Croydon’s space shortage

By - Wednesday 21st June, 2017

Whether you want to grow your business or enjoy an evening out with a difference, Croydon’s shrinking space should worry you

Construction continues on the Ruskin Square site.
Photo by Zach Baker for the Croydon Citizen.

Since its launch on Friday 3rd March, Croydon’s Small Business Commission has held roundtables, forums, and conferences all over Croydon for the small business community in Croydon. While business owners from a wide range of industries – tech, transport, media, marketing, and many more – voiced their concerns and put forward their solutions, there remained one central theme that presented itself time and time again: space. Commercial space. Community space. Cultural space. Where is the space? It’s Croydon’s big grey (often concrete) elephant in the room.

I had the pleasure of hosting fifty business owners at our own Shaking Hands Commission conference, gaining a first hand insight into how the dwindling venues are affecting organisations, big and small, across the borough. Here’s a breakdown.

Big businesses

If you picked your copy of the Croydon Citizen up near the Boxpark development, or endure a daily commute through East Croydon station, it doesn’t take a great deal of spatial awareness to discover that commercial high-rises are popping up all over. Far from being another residential skyscraper gracing the Croydon skyline, the Ruskin Square development – with its two million square feet of office space, shops, and homes – will be, and indeed has already become, a perfect landing pad for large organisations such as the HMRC.

Many residents and business owners with an ear to the ground will have heard that Superdrug Stores (net worth £50m), Bodyshop (net worth £321m), Metrobank (net worth £352m), HMRC, and A A Homes and Housing (net worth £66m) have all established a home in Croydon.

At the same time, the planned demolition of the Whitgift Centre in March 2018 will leave a number of larger corporates with a difficult decision to make: relocate to Centrale, fight for the limited space available elsewhere, or return to Croydon when Westfield re-opens for business in 2022.

Aside from Ruskin Square, it’s difficult to pin down where the more well-known retailers will be dispersed during the developmental transition.

Medium businesses

With the College Green development flattening Suffolk House, the purchase of the Nestlé complex by Chinese investment firm Ho Bee bringing uncertainty to the tenants below, an abundance of commercial-to-residential conversions following relaxed government planning procedures, rising business rates, and an increasing race to shore up office space in Croydon from all around the capital, it is no surprise that growing companies of 15+ employees are finding it difficult to locate affordable, suitable accommodation for their established teams.

Startups and small businesses

Hubs such as StartUp Croydon, AMP House, TMRW tech hub, and Sussex Innovation Centre are a credit to Croydon, satisfying a significant surge of interest in the area from small businesses all over. Plus, with a number of cafés in Croydon, from Smoothbean! to Byte Café to Crushed Bean happy to house caffeine-fuelled hot-deskers (so long as coffee and lunch is being purchased as a nod to the hospitality), there is a fair resource for startups and small companies of teams of 5–10 staff. The real issue will come further down the line, as a greater influx of interest arrives in Croydon.

To give an idea of Croydon’s annual growth, Croydon has been growing by more than 500 businesses per year for the past six years, jumping from 11,995 in 2011, to nigh 16,000 in 2016, 90% of which are micro-businesses (0–9 staff members).

It all rather begs the question: where is the commercial space going to come from?

What about the community, external to private businesses?

Big businesses bringing big investments will act as a strong magnet for traders, renters and homeowners to the borough. Naturally, an increase in both residential and commercial space is desperately needed to ensure that local, native entrepreneurs and residents are not priced out by dramatically rising business and renting rates.

Unfortunately, nobody is excited by Croydon becoming a dormitory town with the same chains, brands, and unethical corporates that make places like Sutton and Bromley dull places to live, work, and go out.

The backbone of the hype around Croydon is all to do with innovation, local business communities, and the capacity for thriving cultural offerings. The borough’s central issue here is the lack of space for place-making activities such as pop-up venues for daytime festivals, late night music events, art exhibitions, and weekly marketplaces.

What will be Croydon’s response to Shoreditch’s Brick Lane?

Despite companies such as Unicorn Events, Pirate Projects, Hoodoos Open Mic (soon returning), Lost Format Society, and RISE Gallery carrying the cultural scene in Croydon, there is yet to be a defining centre-point to our town.

