Address the housing shortage or improve the public realm? Does Croydon even have a choice?


By - Friday 9th May, 2014

Tom Lickley asks whether Croydon can ever address its housing shortage whilst maintaining a pleasant environment for residents


One of a number of enormous residential zones in the world’s largest city proper by population: Shanghai, China. Photo author’s own.

Study the above image. Just a small snapshot of a residential district that goes on for miles and miles. Then imagine that this is just one of many residential zones which sprawl across the largest city proper in the world, and a city which is still expanding.

Of course, Croydon, United Kingdom is not Shanghai, China. Croydon does not have vast sums of domestic and foreign investment being ploughed into its coffers, and nor is it one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the developing world (no offence, #Croydon #TechCity folks). Yet, what Croydon does have in common with China’s second city is a pressing housing need – and along with that, a chronic shortage of space, which is a problem Shanghai doesn’t have. So is Croydon’s future to build upwards, and replicate the image shown above?

This is the issue. At the Live Croydon Housing Seminar which took place last year, Beverley Nomafo, Croydon Council Head of Housing Development and Growth Partnerships, suggested Croydon’s population is expected to reach 400,000 by 2031, up from a current population of 364,800. So Croydon will need housing provision for over 35,000 extra people in less than 20 years. Sound possible?

Maybe. Greater London as a whole needs 42,000 new homes per year for the next 25 years according to the Mayor of London in the London Housing Strategy. With Croydon continuing to be the largest borough in population terms in Greater London, one would expect a significant proportion of that new housing to be built in Croydon.

Developers will simply not be able to build cost-effective affordable homes for the majority of Croydonians

Assuming this is the case however, just where does it go? To the south, Croydon is hemmed in by the green belt. On the north, east and west sides of the borough boundaries with other boroughs prevent expansion. Land values in the town centre will surely only increase with the arrival of Westfield, which whilst positive for attracting high quality developers, and perhaps even some foreign investment, will not address the housing need for many; developers will simply not be able to build cost-effective affordable homes for the majority of Croydonians because of market demands.

Even in the town centre, objections are being raised towards new housing developments. The Inside Croydon blog for instance has decried the demolition of Taberner House and replacement of Queen’s Gardens with a 32 storey residential skyscraper. Whilst this reading of it is factually inaccurate – the website for the development suggests that more public space will open up, and the designs suggest a sizeable proportion of the park will remain intact – the very notion that parkland is being built in demonstrates how space is at a premium within Croydon.

Whilst Queen’s Gardens doesn’t exactly have the best reputation among some in town, being stalked by the homeless (which is another issue altogether and could generate dozens of articles, but I digress) and is on ocassion the subject of crime reports, at its best, in warm summer sunshine, it can provide an oasis of calm away from the furious urban motorway of Wellesley Road and the crowded High Street. But houses are desperately needed, and building upwards is easier to swallow in the town centre where there will be fewer objections, and the building will be better suited to slip into the surrounding environment. Was there really a choice?

Housing needs for Londoners are changing, with an increasing need for single unit dwellings. The London Plan has suggested household size will fall from 2.47 people/household in 2011 to 2.34 people/household in 2036. A sad indictment of the times maybe, and a further increase of pressure on housebuilders to find and develop land in which a profit can be eked out. By this calculation, to serve the 35,200 extra people living in Croydon by that time, an extra 15,043 homes will need to be found in the borough, and many of them will have to be new-builds.

There is no clear large space in the town in which to build a viable solution for Croydon’s housing needs

So here is the dilemma. Croydon will need to build upwards in order to accommodate the expected increase in population, and decrease in household size. These developments will need to target all areas of the borough. Yet those who complain about housing shortages for Croydonians are likely to be the same voices who complain about the degredation of our public space and the constriction on the public realm. There is no easy solution to this question. There is no clear large space in the town in which to build a viable solution for Croydon’s housing needs.

Without wishing to end on too depressing a note, prepare yourself Croydonians; smaller living space and high rise apartment blocks may become the norm. With all the money coming into Shanghai, and with Tokyo another example of a massive city which just can’t stop growing, yet being the capital city of the world’s third largest economy, but neither having a solution to their housing crisis except to keep growing outwards and upwards, it will take drastic thinking to find a solution to Croydon’s housing needs which satisfies all parties.

Happily (in some ways), what Croydon does have in abundance is a large amount of unused office space. Whilst this isn’t great news economically for Croydon, it does mean that there is space for developers to convert existing office space into housing, and one would expect a good proportion of the town’s housing needs to come via this method. A note of caution, however; current policy dictates that office to residential conversion does not have to include affordable housing, depending on whether the conversion is subject to the planning process or not. On the flip side, at present some office to residential conversions do not have to undergo the planning permission process – meaning new houses can be provided quickly.

