At the end of 2011, I felt more optimistic about Croydon’s prospects than at any time since my election as a councillor in the late 1990s:
- we had secured nearly £25 million from the Government and the Mayor of London to improve the public realm in the town centre and incentivise new businesses to locate here.
- Westfield and Hammerson’s, two prestigious retail centre operators, had publicly announced their intentions to invest in the town.
- the partnership between Croydon College and Sussex University is developing well with the prospect of Sussex opening an innovation centre in the town.
- work was underway on a new entrance to East Croydon station at the other end of the platforms, which won’t just relieve congestion in the main ticket hall and improve disabled access to the platforms but also improve pedestrian links between the station and the heart of the town.
- businesses in the town centre had voted to extend the Business Improvement District under which they pay additional business rates to fund extra street cleaning, police officers and promotional work.
- work was underway on developments like Saffron Square and it was clear at the Develop Croydon conference in late November than we can expect other major planning applications in the near future; and
- companies like Zurich had recently made significant investments in the town.
The news earlier this week that Nestle are leaving the town was therefore particularly disappointing. This decision is primarily the legacy of the disasterous arrangement that the previous Labour Council entered into with Minerva to redevelop Nestle’s headquarters and the surrounding St George’s Walk (and, if I am honest, of the time it took the Conservative administration of which I was until recently a part to get out of this arrangement).
Since 2010, when Nestle first publicly expressed the possibility that they might move, the Council has bent over backwards both to put in place new plans to regenerate the area and, given that this would not deliver a new building on the timescale Nestle had in mind, to try to find them an alternative location in Croydon, including offering to buy their current building as part of any such deal. I have been party to those efforts. I don’t believe there is anything more the Council could have done since 2010 - the mistakes were made in the previous decade. The truth is the senior management at Nestle had by then made the in principle decision to move elsewhere.
There is no denying that this is a significant blow to the town centre. There are however, as I set out above, grounds for optimism and the Council and my fellow MPs and I must now focus on bringing new employers to the town to replace the jobs that we are losing, both private sector jobs and public sector jobs from expensive SW1 - an area where we did not achieve the progress we hoped for in 2011.