What will be Croydon’s response to Shoreditch’s Brick Lane, Brighton’s ‘Lanes’, Birmingham’s ‘Digbeth’, Liverpool’s ‘Baltic Triangle’, Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’, Amsterdam’s ‘Nine Streets’, Budapest’s ‘Ruin Pubs’, Taipei’s ‘Night Markets’?

Croydon has every potential to be on the UK and international stage as a destination for cultural, communal, and commercial enterprise… but only if we have the foresight to create space for our creative minds to thrive.

Laurence Grant

Laurence Grant

Laurence Grant is the Co-Founder of Croydon's fastest-growing business partnership, Shaking Hands, winners of Young Start-up Talent 2016, and finalists in Croydon's Best New Business Category 2016. Laurence is a Commissioner on Croydon's Small Business Commission; Chair of Croydon's Good Employment Charter; and Ambassador for Croydon Business Excellence Awards 2017. In the 30 minutes a week that he isn't working, Laurence is either recording Grime, or travelling the globe. One half of the infamous #CroyTwins

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  • Andrew Kennedy

    Units on Exchange Square, and Conference Centre Surrey St if you’re quick because the developer currently wants to turn that into flats.

    • Laurence Grant

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for pitching in.
      Both of these spaces you have mentioned are perfect examples of further residential developments, and a lacking commercial focus.
      We’re keeping our ears to the ground for all of the business owners we represent at Shaking Hands – though the dwindling commercial space available is a worry across the board.

      • Ian Marvin

        Indeed, the pressure for residential is ignoring commercial space, meaning that the residents will end up commuting, putting yet more strain on the rail services.

    • Saif Bonar

      Andrew, contrary to popular belief, barring the Pumping Station which continues to languish unused, unloved and empty, there are no vacant units in Exchange Square.

      Of the three units, one, beneath Bridge House, is occupied by Spy Missions, an activity centre for Children.

      One, facing into the Square and beneath The Exchange is occupied by Matthews Yard for its workspace (having relocated our smaller workspace, which was the first coworking space in Croydon when it opened in 2012) to make way for the now defunct Hoodoo’s. That premises is also home To Bobski’s and several other indie food operators are due to launch in there soon.

      The third premises also beneath the Exchange residential, but facing Scarbrook Road is Anytime Fitness, a gym which opened about 6 months ago.

      With regards Matthews Yard and the Conference Centre there is no scope to preserve the building beyond the planning process as heads of terms for the sale of the building to developers have already been agreed and any other parties are locked out by law.

      There are numerous empty vacant commercial spaces along the high street, South End and in the lower floors of some of the new major developments. There is also a significant oversupply of industrial space out on Purley Way. The problem is most of it is being touted at astronomical rates, well beyond the reach of independent start-ups or micro-enterprises and none of it is in a location that the big names that can afford them are interested in taking.

      With regards the article, while useful, it lacks a certain level of depth. No differentiation of the types of space that are lacking. Is there a shortage across the board or is it isolated to retail space? If so which particular use classes do demand outstrip supply? S there a register held by yourselves or the council which lists businesses looking for space in Croydon but that cannot find it? Or is the basis of the article a hunch or general perception that there is insufficient space?

      • Andrew Kennedy

        I was at the pre-application planning committee meeting for the Conference Centre and Cllr Paul Scott in effect told the developer and architect to go back to the drawing board, and suggested (to my dismay) that he could add two floors to the Surrey Street side “to bring it up to the height of the adjacent building”. This gave rise to my comment that there is a window of opportunity with that developer to add some commercial space if you wanted too. With respect to Exchange Square I guess I’m pleased that the units are all let and I will remark that it is a sign of the times and their position that they are let to a gym, a nursery and a coffee/ cafe and observe that they are the kind of businesses which find a market in amongst new residential developments. Anyone looking for long term lease commercial space should look further afield. If I were looking I would use a copy of the local plan to identify those are of the borough which are designated industrial areas. There are many areas scattered throughout the borough, Crystal Palace, Beddington Lane, Gladstone Rd and Tait Road and King Henry’s Drive. Plus of course there are the many enterprise agencies that can help you. eg Start Up Croydon run by CBV. I’m also frustrated by several industrial sites lying empty for years eg the Stewarts Plastics factory on Purley Way. A good commercial estate agent such as Gildersleve and Payne would sort you out. They tend to have smaller properties on their books. I agree that the article was not digging deep and I don’t propose to go any deeper at this moment in time either. Cheers. Here’s to more bars and enterprise centres.

