Debate with MPs highlights practical problems and vulnerabilities facing #Croydon #TechCity


By - Monday 14th April, 2014

Sean Creighton reflects on the issues discussed at #Croydon #TechCity on Thursday 10th April


Photo by Fluid4Sight. Used with permission.

A clear set of practical problems and vulnerabilities facing Croydon Tech City dominated the debate between Croydon’s two MPs and the audience at this month’s event.

Both MPs acknowledged that improvements were needed to access funding for small technology companies and other startup businesses. Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, spoke in general terms about the new bank for lending set up by the ConDem Government. Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, suggested that the nationalised banks should be required by government to be more pro-active with lending, whilst also proposing the creation of local banks.

From the audience, a joint owner of a small tech business stressed the need for banks’ lending departments to have staff advisers who understood the needs of startups and SMEs. At present they do not, which leads to a refusal to lend. Reed suggested that firms should apply for funding to the London Economic Partnership which is currently underspent.

Job Centres should be relaunched to help skilled workers and tech companies match up

A second major problem is the availability of cheap workspace for rental. Citing the experience of Brixton Market when he was leader of Lambeth Council, Reed suggested that a social enterprise be set up which would work with owners of empty office blocks to provide initially free and then reduced rents to startups.

The issue of skills shortages was also raised by the audience – the difficulty of recruiting the right people. One employer objected to the high fees charged by commercial recruitment agencies. Job Centres should be relaunched to help skilled workers and tech companies match up. But as this idea would take any government some time to put into practice, alternative approaches would be needed in the meantime.

The ‘digital divide’ and education

Bieneosa Ebite, who has a regular show on Croydon Radio, hinted at the ‘digital divide’ when she urged Croydon Tech City to ensure its benefits reach across the borough. The official estimates are that 24% of households do not have home based internet access; the poorer the area the greater the divide. Affordability is a key reason.

Both MPs are keen to see tech skills being taught in primary and secondary schools and praised Tech City’s Code Club initiative. Reed urged it to consider linking with a school to help it become a tech focussed.

Barwell cited the changes in design and technology and other areas of the national curriculum that are due to come in. These should help schools improve their teaching of digital skills. A member of the audience touched on a major problem – re-training existing teachers and recruiting suitable skilled people into teaching. This will take time and resources, so benefits may not be seen for 5-6 years.

While both parties have spent years tinkering with school governance, numeracy and literacy skill levels have not significantly improved

Barwell explained that the object of free and academy schools was to free teachers from central control, citing Labour’s National Literacy Hour requirement, as an example, but avoiding the fact that it is central control that is backing free and academic schools with their ability to recruit teachers without relevant qualifications, and the freedom not to follow the national curriculum.

If children, especially at primary school, are to benefit from an education in technology, then those from households on the wrong side of the digital divide will be at a severe disadvantage. There will be many children who will not be able to understand the skills being taught, especially if they have reading and numeracy skills problems. These are often beyond the ability of schools to address because they are problems that need addressing in the early years. Reed highlighted this fact, that while both parties in Government have spent years tinkering with school governance, numeracy and literacy skill levels have not significantly improved. Reed stressed the value of children learning together in teams, which I have seen in projects that I have been involved in schools in recent years. Project work is frowned upon under Michael Gove, and costs money which schools do not always have.

The need for diversity in Croydon’s economy

There seemed to some scepticism from the floor as to the claims being made for the Westfield/Hammerson redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre in relation to the kind of local economy needed in Croydon. Too many jobs will be in low skilled retail. A much more diverse economy is needed, to which tech firms can contribute. Reed seemed to share this perspective more than Barwell. The latter defended the concept of flexible labour markets, despite the fact the evidence shows that they drive down wages and conditions. Reed’s optimism on the potential benefits to Croydon of growth at Gatwick Airport seems to me to be misplaced, as it could well drain firms away from Croydon, following Nestlé’s example.

Tech can solve a whole range of problems as tools and aids in human interaction and processes. Reed cited the work of the Good for Nothing charity that helps service users and staff come up with tech solutions to problems faced by users. The tech world, however, often over values itself. An article in the Evening Standard that day discussed whether another dot.com collapse is about to happen. If it does then new tech starts ups may find funding even more difficult. Tech will provide no solutions if security breaches, over-complex design, and power failures shut systems down. While Tech City needs to be upbeat, it needs to avoid being over-confident and arrogant.

What is the role of the latter to help create the right environment for tech to flourish without stifling it through bureaucratic control?

An important dialogue was started at the meeting which can continue through postings on the Croydon Citizen. One issue continually alluded to relates to what is the right relationship between Croydon Tech City as an independent movement and Croydon Council, London and central government. What is the role of the latter to help create the right environment for tech to flourish without stifling it through bureaucratic control?

I felt that Steve Reed came over better because he rooted his remarks in the reality of Croydon. Barwell was more concerned to generalise about initiatives of the ConDem Government. Perhaps Reed’s experience as a former worker in publishing and as leader of Lambeth Council is the main reason for the difference.


Croydon Tech City – Thursday 17th April 7:30pm – Financial tech startup special

To attend this Thursday’s Croydon Tech City event at Matthews Yard, please sign up as ‘attending’ here or  to confirm your attendance.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Becca Taylor

    Appreciate the view that no one voted for the coalition, but insisting on referring to it as the ‘ConDem government’ does nothing to further your points.

  • Charlotte Davies

    Director, Fit 2 Learn CIC (www.fit-2-learn.com)

    “There will be many children who will not be able to understand the skills being taught, especially if they have reading and numeracy skills problems. These are often beyond the ability of schools to address because they are problems that need addressing in the early years.”

    This is simply wrong and we are working to show that the vast majority of children can be efficient, effective learners. It is possible to sort out the vast majority of barriers to efficient cognitive processing in both children and adults. To do so it takes real will by all stakeholders and a proper understanding of what good child development looks like. I will happily spend time with any politician explaining to them what needs to be done – it is critical to the sustainable economic future of this country. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVcZZ0s48Zs

  • Sean Creighton

    Charlotte, as you know I support the approach you are taking. I had it mind when I added this particular concern into the piece. It will however be a long time before your approach can be applied to all pre-school and school children who will benefit in Croydon. So the point I make is valid meanwhile. Hopefully this discussion will help spread information about your approach and speed up the process. It sounds like a good idea to suggest to Barwell and Reed that they co-operate to set up an inquiry as to how to speed up the work you propose needs to be undertake, involving teachers, nursery workers, SEN staff, appropriate medical staff etc, and to try and asses not only the benefits for each child, but for classroom learning as a whole, wider social benefits, and may I dare say whether it would save on long term remedial and supportive expenditure.