydon’s police seem to have been losing the battle for “hearts and minds” in some parts of the borough – well before 8/8.

We have learned from InsideCroydon's post of 2 September that a tiny complement of between 60 to 100 officers were on the streets of Croydon on 8/8.  Many of these brave officers had no specific riot training and lacked heavy duty protective body armour.  There were some remarkable stories of courage that night – PC Andy Hewlett being especially noteworthy.

However, our admiration of the bravery of “the few” is mixed with amazement at the tiny number of officers who were mobilised.  The small numbers are all the more amazing given InsideCroydon’s revelations that the police were forewarned – as evidenced by police warnings to traders early that morning that Croydon was at risk.


Helping Croydon's riot victims

Devastation at London Road, Croydon following the riots
Devastation along the London Road
The rampant looting and arson on the night of 8/8 poses many long term questions for Croydon.  However, virtually all Croydonians agree that the victims of 8/8 should be “made good” – in a fast and effective way.
Boris Johnson - does he love Croydon?
The £42 man?
It is heartening that many ordinary Croydonians have helped the victims in practical ways.  In particular, many Croydonians were quick to donate clothes and furniture to those who were burnt out of their homes.  Also, there were a number of fund raising initiatives – such as charity auctions. 

As an aside, Boris must be pondering his popularity in Croydon given that his signed “I love Croydon” teashirt raised a paltry £42 when it was auctioned on eBay to raise funds for the riot victims.

However, for a family burnt out of its home, or a torched business, the level of help needed is substantial.  It far exceeds that which private donations can meet.  This is where we look to our Council and the government to ensure the victims receive fast and effective help.

Our education system - fit for purpose?

The recent riots have given us cause to reassess our society.  In London, almost 1/5 of those arrested were juveniles.  Why are some of these young people so disaffected?  Why do others have such a poor sense of right and wrong?  Obviously, the riots pose many searching questions on our education system - both in Croydon and nationally. More fundamentally, the riots have prompted many of us to look anew at society today in England.  Our media is currently trumpeting the record GCSE results.  But for a disturbing number of our children, our education system seems to be failing them completely.  What are the root causes of this education failure and how should they be addressed.

Over the last few days, there has been a very lively twitter debate on our education system. For the next few days, this blog is open to any guest contributor who would like to put forward their analysis of the problems of our education system and suggest realistic solutions.  The first guest contributor is Christian Wilcox.  Christian is completely open in disclosing his Labour party perspective.  Hopefully, readers will respond to Christian's analysis via the discussion boards.  I'm also happy to post any other guest contributors' articles on our education system - no matter what their political standpoint.

                                      A view on Education, with a Labour Party slant.

                                                        by Christian Wilcox

This is a perspective on Education today by myself.  A Labour activist, but not a fan of New Labour and Blairism.  I’m of the new generation that appeared under Gordon Brown.

Needless to say, after the Croydon Riots of 8/8, some of us will be asking why kids turn to crime.  As Cllr Matthew Kyeremeh said at a recent meeting this has been 20 years in the brewing.  Hence why some Rioters were in their 20’s.  So…  What’s gone wrong?

I’m just going to focus on education.  And please remember I am not Malcolm Wicks MP or Cllr Wayne Lawlor.  This is just my view.  Why turn to crime?  Basically because it can pay better for the low-skilled.  It’s actually a long story.

New Labour did make mistakes.  And one mistake in my eyes was the dreaded ‘grade inflation’.  Why we now have A*’s basically.  Ok, where to begin.





More disappointment for Croydon

Croydon's blighted St Georges Walk
The blighted St Georges Walk shows the sorry state of Croydon
Croydon has been in decline for an awfully long time.  Even before 8/8, its local economy had lost vigour, it was awash with vacant office space, it had a dire image, its shopping precinct had become tired and it was suffering large job losses.  If ever a town needed regeneration, Croydon was the place.