        • Laurence Grant

          Thanks Saif and Andrew,

          Saif, to answer your question prior to the edited comment, we do have a database of around three dozen small to medium businesses that seek to move to larger premises within the next two years, who are considering areas such as Bromley, Brixton, and Sutton as alternatives to Croydon, in the light of the lack of flexible workspace.
          There won’t be a list of these businesses published, as that would damage reputation and give cause for concerns for customers and clients of these businesses, though a list of the space available in Croydon is being put together by Shaking Hands to send out to these businesses. We note, though, that much of the space being broadcast as available is far too large and expensive for a small business of 10-20 to move into single-handedly.

          Digging deeper:

          What will also be published, is the Small Business Commission report, put together by Croydon Council, Shaking Hands, CroydonBID, Croydon Chamber, Croydon Partnership, Croydon Tech City, Coast to Capital, and Freshfields Supermarket.
          This report has collated the concerns of hundreds of participating businesses in Croydon, and will outline the major issues and recommendations put forward by the participating business community.

          This article, although a sweeping introduction to Croydon’s commercial space offering, is a precursor to several more articles that offer far more insight into what we have discovered over the last 12 months as Croydon’s fastest growing business partnership.

  • Patrick Blewer

    Great article and as an ex Croydonian that went back home to Sutton, I feel that Croydon like much of suburbia that not that long ago was a stand alone towns, lacks a central hub off which wider leisure business can grow.

    However as someone that worked on the Shoreditch / City border for far too long, not sure I’d say Brick Lane is the hub. Maybe Bethnell Green Road / Shoreditch Highstreet might be more appropriate given their artery nature that has created a wider entertainment ecosystem accross the Hoxton / Shoreditch / Bethnell Green / Hackney area?

    The big questions are capital availability and perceived demand. How many of those big towers going up will be for affluent 20-30 somethings that work in Croydon? How many will be working & socialising in zone 1, treating Croydon as a dormitory town , as happens further out into the old garrison towns of Surrey?

    I used to socialise in Croydon because I’m from the area and had mates that were still around, however I’d spend more time and £ in the City / West End because that’s where I and a lot of mates worked.

    Much of Sth London has transformed its leisure / entertainment / nighttime economy since I first started drinking in the mid 1990s. Balham is transformed from being a little rough round the edges to now being a sloany paradice where old Sarf Londoners like me are not welcome.

    At the same time, many voices on the Citizen would decry the process of gentrification, creating indentikit town centres that can only be afforded by the gilded youth that have inherited and / or worked in the very small % of jobs that pay for that lifestyle.

    What happens next?

    • Laurence Grant

      Hi Patrick,

      Despite a number of local councillors and politicians celebrating that Croydon has the highest demand for commercial space in the UK, it’s not a great victory. Meeting that demand in order to lower it would be far more of an achievement.
      Currently, the Ruskin Square development (2m square feet), the Westfield Shopping Centre (£1.4billion), and College Green redevelopment (from East Croydon to Fairfield), are the only upcoming and ongoing, large-scale commercial developments to our knowledge.
      As you’ve identified, the other residential towers will be set at prices per unit which are affordable for Central London professionals.
      You’re quite right about Brick Lane not being the spine of culture in the Shoreditch of old, although the brand of Brick Lane is what stretches furthest afield.
      During my time studying in Leeds before returning to Croydon, you wouldn’t hear much of the Bethnal Green area, or Shoreditch High Street from people popping down to “edgy” London for a visit – whereas Brick Lane was always a ‘must visit’, and has a brand in its own right – what will Croydon’s Brick Lane be? We’re busy trying to create it.