“Hammerfield” can’t save Croydon

By - Tuesday 22nd January, 2013

Doubting the value of the Westfield – Hammerson pact is madness. But the deal is an adrenaline shot, not a cure.

Financial Injection by @Doug88888I have strong words for the the retail resfuseniks: Your straightline projection from high-profile high-street failure to a near future without physical retail is wrong. It’s premised on a flawed (and thoroughly male) notion that shopping has only ever been about the efficient acquisition of goods, not the pleasure of acquisition itself. It ignores the hard economic fact that while the little high street is being crushed by the internet and tax avoidance, the mega-mall is growing. Condemn the consumerism of it all. Condemn the construction of giant temples to Mammon. Don’t condemn the business model.

Yet, I have even stronger words for those that believe that salvation does lie in the mall.

The truth is that Hammerfield is not a cure for the town’s ills, and to think that it is is a grave error of judgement. It’s a needle through the chest; an adrenalin rush to kickstart a round of visible signs that things are getting better. As a spur to the development of a tangible home-grown economic culture, an ecosystem people are drawn to start business, it has huge tactical value. But if it’s just the centerpiece of a box-ticking exercise in amenity provision (cost, transport, shopping) for the least demanding functions of big business, it’s only the beginning of another fatal cycle.

How can I be sure? The evidence is literally towering around us.

Croydon’s transformation from commuter suburb to high-rise office hub in the 1960s became problematic precisely because it became a value-sell premised on these sorts of amenities.  Both the council and its people came to believe that the explosive growth in employment of the 1960s, culminating in the grand opening of a state-of-the-art shopping centre, was the end, not the beginning, of a journey. They believed they’d secured Croydon’s success because they’d secured vast square footage from big city firms and government departments.

 It was not a playground of dreamers. It was more like a giant, high-rise office park; strictly a place to work.

What they’d failed to see is that they hadn’t secured the firms themselves, or even a growing core of activity centred on the borough itself. While there were many prestigious, physical imports to Croydon, there wasn’t a sufficient movement of hearts and minds. Much of what was being moved to Croydon was back-office operations, not decision-making or innovation. This grew ever more true over time. The inevitable automation and off-shoring of these functions is often blamed for our comparative economic decline, but is was more fundamental.

These moves into Croydon could not, on their own, bring about the hot-core of entrepreneurship that Croydon needed for the long haul. A group of entrepreneurs/artists/community activists passionately planning and executing the next big thing in British industry/art/society were not to be found in the corner of every bar. It was not a playground of dreamers.  It was more like a giant, high-rise office park; strictly a place to work.

Investment in its people through education, in its culture through challenging artistic programmes, and in its business through investing in promising local firms with national ambitions, could all have turned its corporate bridgehead into an unassailable economic fortress.

But such opportunities were missed. It failed to exploit its urban landscape, its connectedness, and its very density of human minds, and thereby sealed its fate. Forever Croydon would be seen in terms of urban function rather than urban romance.

It’s bizarre to think about an as-yet un-built mega-mall falling gradually into disrepair, with its golden years behind it… but this is a cycle we are at real risk of repeating.

As a result, when the 60s monoliths began to crumble, there was literally nothing left to hold these companies down. They happily moved out to find the next characterless, cheap, and non-threatening suburb to set up. For Nestle, the move to Crawley was a carbon-copy of its move to Croydon in the 60s. No doubt they will happily move again when it suits them. While they might have always left (I don’t think Nestle are, evidently, too bothered by the lack of a lively cultural scene), who knows who we’d otherwise be welcoming to the town now. Or more importantly what global business, grown from Croydon, would we be celebrating?

It’s bizarre to think about an as yet un-built mega-mall falling gradually into disrepair, with its golden years behind it. It’s strange to contemplate the disgruntlement of firms leaving Croydon that haven’t even moved here yet. But this is a cycle we are at real risk of repeating. Not long ago we learned that CEO of Abstract Securities wasn’t looking for a corporate headquarters or a rapidly growing start-up for his shiny new building on Dingwall Road. Instead he was looking for an insurance back-office; drawn by connectivity, cost, and, presumably of course, the promise of a new shopping centre.

But there is time to change this. The cutting of the ribbon on “Westfield–Whitgift Quarter-Croydon” (or whatever the sensible compromise name will be) is still 5 years away at least. And there are already things going on around us that offer some hope of something with a longer lifetime potential.

You’ll see a lot of plugs for the Tech City launch this week. Here I will gladly plug it again. That’s because it’s a good example of nurturing home-grown activity, and one very achievable way to create that sustainable culture of permanent revolution that we need. But it’s only one of a number of local movements seeking permanent solutions to problems.

Whatever your vision, the potential of those times past is with us again. Let’s build something we can be much more proud of than a big mall. Let’s build something amazing.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Neale

    “Urban function rather than urban romance” So many quangos have come and
    gone promoting growth. All we are left with is a Poly Vinyl Chloride
    Covered Croydon telling of a promised land. Please do some research on PVC its so toxic just like a script from Gotham City. Anyhoo got my hopes up for dear old Croydon again