The most extraordinary thing is that Croydon’s decline continued during the 10 years up to the financial crash in 2008 – a time when the rest of London was booming.  To be fair to our Council, it recognised that serious action was needed.  It hired Jon Rouse as the Council CEO in 2007 – the man who “wrote the book on urban regeneration”.  Shortly after his appointment, Jon recruited the highly rated Emma Peters as Director of Planning & Regeneration.  The Council then embarked on formulating a 20 year long-term development plan – the “Core Strategy”.  This Strategy was billed as not just giving developers a licence to build anything they wanted, but a holistic plan to renew every aspect of Croydon – its economy, education, culture and social provision.  All very good so far...…

But after a promising start, the wheels began to come off the Croydon regeneration wagon.  It became apparent that the Core Strategy was little more than a cover for forcing through building masterplans – a developers’ charter if ever there was one.  Croydon’s economic and social problems were barely addressed by the Core Strategy.  Worse was to follow as our Council was forced to save £90m over 3 years as part of central government’s austerity drive.  The age of austerity bit Croydon especially hard due to its increasing reliance on public sector employment.  Huge numbers of redundancies were announced at two of Croydon’s most important employers - the Council and UKBA.  The axing of the Clocktower re-inforced Croydon’s image as a cultural desert.

The Croydon riots - the aftermath

Devastation of Croydon shops on London Road
Devastation following the riots at Broad Green, Croydon

Rubble at the Croydon Reeves Corner site following the riots
All that remain of Reeves is rubble
Yesterday afternoon (Sunday, 14th August), I went to see the damage to my town.

My journey began at Reeves' Corner.  My feeling on seeing Reeves’ furniture store reduced to rubble was one of pure despair.  This business flourished under 5 generations of the Reeves family since 1867.  In the space of one night, this iconic Croydon business was reduced to rubble.  I reflected on the quiet dignity of Maurice Reeves and his two sons in the aftermath of this tragedy.  

Burnt out homes at Reeves Corner in Croydon following the riots
Burnt out homes at Reeves' corner
I also felt a real surge of anger at seeing the burnt out homes nearby.  Although the iconic image is of Monika Konczyk jumping from the flames of her burning home into the arms of the firefighters below, I wondered how many more residents had been put in danger of their lives?

As I gazed upon the rubble, I bumped into John Cheetham who was on his way to the memorial service at Croydon Minster.  This service had a dual purpose – both to remember the 38 people who perished in the Lanfranc air disaster but also to reflect on the events of 8/8.  As big crowds made their way to the Minster, it was clear that the service would be very well attended.  Many “community leaders” bring the term into disrepute as they follow their own personal agendas.  However, in the case of John, he really is one of Croydon’s outstanding community leaders.  As he departed for the service, he noted that it was “one way of showing that Croydon is a decent place with decent instincts”.


The Croydon riots

Monika Konczyk jumps from the flames of her burning Croydon flat
Monika Konczyk leaps to safety
The photo of Monika Konczyk jumping from the flames of her first floor flat into the arms of the fire fighters below is an image that will stay in the mind for a very long time.  The damage to property in Croydon on 8/8 was truly appalling.  However, the real shock is that many innocent Croydonians came within a whisker of being burnt alive in their homes.  Is this what Croydon has come to?

At the individual level, personal responsibility and choice does exist.  I hope that the maximum number of Croydon’s looters are apprehended and feel the full force of the law.  However, the events of 8/8 pose many questions for how Croydon in particular (and the country in general) acts to prevent a recurrence.


Grassroots democracy in Croydon

This post is the third (and final) post in a series looking at democracy in Croydon.  The initial post on 1 May considered the local press’ role in supporting a healthy democracy. The second post on 3 May considered how representative Croydon’s democracy is – from ward to Westminster level.  Today’s post considers the health of grassroots democracy in Croydon.

Grassroots democracy is hard to define but it usually – but not always – exists outside of the political realm.  Its hallmark is “people power” and it tends to reside in community organisations and forums.  Grassroots democracy was one of the ideological foundations of the “Big Society” as it was promoted in the run-up to the 2010 general election.