A better place? Croydon’s new Place Directorate gets to work on Thornton Heath High Street

By - Monday 11th May, 2015

Sean Creighton takes a look at how Thornton Heath High Street might lead to better things

Opposite Thornton Heath station in Brigstock Road stands Ambassador House, an empty office block. Its owners could convert it into flats without requiring planning permission under government rules. Croydon Council would not be able to control the number and mix of units and therefore could not guarantee it will contribute to its planning policy for 60% of new housing units outside the town centre to contain three or more bedrooms (i.e. constitute family accommodation).

That’s just one of the challenges facing the council and those living and running businesses in Thornton Heath as they begin to work together on the spending of £2.7m funding allocated to improve Brigstock Road and Thornton Heath High Road.

The Place Directorate is intended to join up fragmented sections of local government

At a well-organised and constructive council meeting held on Saturday 29th March, attended by about 60 members of the public – including members of the area’s Committee Action team – and local councillors, council officers explained the preliminary ideas in the bid which obtained the funding: public realm improvements (for example, seating and signage), business support (such as shop fronts improvements) and skills training and apprenticeships. The money was being provisionally allocated to capital works for public realm improvements – £1.87m, with £570k for shop fronts and £250k for business support. The amount of money per square metre of the road is considerably less than the similar funding awarded for other parts of the borough. While the business support work is likely to start in July 2015, capital works take longer to authorise and may not start until January 2017.

There were several key council officers present from the new Place Directorate, which brings together previously fragmented sections of local government into a more joined up structure. Local councillors were also present as were members of the Thornton Heath Action Team.

Priorities are pedestrian flow, heritage assets and sections needing particular attention

After the formal explanations there was plenty of time for questions and discussion. The issues raised fell into two broad categories: problems that need to be addressed as part of normal council activities (such as street cleaning, fly-tipping, shops with no waste collection licences, shops that have displays on the pavement, lack of cleanliness of some shops, and pavement repairs). Some of these relate to the side streets. Notes were made of these for discussion back with officers’ colleagues in the Place Directorate.

The second set of issues included actions that could form part of the funded programme. The Action Team explained its priorities: pedestrian flow, heritage assets, the stretch between the job centre and the church and library, but stressed that it did not want to see work undertaken to small parts of the road with little done to improve the sections in between.

The dialogue is to continue. Interestingly two officers suggested that it would be helpful to have regular meetings with a smaller group of people perhaps chosen at the meeting. This suggestion did not find favour at this stage because people did not yet know each other. Such meetings would also run alongside broader meetings as well. Clearly this is something that the councillors and the Thornton Heath Action team can work on over the next few months.

The quotes will be confidential – we must ensure that safeguards requested by local people are included

An issue of particular concern is the nature of any contract for physical works to be carried out. Would there be open tendering? Would the successful contractor be required to employ local labour and offer local apprenticeships? The officers indicated that they might choose an alternative approach to tendering which would be to add the work to an existing contract for similar works elsewhere in the borough as this could be cheaper. Cllr Butler said that the contract would be subject to social value criteria. What was not said was that the contract will be subject to legally required commercial confidentiality. Therefore an important question to be considered is for the contract to be drafted in consultation with local people to ensure that the safeguards they have raised are built in.

There are also several issues that councillors and residents could usefully discuss in detail with officers about business support. Many of the retailers do not own their buildings. Works to shop fronts may need the permission of their landlords. An officer suggested that experience elsewhere suggests that a more uniform approach to shop fronts and frontages is achieved through the council funding 100% of the works rather than expecting the shop keepers/owners to contribute.

We must look for potential accommodation over shops

This however means that there is an increase in the value of the premises which could raise business rates rents. Consideration could be given to expecting landlords to agree to freeze rent levels – say for five years – and to pay the funding back if they sell at the higher value before the end of five years. The proposed Council Development Company could perhaps become involved in buying out those landlords who are resistant to change.

When the council undertakes its business survey it should include a section about the use of upper floors to see if there is living over the shop potential, which can help to strengthen the economic viability of the business. Any flats subsequently created could be managed by the council or a housing association. The business survey could also include a section of crime, crime prevention and security so that this can be improved as part of frontage works. The question of enhancing buildings of local heritage interest was raised, including the local clocktower.

For local people wishing to make their voices heard, Thornton Heath Community Action Team can be contacted here.

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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  • Anne Giles

    I never realised Ambassador House was empty. I used to teach there.