Home-grown regeneration is just as important as outside investment

By - Monday 11th January, 2016

Harry Owen-Jones analyses the town’s business community, its economic future, and the role of free spaces like 3Space

Photo author’s own.

It’s been a little under two years since 3Space came to Croydon. From the fifth floor of Southern House we’ve looked down, and then up, at the redevelopment going on around East Croydon Station. Our neighbouring towers, once gloomy and empty, now have the lights on, full of either office workers or builders – Croydon has been in a period of transition whilst we have been here. With Boxpark and Westfield on the near horizon and Foxtons now on the High Street, regeneration is a reality. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate the change when you didn’t live with what was here before but there seems to be a genuine, if qualified excitement about the direction in which Croydon is heading. But with this also comes a set of challenges, which many of London’s gentrifying boroughs have faced in recent years, including how to retain a sense of community and achieve sustainable growth.

At this point I should probably take a step back and tell you who 3Space is and what we do, before I try and convince you of our worth and why we should be a part of Croydon’s future. 3Space came to Croydon as part of the Cabinet Office’s Space for Growth program, a sensible initiative to open up the government’s portfolio of vacant buildings to charities and SMEs. With a slight upturn in the nation’s finances and the issue of empty property no longer such political kryptonite, the scheme was quietly shut down after the last election.

Founded as a charity in 2010, 3Space take over vacant commercial property and unlock and repurpose it as co-working, event, maker and rehearsal space for non-profits, social enterprises and early stage start-ups. The price to use space with us is always affordable, and with the support of the landlord LCR we have been able to provide space free of charge over the last two years.

A recent survey of businesses at 3Space confirmed that 76% had collaborated in some way with another user of the space. Collectively our users are creating jobs for Croydon

The real story of 3Space in Croydon isn’t of the work that we do but the work we allow others to do, and the diversity this brings to the city centre. In early 2013 one of the first organisations to come through our doors was Croydon Tech City. Many of its members now work in the office space here, and CTC hold one of its meet-ups here on a quarterly basis. Along with these early stage tech start-ups we have a whole range of social enterprises, arts organisations, filmmakers, charities, recruiters and media start-ups, and we even house the Croydon Citizen.

I could fill an entire edition writing about the excellent work the sixty resident start-ups and non-profits do. There is LOAF, an app that changes the way food lovers prepare and cook meals in the kitchen. LOAF founder Han-son Lee told me, “as a tech start-up, the community and facility at 3Space has been invaluable in providing the sort of environment where we can accelerate our development and growth, and attract new talent.”

Then there is Essential Skills CIC, which helps young people as they enter the job market, and recruits local apprentices and graduates into finance, IT and business administration roles as well as providing training to help them secure these positions. Croydon locals Andre and Abi Thomas, who founded Essential Skills, have placed fifty-five people during their time at 3Space.

Photo by 3Space, used with permission.

There is also Football Exclusives, a rapidly expanding media company that provides coverage for fans of non-league, women’s and grassroots football across the UK. When the company came to us, it had been working out of a home office. For founder Mike Bandry it is the networking opportunities that 3Space provides which have really helped him grow his business and made him feel part of the entrepreneurial movement happening in Croydon.

Mike is not the only one. A recent survey of businesses at 3Space confirmed that 76% had collaborated in some way with another user of the space. Collectively our users are also creating jobs for Croydon – with over 130 additional staff, interns or apprentices being added to the workforce in under 2 years. 94% have also said they had increased their turnover during this time.

But without 3Space, the options in Croydon are limited for the next LOAF or Football Exclusives. A recent report by Savills suggests that office rents in Croydon will increase by 63% in the next two years. Even with a growing number of workspaces appearing in Croydon, there is still a high demand for somewhere for start-ups and charities to go to before they can afford even a few thousand pounds a year in rent. There is a real danger of losing a large part of Croydon’s entrepreneurial community.

Photo by 3Space, used with permission.

Our vision is for a city where early stage enterprises and more established businesses co-exist, and we believe everyone has an vested interest in making sure Croydon becomes this kind of place. With more people moving to cities, it is those with high levels of social, economic and cultural diversity that will thrive – just think of how the City needed Shoreditch and Wall Street needs Lower East Side. To attract talent and growth, successful cities must allow space for creativity, diversity and innovation – and affordable space is essential for this to happen.

Perhaps the best thing about this is providing this type of interim affordable space does not require a major change in regeneration or development strategy, or even need to be pushed to the fringe. There are always gaps, whether that be an empty office floor or an empty shop. Our goal is to maximise these gaps between full rent paying commercial occupiers or buildings awaiting redevelopment, just as we have in Southern House for the last two years.

The large scale external investment in Croydon is key to driving growth, but it is vital that regeneration also comes from within

Croydon is at a crucial tipping point in the regeneration cycle and a balance needs to be maintained. The large scale external investment in Croydon from the likes of Westfield and Boxpark is key to driving Croydon’s growth, but it is vital that regeneration also comes from within, driven by local businesses and residents. Projects like 3Space, alongside other locally driven projects such as Matthews Yard, Croydon Tech City, RISE Gallery and the Arts Quarter, will help Croydon retain its identity and diversity during a period of rapid change.

We believe that 3Space is one of the key ingredients in enabling Croydon to maintain the balancing act of a sense of community and sustainable growth, from the bottom up in tandem with the top down large scale projects that are making the headlines. Indeed, it’s ventures like ours, and the ones mentioned above, that help change the perception of Croydon and cause it to be attractive for developers in the first place.

There are plenty of ‘gaps’ which remain in Croydon, and we hope one will become our next interim home and we can continue the journey with you in 2016 and beyond.

Harry Owen-Jones

Harry Owen-Jones

Harry is the Head of Operations for the charity 3Space, where he has been for the last 5 years. He lives in the north of the Borough in Crystal Palace and loves exploring the local area on foot with his wife and dog.

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