Counterfactual Croydon: #OccupyCroydon

By - Tuesday 14th January, 2014

After speculating about the defence of Croydon against the Wehrmacht and imagining a Croydon-centric atmospheric railway, Tom Black explores the possibilities of Croydon’s financial sector

Photo by Haydn. Used and modified under Creative Commons License.

Photo by Haydn. Used and modified under Creative Commons License.

The following is a work of speculative historical fiction. For narrative purposes it is written as though it actually happened. 

The camp in Exchange Square has become a popular destination for tourists and well-wishers. I’ve been walking past it every day for the past week, and yesterday I decided it was time to see what the fuss was all about. Although people wearing ubiquitous ‘anonymous’ masks were roaming around the perimeter of the area, I quickly noticed that it was a lot friendlier than the Daily Mail has made out.

Welcomed by a smiling young man with glasses and a short redheaded girl, I soon found myself in a tent. Leaflets, posters and bottles of water were everywhere. Outside, I could hear a small group of people singing folk songs. Was this the ‘dangerous hotbed of radicalism’ the national press had warned me about?

“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” said Harry, the man with glasses, “we’ve come to Croydon because it’s one of the biggest financial centres in the western world.”

“Think of it as a visit from reality,” chipped in the redheaded girl, who then suggested I go check out the informal ‘meeting space’ outside The Pump Station. The pub closed its doors when the protestors arrived, but reopened three days ago when representatives of Occupy made clear they were not interested in causing a disturbance. Not that many ‘Occupiers’ will be patronising the establishment – as a ‘safe space’, intoxication is prohibited in the Exchange Square camp.

As I sat in the sun and listened to a long-haired local man play soulful jazz guitar in the square, I found myself wondering how we ended up here. Not we, the citizens of the post-Lehman Brothers world. The process by which we entered recession is fairly obvious. But how did Croydon reach this point? Tell someone from the 1960s that Croydon would be a centre of finance second only to the city of London and they’d probably laugh in your face. I turned to the man sat next to me, who to my surprise was David White, the former MP. We shook hands and I explained what I’d just been thinking about.

“I suppose,” he said after a moment, “it began with Moore in the early 1980s.”

Investment in Croydon’s transport infrastructure would tip the balance and allow Croydon to become a ‘second city’

John Moore, Prime Minister from 1989 to 1996, was MP for Croydon Central until his retirement at the 2000 election. A favourite of Mrs Thatcher, he gained the nickname ‘Mr Privatisation’ for his major role in the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984. When the Docklands redevelopment faltered later that year, Moore suggested to Thatcher that a Croydon Development Corporation be established.

Moore’s reasoning was simple and effective. Investment in the Docklands was necessary, but there was no guarantee that the area would be able to draw in big financial investors. Croydon, on the other hand, had enjoyed a moderate boom in office space since the war but had never quite managed to successfully attract the head offices of major companies. Moore argued that investment in Croydon’s transport infrastructure – including a proposal for a light railway between East Croydon station and the financial centre of the borough – would tip the balance and allow Croydon to become a ‘second city’.

Most attractive to Mrs Thatcher (and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Patrick Jenkin), however, was the price tag. Shifting focus to Croydon was the undeniably cheaper option, focusing as it did on bolstering existing investment rather than building a whole new financial centre from scratch. By the end of 1985, the CDC was operational. By the summer of ’86, the Croydon Corporation Act 1956 had been revived to create an ‘Enterprise Zone’.

The construction of swathes of new offices, combined with uniquely competitive business rates, meant Croydon was on the up. Over the next five years, foreign firms like Zurich moved to town, and the opening of the light railway (named ‘Tramlink’) revolutionised Croydon’s reputation and its accessibility. The champagne was opened when in 1991, HSBC became the first bank to announce a move of its UK headquarters to Croydon. N M Rothschild, long present in Rothschild House, consolidated their presence in the town with the construction of the neighbouring Rothschild Building in 1992.

When Mrs Thatcher gave the ‘bolt from the blue’ speech that signalled her shock resignation in 1989, Moore was her obvious successor. He duly defeated a grumbling Michael Heseltine in the Tory leadership election. Future Conservative leader Ken Clarke received 19 votes but was knocked out in the first round. In less than ten years, Croydon had got on its way to becoming a financial powerhouse – and now it had a powerful friend in Downing Street.

By the millennium, Croydon was almost unrecognisable to anyone who had grown up in the borough

The rest of the story is well known: the construction of Britain’s tallest office block at 1 Matthews Yard, the controversy over the eventual closure of Surrey Street Market in 1994, the skyrocketing house prices on London Road, and the late 1990s accusations of ‘social cleansing’ driving out Croydon’s traditional population. By the millennium, Croydon was almost unrecognisable to anyone who had grown up in the borough. Skyscrapers on every street and square-jawed men in pin-striped suits and slicked-back hair (a post-yuppie look nicknamed ‘the Croydon facelift’)  were the things people pictured when they heard the word ‘Croydon’.

In 2008, when Lehman Brothers went under, their Croydon HQ was the site of a small demonstration. It was Goldman Sachs’ UK headquarters on Wellesley Road, however, that saw the brunt of the protests in 2009. Now, two years later, angered by ‘government inaction and banker arrogance’, the Occupy movement has set up camps worldwide, in New York, London, and now Croydon. The Exchange Square protest shows no sign of going anywhere, thanks the support of many Croydon residents and donations of food and supplies from locals. The police are keeping a watchful eye on the whole thing, but with the Vicar of Croydon, Colin Boswell, regularly checking in on the camp, it’s no surprise the officers don’t want to make a scene in front of the world’s press.

Speaking of which, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish The Dockland Citizen the very best in their efforts to rebuild their area’s reputation after last year’s riots. If Croydon’s story since the 1970s has shown one thing, it is that fortunes can change. But, as the bankers inside 1 Matthews Yard know as well as the people camping outside it, they can change for the worse, too.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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