Central government does nothing for Croydon

By - Wednesday 22nd April, 2015

Neglected, screwed-over – Croydon’s history with central government is not a happy one, says James Naylor. What does that mean for the election?

In the 19th century, Croydon was the largest place in Britain not to be a county borough, failing to be granted the status until 1889, after which it had already exploded in size and commercial importance. Today, it is the largest town not to be a city, having lost out on a countless number of bids, often to improbably small or strange candidates that bear no resemblance to anything like the commonly-held concept of what a city is supposed to be. It was once London’s main airport, but its art deco terminal is now – beautiful though it is – sadly stranded in the middle of an industrial estate on the Purley Way, after government mandated in 1946 that Heathrow was to be London’s main airport.

The now highly controversial Croydon corporation act of 1956 – the legislation which enabled Croydon’s commercial explosion in the 1960s by empowering the council with extraordinary planning powers – appears to be the first time that central government did anything out of the ordinary for the town. But the facts are that the effort was largely self-directed. It wasn’t flagship government policy, nor even the dream of Whitehall mandarins, but a private members bill lobbied through parliament by the town’s forceful leader Sir James Marshall and his friends. Besides, if you’ve seen some of the architecture that resulted (you can’t miss it) or some of the buildings that were lost in the process (you will cry when you see them) you might not be convinced that the act should ever have been passed.

Even the results of that boom were more disappointing for the town’s coffers than one would hope. My grandmother’s own research of 1968 (a interest in Croydon, it seems, is very much in the blood) shows that while financial firms did come, the number of nationalised industries that took up the office space exceeded all expectations. This was bad for business rates as these employers were exempt from paying full rate under the system of the time. The boom and the structure of 1970s government had brought in lots of white collar jobs. But much less fortunately for the town, the Thatcher years which were to follow would see a great scythe taken, very quickly, to exactly this kind of employment.

Croydon – once again sitting awkardly as neither a wholly leafy commuter suburb, nor down-at-heel industrial town – got zilch

And this wasn’t the only problem it had to face at the time. It suffered another major indirect blow as as result of the government’s regeneration aspirations elsewhere in London. The creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation – or rather more accurately the vast office space that followed the original enterprise zone – created a very serious contender to Croydon’s out-of-city office space crown. While Croydon planners could talk complacently about the town’s low vacancy rates against Canary Wharf’s monumentally empty buildings in 1992, by the end of the decade Canary Wharf had the last laugh. In the era of ‘Big Bang’ for the finance industry, it took the Croydon concept of the ‘second centre’ far further. It achieved its ambition of becoming London’s other financial powerhouse. But, being built almost entirely on private land (facilitated by public money), it managed to do so in an even more carefully manicured and controlled way than the monomaniacal, centrally-planned desires of Sir James Marshall ever could.

Major employees began leaving. Some – like the Property Services Agency, whose headquarters were here until its end in 1993 – were disbanded altogether. By this time, Croydon was no match for Canary Wharf’s financial play: with new buildings, distortingly cheap rents and the Jubilee line extension on its way. The Home Office became the last really large government employer in town, and its gifts are very dubious. Local governments of both political complexions have consistently lobbied the government to pay more for the inevitable pressures on local services having the Border Agency’s central processing centre on the doorstep.

Under Tony Blair’s Labour things didn’t get much better. Even with a politically allied town hall for 12 years, Croydon got very little love from central government. Regeneration money ran like water for Britain’s distressed regional cities (Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham). But Croydon – once again sitting awkwardly as neither a wholly leafy commuter suburb, nor a down-at-heel industrial town – got zilch. Liverpool might once have been slated for managed decline but Croydon’s decline was wholly unmanaged by government, and nobody seemed to care.

National policy massively affects Croydon: far more than conferral of city status, a growth zone, and maybe even a corporation act

The recently announced Croydon Growth Zone is the very first time in my memory that central government has announced any real assistance to our town in a very long time. But you’ll forgive me for a measured response; the actual sum is a pretty pitiful £7 million which, being spent by a Conservative-led government in a conservative marginal seat, doesn’t seem wholly motivated by a belief in the town’s potential.

This is why my vote won’t be bought by anyone’s promises to do anything for Croydon specifically. I don’t believe that any government will. I might once have been angry about it, but now I’m resigned. More importantly, recent developments prove that we don’t need the government’s help. Whether it comes from community activism, small business or big investment, the actions of local politicians and civil servants, Croydon is clearly doing it for itself with or without central government’s help.

This election is about national policy. The fact is that this national policy massively affects Croydon: far more than conferral of city status, a growth zone, and maybe even a corporation act. What happens to housing costs, public service levels across the board, wages, jobs and much more will be decided at the national level, not the local level – much as we’d like it to be otherwise. Your rent, your mortgage payments, your bills, your wages, the many public services you make use of, what the whole country looks like, all depend on what the government does. So read party policy, find out what Croydon’s candidates believe, and listen to what people are saying about the issues. There’s no better place to start than right here. In this month’s print edition of the Croydon Citizen, Croydon’s central candidates get a grilling with tough questions, our political editor tries to predict several election outcomes and citizen writers from across the political spectrum share their views on what matters most.

Then when you’ve made up your mind, damn well go out and vote on 7th May – whomever you vote for.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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