A lean, efficient Croydon in an increasingly bloated London


By - Wednesday 6th January, 2016

In a special report as 2016 begins, Tom Lickley explains how a cosmopolitan, diverse Croydon town centre can fit into the world’s most expensive city


Croydon in the shadow of London – but for how much longer?
Photo author’s own.

Not many Londoners will have failed to notice the transformation in the Big Smoke over the previous two decades. Out of a tired, soot-ridden and yet uniquely atmospheric capital of a faded empire, has risen a shimmering hub of global culture and commerce. Whilst undoubtedly London is now held up as a shining beacon of 21st century progress, of which we as Londoners can be justifiably proud, the price that we pay for hosting some of the best cultural, educational and recreational facilities in the world are high living costs, growing inequality and a fragile infrastructure.

Leading property agents and consultants Savills, a significant beneficiary of London’s high quality and high cost office, retail and residential markets, last month released its annual index of the world’s most expensive cities. Based on the average accommodation cost per person, London is the most expensive city in the world, with accommodation costing the average employee $118,425 (£77,741). This is an increase of 20.7% since 2008. London is nearly twice as expensive to live in as Singapore, and nearly three times as expensive to live in as Shanghai. Given the increasing confidence and prominence these two cities alone have on the world stage, it is not unreasonable to suggest that London faces an uphill struggle to maintain its attractiveness to employees (and consequently employers) in the long term without a rapid and sustainable investment in its infrastructure.

Geographically and politically situated in London, Croydon maintains a distinct identity from its prominent neighbour. The virtues of the town’s transport infrastructure, its increasing ability to attract prominent real estate developers, and a quietly growing tech scene are well-documented. However, the issue of how Croydon strategically positions itself to take advantage of the success of London, but also to future-proof itself against increasing competition on a global stage, requires some careful thought. For this, I will focus on three key areas; employment, culture and housing.

Employment

With considerable office space, a location midway between Central London and Gatwick Airport and a burgeoning tech sector, it appears that the town is prepared for a healthy and innovative economy.

The recent news that HMRC is to open a new London, South East and East of England regional centre, requiring 250,000 sq ft of office space, is welcome and indicative of the type of employment that Croydon should be targeting. With London office space increasingly costly and with space limited across all main sectors (West End, Midtown, City, City Fringe, Docklands and South Bank) Croydon is a suitable space for inexpensive government, SME and back office business offices. Whilst the town shouldn’t limit its ambition, realistically attracting the headquarters of major international corporations is unlikely. Providing good quality office space, whether new-build or refurbishment, at affordable prices should be a priority. The businesses and organizations will follow.

The tech sector in Croydon, increasingly established as an overall part of London’s own tech sector, should follow this model. Whilst it may be hard to compete with the South Bank and the City Fringe as locations for the most prominent tech sector companies, for start-ups and growing businesses the flexibility and accessibility Croydon provides is excellent.

A word of warning however – whilst Croydon can gain from a potential tech bubble pushing office rents in Central London out of the reach of smaller businesses, the economy in the town needs to remain diverse. An over-reliance on the tech industry, an industry where eye-watering figures are thrown around on a regular basis (such as mobile game Candy Crush selling for $5.9 billion and WhatsApp for $22 billion), could cause economic crisis locally and globally if confidence in the market fails.

Culture

On paper, Croydon’s capacity for providing a well-run, diverse cultural scene is obvious. The reality however is a little different, and perhaps requires the deepest thought.

What should be the centerpiece of Croydon’s cultural offering, the Fairfield Halls, is currently the centre of intense debate. What is a shame is the desire to see the centre closed for two years in the rather speculative hope that an expensive and lengthy redevelopment will rejuvenate the building and improve the offering of acts on display. Academically and practically, this makes no sense; a measured, ongoing (but longer) redevelopment with the halls remaining open is a wiser course of action – the Ashcroft Theatre should be redeveloped while the concert hall remains open and vice versa, for instance.

It is heartening to see the success of RISEgallery in Croydon and the growing of a coffee culture

Redevelopment will not necessarily attract better quality acts to Croydon – with London and its multitude of high quality venues a mere fifteen minutes way it will be difficult to capture new artists and audiences alike to the town regardless of the health of the venue. Instead, the Fairfield Halls should maintain its current offering, with the addition of a greater emphasis on quality local acts; Croydon is blessed with talent across all entertainment sectors, and the town serially fails to promote local acts to wide audiences.

Of course, local acts would have difficulty selling out the near-2,000 capacity concert hall, which is why a potential redevelopment should include greater flexibility with how the Fairfield Halls uses its space – the O2 Arena in Greenwich is a good model to follow, as it could include small clubs and music venues if space allows, and reaffirm its place as the best cultural centre in the southeast outside of Central London. Robert Ward’s excellent recent article on the topic expands upon this.

It is heartening to see the success of RISEgallery in Croydon and the growing of a coffee culture. Whilst this isn’t a differentiator from central London, Croydon can hardly afford to miss out on the current cycle of trendy coffee bars.