But more than this; Croydonians will need to open their minds to the fact that these houses are essential, and to bear this in mind when considering objections to new housing developments. Likewise, council officers will need to have robust reasons not to cut the red tape somewhat and be more conciliatory to radical proposals. The landscape is changing in London, and the essential needs of the many – the basic human necessity to have a roof over a head – is greater than the importance of the individual, whether that be an extra ten minutes stuck in traffic or a slightly hindered view out of a back window.

Tom Lickley

Tom Lickley

Contributing a variety of roles to the Citizen since early 2013, Tom now focuses upon regeneration, urbanism and real estate writing. After three years spent working within the real estate industry, he now works in regeneration and PR following a move back to Croydon.

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  • Anne Giles

    People don’t need housing until they get married, though. We always lived in bedsits or flatshares. Buying a property came a lot later.

  • Peter Staveley

    Of course the elephant in the room is the question “Why do we have to provide for more housing?”

    • Kristian

      Where are you going to put all the British ex-pats when you get them kicked out of Europe?

      • Anne Giles

        He won’t get a chance. UKIP will never get voted in.

    • Anne Giles

      Because people have babies.

      • Peter Staveley

        The rise is population (of the UK) is largely to do with the rise in immigration than it is the rise in births.

        • Anne Giles

          Which is excellent, because it is so good for our country.

          • Peter Staveley

            Define the word ‘good’.

            The problem with any rise in population is that it causes stress on our infrastructure (which was my original point). The cost of providing additional infrastructure might more or less than the benefits arising from the increased population. What is clear is that any increased population causes the issues that this article talks about, i.e. requiring more housing on green or brown-field areas with the danger than the housing costs will rise and the average size of the housing stock reduces.

            All I am saying is that we should have a say whether we want a bigger population on our crowded island. So far the politicians have, effectively, prevent any sensible debate.

          • Anne Giles

            No comment.

  • NeilB

    As Croydon is already about the cheapest location in London then this suggests that most people would prefer elsewhere. I’m sure more popular boroughs would be delighed if Croydon was to build loads of cheap high density housing to accomodate those priced out of more central areas. Isn’t this the problem with New Addington ? In theory its setting is superb , surrounded by nice countryside and golf courses, but its too far out of the centre (London , not Croydon) so is unattractive to most.

    In general the inner suburbs need high denity housing and the outer suburbs lower density , reflecting land values. High denity in Central Croydon is wrong in my view , its not zone 1. These will be the slums of the future , even if they start out as luxury housing.

    Isn’t this what has happened to Paris , with most of the poverty and deprivation in the outer suburbs.

    • Tom Lickley

      According to the April 2014 Right Move House Price Index (http://www.rightmove.co.uk/news/files/2014/04/april-2014.pdf), Croydon is only the eighth cheapest borough in London based on average prices when a house comes to the market. This time last year, it was the fifth cheapest. The trajectory is obvious and there is nothing to suggest that the value of Croydon’s land won’t increase further.

      The issue here is you are suggesting Croydon is merely a suburb of London, rather than a ‘place’ in its own right. This excellent article here by James Naylor (http://thecroydoncitizen.com/politics-society/dont-fear-yuppie-imagined-gentrification-perils-groundless-debate/) addresses the fact that while Croydon is indeed a suburb of London, the size and diversity of the town is considerable enough for it to contain a multitude of places, each with their own identity.

      By this measure, building high density residential developments in the town centre, where land value is high – overpriced in many cases – is the only way for developers to create profitable buildings. Westfield etc, the connectivity of Croydon, and its location between Gatwick and Central London will likely raise values further – and sets it apart from many if not all other outer suburbs of London.

      • NeilB

        Croydon was in the bottom 3 last time I saw a similar table to the rightmove one, so looks like the Borough has had a good season , much like Crystal Palace. Hope both can sustain it.

        Although , of course I’d like to see prices drop everywhere , as long as the gap between Croydon and others doesn’t get even larger than it already is.

        I’d seen James Naylors article on Croydon Gentrification before and its an interesting read. Sadly I’d agree that Croydon is not likely to be gentrified any time soon. Although I remain pessimistic on Croydon’s future I hope I’m wrong and its great to read the optimism of others and the Croydon Citizen gives me a lot of hope. Looking at the comment below that article, some of the negative comments or similar always seem to appear whenever Croydon is discussed. Though maybe its always the same person ?

        You’re right about Croydon being a hub of its own and apart from work rarely go into Central London. High density housing might work near the two stations (East anyway, not sure about on the roundabout near West Croydon. I’m interested to see if they can sell those and who might be buying. We certainly need more wealthy people to move into Croydon to make it more balanced.

        However if central croydon really becoming high value then you would expect a boom to areas like Broad Green which are very central as well. Is this happening ?

        The balance of housing and offices needs to be tilted in favout of housing and I believe this is underway. Apart from Nestle (until last year anyway) and AIG and the Home office. I’ve often wondered about who occupies some of the office blocks. Are they mainly empty ?