Last night, I hosted a public meeting to outline current plans to regenerate Croydon town centre. Around 100 people attended and there were some great questions at the end that I've captured and answered in more detail below. Please feel free to take a look at the presentation I gave at the start of the meeting and let me know what you think:
Questions from the public meeting:
Why has the town been in relative decline?
Most areas of outer London have struggled in recent years - the centre of the city is gentrifying and those who are less well-off are moving further out. And because we didn’t have detailed plans in place, we missed out on the last two economic booms. That’s why the Council has put such a lot of effort into drawing up the detailed masterplans I referred to at the public meeting.
How can we attract companies who offer high-paid jobs to Croydon?
The Council is using some of the money from the Government and the Mayor of London to offer business rate reductions to inward investors into the New Town area (the area north of George Street between the railway and Wellesley Road) but we also need to improve our wider offer. If a blue chip company or even a small business is thinking of locating here, they’re not just going to look at the office building, they’re going to look at the wider area. At the moment, we have a good mix of housing that’s relatively affordable by London standards, some excellent state and independent schools, excellent transport links, pretty good shops, bar and restaurants but our cultural offer isn’t so good and the town centre environment is poor. We also need to improve the image of the town. If one of Westfield or Hammerson’s invests here, they’re going to want to help with that but we have other people and institutions who are leaders in their fields that could help - the Brit school for example.
The plans you’ve outlined involve more shops, more offices and more residential accommodation in the town centre. But with lots of offices and shops already vacant and flats unsold and the growth of online shopping, is there a market for any of this?
We’re not actually talking about a big increase in the amount of retail or office space.
In terms of retail space, we’re talking about modernising what we have and having it managed by one of the top developers in the country so that we can bring in some of the top brand names we’re missing like John Lewis and Apple, which in turn will attract more independent shops. Many people, particularly from the more affluent parts of the borough, have stopped shopping in Croydon. We can get them back but only if we have the shops they are looking for, the centre is well managed and feels safe and it doesn’t cost a fortune to park.
In terms of office space, we’re talking about replacing some of the out of date stock we have with modern space that companies will want to occupy.
In terms of residential accommodation, Berkeley Homes have sold a significant proportion of the first phase of Saffron Square and if we get one of Westfield or Hammerson’s investing that will make the town centre a much more attractive place to live.
To a degree, you have to trust the developers - they’re investing a lot of money so they must believe there is a market.
Why have more tall buildings?
Given that we already have tall buildings in the town centre, I have no problems with us having more if:
a) The design is good - it’s a matter of taste but personally I think buildings like the Chrysler building in New York or The Shard are great pieces of architecture;
b) Putting much of the new housing in the town centre allows us to increase protection against infill development in Addiscombe, Shirley etc and to get more funding from Government for infrastructure improvements - if you spread growth around the borough, no one area sees a big increase and you find it difficult to get funding for extra school places etc but if you concentrate it in one area you have a much stronger case; and
c) Tall buildings are in the middle of the town, not - like the proposed Menta tower - right next to two storey residential housing.
Will the young professionals living in these towers, who will presumably predominantly work in central London, actually spend any of their money in Croydon?
Of course, they’ll sometimes socialise up in town but if you have a more pleasant town centre environment, more restaurants, cafes and bars around where they live, a better cultural offer, they’ll go where they live as well.
Will enough new infrastructure be provided for all these extra people eg school places, GP surgeries, capacity at East Croydon station?
As I said, it’s much easier to get funding for infrastructure improvements if you concentrate the growth in one area. In addition, anyone who gets planning permission now has to pay a Community Infrastructure Levy and the Council will be using this funding for key projects.
The plans don’t seem to include much affordable housing?
That depends what you mean by affordable housing. Most of us use the term to mean housing everyday people can afford to buy but policy makers mean council or housing association housing. There will be plenty of the former but it is true that the percentage of the latter is quite low - if we are going to attract young professionals to the town to try to reverse our relative economic decline in recent years, the sites near the station in the town centre are the ideal places to do it so it makes sense to build more of the council and housing association housing elsewhere.
Do you have a preference between Westfield and Hammerson’s when it comes to redeveloping the Whitgift Centre?
I should declare an interest as a Governor of the Whitgift Foundation, who have signed an agreement with Westfield - though I haven’t been involved in that decision.
I think they’d both be a massive improvement on what we have at the moment. What’s most important is that we resolve the current stalemate. There are differences between the schemes and it is a matter of taste which one you prefer. Hammerson’s would bring the Whitgift Centre and Centrale together and give them less of a 'mall' feel with streets and squares; Westfield have a stronger corporate brand and might therefore give a more immediate boost to the town's reputation.
Will the Whitgift Centre close for a while if it is redeveloped?
No, both companies say they will do the development in stages.
Is there a timetable for the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre?
No. There are a number of ways the current stalemate could be resolved - one of Westfield or Hammerson’s could give up, they could decide to work together, one of their partners could switch sides or it could be resolved in the courts. It’s impossible to say but I will continue to push for a speedy resolution.
Is the Menta development on Cherry Orchard Road going ahead?
Some of us have always been sceptical about it ever happening - there is certainly no sign of it happening soon.
What’s happening to the East Croydon Post Office building?
Royal Mail say they are looking for an alternative location but the Menta scheme didn’t include the Royal Mail site so at the moment there are no concrete plans.
What’s happening to St George’s Walk?
It’s one of the most difficult areas. The Council has produced a masterplan for the area, which involves redeveloping St George’s Walk creating a town square in front of the Town Hall among other things but there are several different owners and some of the buildings are on companies’ books at values well in excess of what they are actually worth.
What’s happening to the Gateway site?
There are very positive signs here - the Council has been working with the GLA to deal with the power issues for the site, which appears to be the last stumbling block before development gets underway. It’s like to start with an office building on George Street and social housing at the northern end of the site.
How can we improve the town’s cultural offer?
I’m already supporting a group who want to re-open the Clocktower as a social enterprise. The Council has chosen to focus on Fairfield and will be investing significant sums of money into modernising that. If Westfield or Hammerson’s invest, they will include leisure uses with their schemes too.
How can we make the town centre feel safer?
I think there are two problems here. First, there is a real problem and we need a fairer share of London’s police officers, tougher punishment, better rehabilitation and better early intervention. But second, there is also a perception problem - things aren’t as bad as many people believe. And there is the potential for a virtuous circle - if we can get those who have stopped coming to the town centre because they are worried about crime to come back, that will itself make the town centre feel safer by changing the mix of people who are there.
How can we diversify our local economy with more of an emphasis on technology, creative industries etc?
We suffer from the lack of a university. If we tried to establish a new one, it would start at the bottom of the league tables so instead Croydon College has formed a partnership with the University of Sussex, who are one of the top 10 universities in the country. They are looking at opening a second innovation centre here (they already have one on the south coast near their campus) to develop commercial spin-offs from their research.