It is essential that Croydon maintains its cultural progress, enhancing the offering in the town centre to sit pleasantly alongside the new shopping centre at the beginning of the next decade.

Housing

Whilst the addition of national house-builders such as Berkeley and Redrow are much needed in Central Croydon, it is also important that the town offers a mix of housing options both in the centre and in the suburbs. High density housing around transport infrastructure, the model which is promoted by the Department for Communities and the Local government and followed by Croydon, is the correct solution in an era of incredible demand and scant supply; a Croydon which can provide a similar range of housing options as Zone 1 and 2 areas (although obviously proportional to what Croydon needs).

Quality development is welcome in the town centre for providing an option for well-paid professionals to live in Croydon and boost the local economy. Similarly, more affordable options are vital; the provision of Private Rented Sector housing, intermediate housing, and intermediate rental properties to sit alongside open market sales is an important strategy to making Croydon available to all, whether current residents or otherwise.

In addition, measured office to residential conversion is an important part of this, as long as:

a) It is produced to a good standard, and

b) It does not decrease office supply to unsustainable levels.

The finer details of the recent permanent extension of Permitted Development Rights have yet to be fully clarified by the government, but it will be interesting to see how Croydon may be affected by this.

Conclusion

I hope through my writing that, like me, you have realized that Croydon already has the ingredients needed to provide a cohesive place to work and live. Measured evolution rather than costly revolution is the path that Croydon needs to take in order to progress as a community and to reinforce its position as a highly flexible and diverse centre. This is but a small snapshot of the strategy that I believe Croydon needs to undertake to keep progressing towards a pleasant, sustainable community.

Croydon does of course retain its fair share of problems, and as all good marketers will maintain, a brand is what others perceive of you, rather than what you set it as. Maintaining an ‘Ambitious for Croydon’ rhetoric is admirable, but recent comments by Labour Croydon Council leader Tony Newman at the Develop Croydon conference held on 18th November, which suggested a renaming of East Croydon station to ‘Croydon International’ and the desire for the Fairfield Halls to equal the resurgence of the South Bank in central London, highlight the disparity between reasonable expectation and flawed thinking. Build, Croydon, but build a town which can support itself.

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. He is a strategic communications consultant specialising in the real estate sector, and counts a number of the world's largest investment and fund management companies amongst his clients.

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  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article.

  • Harley S

    Is this a sponsored piece of work? I’ve been reading the Citizen for a few months and the same organisations and people keep popping up. Is this a coincidence or do organisations pay for mentions?

    On another note, if Fairfield Halls maintains its current offering as you suggest, then we may as well give up now. Surely it needs to offer something new and attract new audiences? We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. That is madness. I have previously asked about who visits Fairfield – a demographic breakdown – which would either support or weaken your argument about the offering. I suspect they are mostly 55+ like me, and don’t reflect the vibrant and diverse Croydon that you speak of.

    Your article says very little about the actual people of Croydon, and focuses on the commodification of the town centre. Perhaps it’s the property developer in you, as per your introduction under the article?

    • Tom Lickley

      Hi Harley, thanks for your comment.

      I can confirm this is not a sponsored piece of work. Could you please elaborate on the organisations you believe keep ‘popping up’?

      With regards to your comment about Fairfield Halls, you will note I have written “Fairfield Halls should maintain its current offering, with the addition of a greater emphasis on quality local acts” – answering your concern about what I believe would offer something new and attract new audiences. I also suggest a revamped Fairfield Halls could include greater flexibility with its use of space, which could incorporate new facilities.

      Clearly my article is focused upon the built environment aspect of the town, but it is also fairly obvious that the article is suggestive of how the built environment can improve life for residents – e.g. attracting business to provide jobs, improving a cultural facility for the populace, expanding the housing offering for all in the town and those who wish/need to move to the area.

      I’m sorry that you believe my choice of career prevents me from making an objective opinion – I would encourage you to research how property development actually works, is funded and the financial risk involved before you arrive at hasty conclusions.

      • Harley S

        Thank you for responding. I do like the fact that writers always respond.

        My brother is property developer, so I have a good understanding of how it all works. My conclusions are not hasty, but merely my opinion.

        The organisations that keep popping up in nearly every article I have read are Tech City, Matthews Yard and the art gallery Rise. This is what led me to question whether they pay for mentions. If they don’t, they must be very pleased with the unsolicited patronage here.

      • Jonathan

        Hi Tom,

        I was just reading an article you wrote a few years ago …….

        http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/image-problems-croydons-nightlife-really-bad/

        I’m looking into the possibilities of opening a small live music venue (less than 350 people). London, North of the river, is heavily saturated with such venues so I have been researching my neck of the woods for potential locations.

        As someone with good knowledge of Croydon would you up for answering a few questions on the area & offering some advice?

        If you prefer, we could meet up and I’ll buy you a few drinks. I live in Streatham Hill & work in High St. Kensington.

        Regards

        Jonathan

        • Tom Lickley

          Hi Jonathan,

          I’d be more than happy to give some advice – please email me at: tom[dot]lickley[at]gmail[dot]com

          (The square brackets are to prevent spam!)

