As I spelt out in an earlier post, whilst we've had some good news in recent months (work is underway at Saffron Square and East Croydon station, Westfield and Hammerson's are interested in buying the Whitgift Centre, £23 million from the Government and the Mayor to improve the town centre and set up a business rate relief scheme for part of the town centre), there is no denying that Nestle's decision to move out of Croydon is a significant blow.
We need to face the fact that the town has been in relative economic decline for 20-30 years under councils of both political colours - petty squabbling about who is to blame for this latest reverse isn't going to achieve anything.
Some of the problems - in particular the complex land ownership of several key sites that are key to the town's reputation - are sufficiently intractable that we need help.
A couple of weeks ago, Sir Bob Kerslake, the Head of the Home Civil Service, visited Croydon and we had a useful discussion on the challenges we face. I have subsequently spoken to the Prime Minister, who asked me to put down my concerns in writing. A copy of the letter I have sent is below. I'd be interested to hear your views.
The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
10 Downing Street
30 January 2012
I am writing following the announcement by Nestle, Croydon’s largest private sector employer, that they are moving their UK headquarters out of the borough to Gatwick. Coming on the back of last August’s riots, this is a major blow to our town’s economy.
Croydon has lots going for it:
• we have outstanding transport connections - it’s just 15 minutes to London Victoria, London Bridge and Gatwick by train and we have good orbital connections to Beckenham and Wimbledon by tram and good links to the motorway network;
• commercial rents are 50 per cent or less of those in central London;
• house prices are lower than the London average;
• the town centre is one of London’s largest retail centres;
• we have a number of outstanding schools in both the independent and state sectors; and
• we are one of London’s greenest boroughs, sitting on the edge of the North Downs countryside.
However we also have some long-standing problems:
• our economy has been in relative decline for 20 to 30 years;
• our office stock, developed in the 1960s, was designed to serve as the back office for firms based in central London. Many such firms now base their operations overseas and as a result, once Nestle have vacated their offices, as much as 30 per cent of our town centre office stock will be vacant;
• the total annual spend in our retail centre has declined from £909 million in 2005 to £770 million in 2010, reflecting not just the economic climate but demographic changes in our part of London and the fact that many shoppers from the affluent south of the borough and north Surrey now shop in places like Bluewater. As a result, the vacancy rate has increased from 5 per cent to 11 per cent;
• the lack of a university means that the proportion of people with a Level 4 qualification is lower than the London average; and
• a six-lane road through the centre of the town plus poor public realm make it an unfriendly and unattractive environment for pedestrians.
The Council and its partners are working hard to address these problems:
• the town centre has been designated as an opportunity area by the Mayor of London in recognition of the fact that it has the potential to accommodate significant housing growth (in part via the conversion of redundant office blocks);
• the Council has put in place master plans for different parts of the town centre to provide clarity about what type of development will be acceptable, which have been drawn up collaboratively with the relevant land owners to ensure they are realistic;
• they have formed an Urban Regeneration Vehicle with John Laing Plc to drive forward some schemes;
• despite the pressures on their budget, they have significantly increased their capital spending to improve local infrastructure;
• we are part of two Local Enterprise Partnership (Greater London and Coast to Capital, which stretches from Croydon to Brighton), reflecting our role as a hub for south London and the near South East; and
• Croydon College has formed a partnership with Sussex University to ensure young people can study locally for a degree from a top quality university.
A number of major developments already have planning permission and there are other developers interested in bringing schemes forward (in particular, Westfield and Hammersons are interested in investing in the retail centre). However, in the current economic climate some of these schemes are financially underwater and several sites that are key to the town’s reputation have complex land ownership issues and so, without Government intervention, are unlikely to see any redevelopment for some time.
The Government has already provided some help in the wake of the riots (£10 million together with £13 million from the Mayor of London to improve the public realm and offer a business support scheme in part of the town centre). We are also likely to benefit from some Growing Places Fund resources. However, this is not going to be enough on its own to get regeneration started. There are several other things that the Government, working with the Mayor, could do in the short to medium term that would make a real difference:
1. Capital investment along the lines that the New Towns have received in recent years to progress the assembly and then redevelopment of a number of key outdated office sites that, without Government intervention, will continue to hold back the town’s reputation.
2. The location of a Government agency (eg the new Public Heath England HQ) in Croydon rather than expensive SW1, which would help to address the impact of Nestle’s departure.
3. Acceleration of additional HE places for Croydon College University Centre in partnership with Sussex University.
4. Support for a Sussex University-led innovation centre in the town centre to translate scientific research into business opportunities.
5. A free school on the old Croydon General Hospital site as a catalyst for the regeneration of the community worst affected by the riots.
6. Investment to address pinchpoints on the A23 to improve Croydon’s connectivity to the motorway network.
7. Confirmation that additional platforms and a new ticket hall at East Croydon station will be included in Network Rail Control Period 5 to address capacity problems.
8. Help from the UKTI and GLA to attract inward investment.
As you know, the Government is negotiating deals with the eight largest cities outside London to try to boost economic growth in the regions. Once that work is complete, I very much hope Ministers will be prepared to negotiate a similar deal with Croydon Council and the Mayor of London to turn around the long term decline of our town, which in scale is larger than Newcastle or Nottingham.
I am copying this letter to my fellow Croydon MPs, the Leader and Chief Executive of Croydon Council, the Mayor of London and Sir Bob Kerslake, who recently visited Croydon and is aware of the issues.
MP for Croydon Central
cc: Richard Ottaway MP
Rt Hon Malcolm Wicks MP
Cllr Mike Fisher
Sir Bob Kerslake