Is Boxpark’s boss right about Croydon town centre? (Part two)

By - Wednesday 25th April, 2018

As Roger Wade calls out complacency amongst the town centre’s managers, is there a growing crisis in Croydon?

Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

In the first part of this article, I questioned Boxpark CEO Roger Wade’s recent statement in the Croydon Advertiser that ‘complacency’ on the part of Croydon Council, the developers active in the area and Croydon’s creatives is holding back the town centre’s development. What else isn’t working in the heart of Croydon?

Who is spending money, and on what, and how will that change in the near future? These are the questions which are vital to the area’s success. Boxpark’s clientele appear to be largely people under thirty, who often have limited spending power. Many others only come into the area to use East Croydon railway station. Once the Whitgift Centre closes for demolition next year, the numbers who visit the town centre area to shop will decrease still further. Those who still come will head for Surrey Street market, Centrale and the surviving shops on North End and in George Street. They are likely to do so by tram (to George Street or Tamworth Road), by bus (to Park Street) and by train to West Croydon station. Why would they then want to cross the urban motorway, Wellesley Road, to get to Boxpark? There are eateries nearer at hand.

As Roger Wade remarked in his interview with the Advertiser: “we have some major social issues in Croydon, and Croydon is in a state of flux”. Yes, there is growing social inequality, with one quarter of Croydon’s children living in poverty, and the government’s austerity welfare cuts impoverishing families, low-waged working families, pensioners reliant on state pensions and people with physical and mental disabilities. The developers’ schemes so far have simply aggravated the pressures across the borough through the rising cost to buy or rent the new flats in the town centre. The top four non-housing association landlords operating in the borough receive nearly £6 million a year in housing benefit, necessary to help tenants on low incomes pay their rising rents.

Town-centre footfall will continue to decline during the construction of Westfield

Wade comments that “we’ve got a strong (South End) restaurant quarter”. Really? Down in South End, there seems to be a high turnover of short-term ventures. As the retail offer declines in the town centre during the building of Westfield, there will be a further reduction in footfall. Boxpark is a competitor, then when the new Westfield opens, both Boxpark and the quarter will face more competition from the promised eateries within it. There are also a growing number of restaurants in the various districts of Croydon, which may well attract residents living nearby to use them rather than coming into the town centre.

“We’re going to hopefully see Fairfield Halls back very soon”, Wade goes on. Yes, it is scheduled to open next year. The council’s decision not to phase the refurbishment lost footfall into the town centre during the two-and-a-half-year renovation. Now the new Fairfield Halls is promising a much-improved eating experience. Once it has attracted back its former audiences and won new ones, they may choose to eat there before a performance, rather than at Boxpark before dashing round to the Fairfield Halls. Many who now come into the town centre in the evenings attend events at venues such as Matthews Yard, the Spread Eagle pub theatre, East Croydon United Reformed church hall, Ruskin House and the Oval Tavern. There’s already food on sale in most of those, or it’s available close by.

Will workers stay for evening entertainment when they know their train home is unreliable?

Wade points out that the housing market is stalling. This is to be welcomed – it will peg the rise in sale prices and rents in the new-build flats. That will make them more affordable for some, and give others more disposable income to spend in the town centre.

The increase in footfall that Wade hopes for may come partly from the increasing number of people now working at the Home Office and new office buildings such as HMRC in Ruskin Square. Many of them have been re-located from central London. But commuters’ work and family pressures may prevent them from staying here into the evening, especially when they know that their homeward journey by train from East Croydon is unreliable.

Another major source of new footfall should be the new residents in the town centre towers. But many are commuters up to London, where there are far more attractions in the evening.

Will shoppers be prepared to walk to Boxpark?

Assuming that they are prepared to put up with the traffic congestion, the third potential group who may be attracted into the town centre when the new Westfield opens will be shoppers driving in from Surrey, Sussex and Kent. But as Westfield centres all deliver a strong food offering, why would this group bother to walk to Boxpark?

The growing crisis of Croydon town centre is what we now face. If the council (under both administrations) had listened to people and their organisations over the last decade, we would still have, for example, the Warehouse Theatre on Dingwall Road, and a partially open Fairfield Halls, plus a good size museum and art gallery in SEGAS House in Park Lane, and a major aviation museum at Kenley Airfield, all retaining and attracting new footfall into the town centre and the borough. As for the new Westfield, its cultural and leisure offer is limited to a cinema complex and a bowling alley – no dance hall, swimming pool and courts for indoor tennis, handball and hockey, despite the large increase in residents in the town centre.

The clock cannot be turned back. As Croydon’s local elections take place, neither party has a clear strategy for the future. Whoever wins inherits the uncertainty and the funding shortfall for the infrastructure changes required by the planned schemes. Flawed as it is, the Croydon Local Plan, which is supposed to set the framework for new development, has already been undermined by the new proposals of the London Mayor which will mean that new housing increasingly dominates future development at the expense of infrastructure services and green spaces.

Roger Wade is right that the outlook is bleak

With continuing reductions in government funding, the council will be able to do less and less. The continuation of the executive Leader and Cabinet model will continue to stifle the creativity and influence of all councillors, and meaningful influence from Croydonians and their organisations.

Wade is right that the immediate future for the town centre is bleak – but I believe that he has not fully understood why. It has been difficult enough, if not sometimes seemingly impossible, to protect the things we like and change the things we like less to make them things we can like more. If there are people who believe that as a space, Boxpark is an opportunity to be positively developed, good luck to them. There may be more important campaigns to be run. However, if it were to be converted into a social enterprise, this would fundamentally change its public image. It could also look to re-locate to another site when Stanhope wants the current one back. And that new site could also incorporate cultural and leisure facilities that people want – which are not going to be provided by the developers or the council.

As people question the candidates for Croydon’s local council in the current elections, they could usefully ask them how they see the future of Boxpark and the site it is currently on.

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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  • Charlotte Davies

    I think that the outlook is bleak for all towns that have been at the sharp end of the cuts to local authority funding. No wonder Surrey called for and obtained extra funding voted in when our own MP’s then Barwell and Philps voted for cuts to Croydon, but supported Surrey. However, I am a true believer that if we want something to happen it can. There are many great initiatives that have happened in Croydon that have made a difference, but they have tended to come from the grassroots, driven by focused and inspired individuals. We can choose to work together to make those initiatives sustainable or we can leave them to wither. The politicians and the Council officers and companies also have to make those choices to ensure that we do not see volunteer burnout.
    Boxpark is a bit of fun for those that like the hype, but it is an expensive, draughty place to sit for a meal. It is an adjunct to Croydon. The real day to day life happens in the communities, at the school gates, in the centers of faith, in the sports clubs, in parks and cafes. There at the grassroots there is still a deep well of generosity and good neighbourliness throughout our borough and all of those people seek a good quality of basic life. Uncertainty is not good for communities or the economy.