          Cheers

          Tom

          • Cidre

            Cheers Tom. Will be in touch soon!

        • hav singh

          Hi guys, I am a business owner in Croydon, and have always been interested in opening a music venue. From what I know, Croydon is a growing, developing town, and I would be interested in such a venture! Have you had any progression / willing to meet up and have a chat about any possible ideas?

          • Jonathan

            Hi Hav,

            Just seen your message.

            Do you have an email address you can be reached on for a private chat?

          • hav singh

            Hi, yes…

            Speak soon!

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Hi Harley, I’m the Citizen’s head of content and I can confirm that when we present sponsored content, as we do in our monthly printed gazette, this is always clearly indicated.

      I know what you mean – certain places and organisations *do* keeping popping up in Croydon: Matthew’s Yard, Croydon Tech City and RISE Gallery come immediately to my mind. This is because the people who run them work tremendously hard at what they do: events, meetings and shows are held in those places and interesting things happen there.

      Our goal is to feature as much that’s going on right across the borough as we possibly can: if something’s occurring, we encourage anyone who’d like to write about it to get in touch via .

      • Harley S

        Thank you for replying to me. I am so impressed that those involved in this paper take the time to respond.

        I’m glad that you see my point. I’ve been reading for a few months and thought those organisations were sponsors.

        Croydon is a big place. Surely Matthews Yard, Tech City and Rise Gallery are not the only places in Croydon where people work hard and where interesting things happen?

        As I have noted the mentions of those organisations a number of times, perhaps as content editor you could look to diversify? I enjoy reading the Advertiser, Guardian and Inside Croydon and they never show bias towards what I assume are commercial organisations? It would be against their journalistic code unless the organisations had some sort of paid agreement and readers were made aware.

        I am all for supporting the community and people who do good things, but shine the light on others for the sake of readers. Nobody likes an old boys’ network, no matter what form it takes.

        • Tom Black

          Hello again, Harley!

          ‘Surely Matthews Yard, Tech City and Rise Gallery are not the only places in Croydon where people work hard and where interesting things happen?’ seems a very unfair characterisation of Liz’s words, and in fact – though you doubtless don’t realise – comes across as somewhat rude. So too does your later implication about ‘journalistic codes’, though again I am sure you had no intention to offend.

          It’s clear that the medium of text is causing hackles to be raised, as it so often does. I am pleased that you like the fact that those of us on the editorial team take the time to respond – please allow me to go one better: would you like to meet up and discuss this in person? The Citizen makes use of free office space near East Croydon, and Liz and I are there most of the time. I know I’d be very happy to welcome you for a cup of something hot and discuss any issues or feedback you’d like to raised with us. This may seem a little extreme, but I’m a firm believer in taking advantage of the geographic proximity that ‘local internet’ creates: we all live near one another, so there’s plenty of opportunities to meet up. Something that cannot be said for the internet generally!

          In the spirit of what I said above about text being the worst medium to discuss disagreements, I won’t be responding further on this subject in text form. Please let me know when would be convenient for us to host you by emailing tom[dot]black[at]thecroydoncitizen[dot]com or, if you’d prefer, give us a call on the Citizen’s phone number, available here: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/contact-the-citizen/

          I look forward to hearing from you!

          • Harley S

            Thank you, again, for responding.

            I’m very sorry if you found my comments to be rude, as I try to be as courteous as possible. Your content editor agreed with what I said about the prominence of the organisations.

            I mentioned the code that journalists follow, as I am sure that you want to be as professional as possible. Again, this is not intended to be rude as it is based on facts.

            Thank you for the offer to meet, but I do not see why this is necessary as you provide a wonderful opportunity to comment here. I understand that you don’t want to continue further exchanges about this topic online, which is completely understandable.

            Here is what I found on Google. I hope this helps in some way; http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/editorial-ethics/243-integrity-for-journalists

            Editorial integrity is central to all a journalist does

            Without integrity your journalism is untrustworthy and suspect. Integrity gives a journalist the authority to investigate issues, shine a light in dark places and to dig where others don’t. It is essential for informing the public debate with trustworthy, rigorous journalism. In editorial terms it means the following:

            . not to endorse or appear to endorse any organisation, its products, activities or services.
            . not to give undue prominence to commercial products or services.

        • Ian Marvin

          Croydon Tech City is not a commercial organisation, and both RISE and Matthews Yard are unique in what they contribute to Croydon. I would add the Oval Tavern to the list but if you know of other interesting and innovative venues in Croydon I’m sure that the Citizen would welcome an article. It’s open to all as a community newspaper, I hope you are able to take James up on his offer. By the way I’m just a fellow Croydon resident with no particular affiliation.

          • Harley S

            I have been to the Oval Tavern – wonderful place for a pint!

            I am not one for article writing, but I do enjoy reading some things here and commenting. I admire those who have the inclination and time to write articles.

            I took the liberty of looking up Croydon Tech City and will certainly recommend it to my niece who lives in Wandsworth, as she is a tech enthusiast. It seems it is a limited company; albeit without share capital. https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/09328145