Whose voice will be heard at the Develop Croydon forum?

By - Monday 16th November, 2015

With November’s Develop Croydon Forum Conference taking place on Wednesday, Sean Creighton asks what’s really developing

“Democracy is expensive and a privilege; a fair fee will remind the poor of that. Anyway, am I not worth the price?” So wrote solicitor Robert Hardy-McBride on his Twitter parody of Gavin Barwell (@Gav_Barwell). He was referring to the £350 + VAT ticket cost of attending the Develop Croydon Forum Conference on 18th November.

The community and voluntary organisation cannot afford to attend; the cost is way beyond their financial capabilities. In light of DC’s refusal to make free or reduced price tickets available when asked by Tracey Hague of the Green Party and others, I leave it to readers to decide whether Hardy-McBride has hit the nail on the head.

Susan Oliver, Croydon Transition Town activist and opponent of the Whitgift Centre redevelopment at the CPO Inquiry, has therefore started a petition calling on DC to make twenty-five tickets available to individuals living in borough at £25 so that some Croydonians can attend. You can see the petition here.

They should have called it the ‘make a profit out of Croydon’ conference

Peter Underwood (@GreenPeterU) of the Croydon Green Party has tweeted that he can’t afford to go. “They clearly don’t want our views on how to develop Croydon, and instead of #developcroydon they should have been honest and just called it the #makeaprofitoutofcroydon conference”. Meanwhile, citizen Michael Boulton (@michaelboulton8) commented: “Think we know how they want to develop Croydon. As many blocks of flats as possible, Westfield and to hell with small business”.

The latest block to be unveiled is the proposed fifty-seven storey, £500m skyscraper to be built by the Chinese as part of a UK government deal made during the recent visit of the Chinese president. Of course, this is subject to Croydon Council’s discretion in granting planning permission. However, it would be unprecedented for our centralist government to force a building project on Croydon – so much for localism.

All this, plus buy-to-let landlords reducing the home owner stock, is pushing up house prices and rents, which makes it more and more difficult for low and middle earners to afford to stay in Croydon.

The Labour administration is trying to do many positive things

However, all is not negative. Despite being sucked into the running of Croydon as a corporate local state through organisations like DC, the Labour administration is trying to do many positive things.

  • Its private rented licensing scheme came into effect on 1st October: with over 23,000 rented properties being subject to licence applications. The addresses will go on a public register
  • The opt-out of national planning rules so that developers like Criterion Capital (at Delta House) can no longer turn empty offices into undersized studio and one bedroom flats in the town centre without planning permission
  • Its refusal to give AA Homes planning permission to turn Lunar House into 904 flats because of the lack of both a s106 agreement to restrict resident parking permits, and information on transportation impacts
  • Its leasing of former office blocks converted into flats for homeless families, improving their temporary living conditions and saving money on housing them in expensive bed and breakfast accommodation
  • The increase in its own house building schemes, with eighty sites identified, but not yet made public
  • The employment of its own in-house architecture team

The fact that the Labour administration plans to build new housing designed by its own architects is excellent news. It provides a great opportunity to create green housing through energy and water efficiency, waste water re-cycling, solar panels, high level of insulation to prevent heat loss, and high levels of sound proofing to reduce noise pollution. I would stress that the provision of gardens for family homes will also need to be factored in, along with communal gardens where it is only possible to build blocks of flats. Broadband connections should be provided into each new home to help reduce the digital divide.

From 1976-1982 I worked for Solon Housing Association which operated across South London and supported housing co-operatives in North London. The architect teams at each office were talented and imaginative, constructing high-standard new build as well as conversions: Waterfall Terrace in Tooting and the disability homes on Bolingbroke Road are two examples that spring to mind. They were able to draw on the views of existing tenants and, where it was known, that of those who would be moving in.

It should be built into the requirements for the Croydon architecture team to consult existing and prospective tenants, especially where they are designing for disabled council tenants who need to move into appropriate housing, as well as to take the advice of green activists.

Does the council serve residents of Croydon or private company shareholders?

One of the problems that faces architects and their clients is that however good the design and the quantity surveyors’ schedules of work and the budget, there are always unforeseen events which can push up the cost. Architects can too easily agree those extra costs, and it will be important that the council ensures that all potential cost increases are reviewed by other staff before architects issue new instructions.

Last year, Croydon TUC’s working party recommended the setting up of a direct building team to work on council housing and other projects, and support to building workers’ co-operatives. While this will create its own set of problems, the council can dispense with dealing with private building companies who are trying to make a profit for their owners and shareholders, which is why they are so insistent on being paid extra costs. The direct labour team will only have to break even; it can avoid going bankrupt during the contract which is a problem with private builders. I recall finding a solution at Solon to prevent a builder on a new build scheme from going bankrupt before completion. Handover was achieved before it went into administration, meaning we only had to enter into a contract with a new builder to handle any defects work.

Returning to Develop Croydon, the council is of course a partner, and is therefore party to the financial exclusion of community representatives from the conference. It is going to have to decide whether it is elected to serve the residents of Croydon or private company shareholders.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Susan Oliver

    Many thanks for this article, Sean, and for alerting people to the petition.

    I am concerned about Develop Croydon for many reasons. First, I am afraid of its power over politicians and planning. The fact that it can bring democratically-elected officials to speak at a very undemocratic gathering shows that it has our politicians at its beck and call. This year, Tony Newman spoke, and last year it was Barwell, Fisher, Letts and (I believe) Reed. This means it has power over both parties.

    Secondly, I am concerned about how the culture of Croydon is being affected by Develop Croydon. On the day of the conference, Chris Baynes published this grim article about the Croydon Food Bank: http://www.croydonguardian.co.uk/news/14037550.display/ in which Founder and Director Fatima Koroma warns about the possible closure of the facility despite the growing need. Ms Kororma stated that the Food Bank needs at least a £20,000 a year to stay open.

    £20K? Richard Plant probably keeps that kind of money in his sock drawer.

    Property developers could do a lot to aid the Food Bank and other social concerns – and yet none of the social needs and problems of Croydon were addressed at the conference. No appeal was made to benefit any local charity despite the fact that each delegate paid £295 for a ticket (the early bird rate – the regular rate was £350).

    In fact, I don’t recall Develop Croydon giving one penny to the 2011 riot recovery.

    What we’re looking at here is an organisation that clearly does not acknowledge the human needs of the borough. I wonder how much of that is rubbing off on the Croydon – is it becoming a place where the wealthy can just ignore the suffering of other residents?

    Is Develop Croydon advocating the idea that developers can just take, take, take and not give anything back?

    From what I’ve seen: yes.