Yesterday I spoke in a debate about the future of British retail. Drawing on my experiences in Croydon, and the news that Westfield and Hammerson will be investing £1 billion in our town, I discussed what the Government needs to do to ensure we have a thriving local economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend Richard Harrington on securing the debate. I want to focus on high street retail. I beg Members’ forgiveness because I want to be fairly parochial and to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing my home town.
Croydon used to be one of the top 10 retail centres in the country, but it has been in relative decline for 20 to 30 years. It might help colleagues if I examine the things that led to that decline. The first is the mismanagement of parking policy. I do not wish to make a particularly strong party political point, but the previous Labour-controlled council sold the multi-storey car parks to NCP. I am not arguing about whether there is a problem with their being in private ownership, but the council took no control over subsequent parking prices. Prices have gone through the roof, so many people no longer come to Croydon to shop.
In the 1980s, the previous Conservative Government made a mistake on out-of-town planning policy. In Croydon, there have been major developments along the Purley Way, which drew people away from the town centre.
There are also issues about how the council has managed the public space in our town centre over a number of years. We have two covered shopping centres, and the main pedestrianised road—North End—goes between them. There are issues about people feeling safe when they come into the centre. There are issues about aggressive charity collections. The area is meant to be pedestrianised, but there is fairly regular vehicle access so that things can be delivered to shops. There are lots of people playing music, but that is poorly controlled, not well structured or organised. There are therefore issues about the quality of the public realm. There is also the general problem Croydon faces with its overall reputation and brand.
However, Croydon has just had the most incredible news. Westfield and Hammerson—two of the top retail developers in the country—have formed a joint venture, with a plan to invest £1 billion in our town over the next three years. That is game changing for my home town; it is the best news we have had in my adult life. The aim is to make Croydon one of five retail destinations in London. We have the west end, Westfield London to the west, Westfield Stratford to the east and Brent Cross to the north, and Croydon will become the destination for south London. That will, I hope, bring some of the big brands, such as John Lewis and Apple, which we are missing at the moment. That is the key to then having the independent shops that everybody wants. Those independents will exist only if we get sufficient footfall to support them, and that comes from the big brands.
The scheme will create thousands of jobs. One thing I hope the council will do as part of the planning permission is try to ensure that as many construction and subsequent retail jobs as possible go to local people. I hope that Westfield and Hammerson take control of parking provision so that we can have sensible parking prices. I am a great believer in public transport, and I want improved public transport access so that those who can come by public transport do. However, the reality is that when some people go shopping—particularly if they buy a lot—they want to take their car. If our parking policy penalises them for doing that, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.
I also want to make a point about mixed use. The development scheme is not just a retail transformation; it will provide hundreds of new homes and leisure opportunities. We want Croydon’s major town centre to be an active destination not just during shopping hours but pretty much around the clock.
The scheme will not just be good on its own terms, but catalyse other development around the town centre. A number of schemes have been consented, but they are not being developed, because of the current economic climate. The new scheme will clearly bring them closer to fruition.
The scheme will be an important first step in transforming Croydon’s reputation, along with the Mayor’s policing plan, which will address the long-term under-resourcing of policing in Croydon, giving us 117 extra officers by 2015. There is also the money the Government and the Mayor generously gave us in response to the riots, which will be used to transform the public realm in the town centre. That really is great news.
I am conscious that others want to speak, and I do not want to talk for too long about my own parochial concerns, so I will mention just three other things. First, I would like the Minister to pass on to his colleagues the idea that, if we are to realise the full potential of the extra jobs that are created, we will require some transport infrastructure improvements. We need to ensure that we have better connectivity between Croydon town centre and the motorway network through the A23. We also need to improve capacity on the trams at East Croydon station. The Mayor will have to foot the bill for a significant chunk of that, and so will the developers as part of the planning process. We may well want to talk to the Chancellor about the jobs that could be created with a relatively small additional investment.
I also want to talk about the Portas pilots. The centre of Croydon is too big for the Portas pilots, but we have one connected with our historic market in Surrey street. One real issue is how we connect the new retail destination with that market so that it reinvigorates that great destination.
Let me emphasise that the residents of Croydon want this scheme to be an urban regeneration scheme, not a box full of all the big brand names that is plonked down on them. They want a scheme that better connects our town centre and that ensures that Surrey street and London road, in the constituency of Steve Reed, which took such a hammering in the riots, benefit from being adjacent to the area that is redeveloped. They want much better connectivity with our key gateways at East Croydon and West Croydon.
Finally, I want to plug the idea of business improvement districts. We had a vote in Croydon a few years ago. There was strong support from all the major business rate payers for paying a bit more in business rates, as long as they had control over how the money was spent. They have invested in additional policing, improved cleaning and some really great events, which have drawn people back into the town centre.
My constituents are passionate about their home town. They have been put off going there by its image, concerns about safety and parking prices that are too high. On the horizon, we now have a potentially transformative scheme, and I wanted to put on record my strong support for it. There are some real lessons to be learned from what has happened to Croydon and what will be done to put that right, and those lessons are relevant to many other town centres around the country.