What does Croydon need in 2018?

By - Wednesday 13th December, 2017

Six contributors to the Citizen met up for a roundtable discussion on where Croydon’s community, cultural scene and economy are right now, and what they’ll need in the coming year. Tom Black reports

Clockwise from top left: Josi Kiss, James Naylor, Rob O’Sullivan, Maddy Duxbury, Shaniqua Benjamin, Andy Dickinson.
Photos by Stephen Black, used with permission.

In last month’s edition of the Citizen, editor-in-chief James Naylor reflected on the publication’s first five years by assessing the progress of Croydon’s regeneration in that time. One section of his article struck a particular chord with readers, some of whom got in touch to echo this paragraph:

“In the last eighteen months, the changes have stalled. Many of Croydon’s mega building projects have been cancelled, delayed, or scaled back. Boxpark’s launch has not come without other problems, and several of those wonderful early initiatives, like Croydon Radio, are no longer with us. Looming largest behind all of this, Westfield has been delayed again.”

The Westfield retail centre project (technically managed by the Croydon Partnership), received planning permission for its revised proposal a few weeks after James’s sentiments were printed, but social media soon carried claims that the new start date in early 2019 simply constituted yet another delay. It’s against this backdrop of uncertainty that we decided on the cover story for this edition. It’s the question that everyone in Croydon should be asking. Forget what we’ve been promised, ignore what we’re told is or isn’t possible, step away from existing plans. What does our borough actually need in 2018?

We need to make people aware of what’s really going on

The Citizen is a platform for its contributors, so we decided to invite some of them to an open discussion. Drawing from different sectors, we put together a panel of six people with a stake in Croydon. Our group met on the 11th floor of One Croydon, locally known as the 50p building or the threepenny bit building (depending on how old you are). It’s home to Sussex Innovation Croydon, the centre of the Citizen‘s day-to-day operations. Setting up a table by a window with a view from East Croydon down George Street, our participants arrived and the evening began with introductions.

Andy Dickinson described himself as a ‘mushroom grower’, but he’s also the green-fingered activist behind Croydon’s urban mushroom farm and a serial festival organiser (recently culminating in Croydon’s Summer of Love). Shaniqua Benjamin is a poet who has lived in Croydon all of her life, and runs Young People Insight, described as ‘a platform that empowers the voices of young people’. Maddy Duxbury moved here eighteen months ago and works in PR and marketing. Through running East Croydon Cool, comprised of both a website and a Instagram account, Maddy promotes Croydon to newcomers and potential renters and buyers looking for options.

Rob O’Sullivan is the co-founder of Shaking Hands, a local partnership described as ‘one of the fastest-growing businesses in Croydon’. He’s also a small business commissioner, and said that his role is all about ‘identifying problems facing businesses in Croydon’, as well as promoting the Good Employer Charter, which includes the London Living Wage. Josi Kiss is chair of the Friends of Park Hill Park, has run both dance and peace festivals, and is a director of Made In Croydon, which supports local designers and makers. James Naylor, as above, is the editor-in-chief of the Croydon Citizen and still an occasional town tour guide. He served as the informal chair of the discussion.

Introductions over, James asked the key question: what does Croydon need in 2018?

“More cultural spaces”, replied Shaniqua, to immediate nods. “Matthews Yard is closing down. If we want to be London’s first borough of culture, we need to utilise more of the spaces we have and make people more aware of what’s going on.”

There’s enormous good will in Croydon

Rob agreed that Croydon has a pretty good cultural offering. “It’s about making sure that people know about it”, Josi emphasised. “There’s an ‘underground’ sense of culture for many locals, but we don’t shout about it. I’ve identified twenty relatively large spaces in central Croydon. But little is done to publicise them.”

“So is it just the case”, asked James, “that there are spaces, but the word isn’t being spread about them?”

It wasn’t quite so simple, suggested Josi. “There are so many social media platforms for promotion. A new one opens every week!” But despite projects like WhatsOnCroydon, featured as a page in the Citizen for more than six months now and viewable at tram stops, the panel agreed that there still isn’t an undisputed central information hub that everyone knows. Fixing that in 2018 was a big priority for our panel.

Rob agreed. “I don’t think good will is missing in Croydon”, he pointed out. “TURF Projects has just been given four floors of space in the Whitgift Centre, for free, for an art space.”

James had spotted something worth exploring. “If there’s this underground arts scene that’s bubbling away”, he asked, “and Stanley Halls is three minutes from Norwood Junction station – why is it empty?”. Josi responded: “People don’t know where Stanley Halls is. Anywhere else in London, that beautiful building would be a hotbed of activity.”

Central Croydon is going to be the powerhouse

Shaniqua agreed. “It’s beecause of where Stanley Halls is – it’s outlying. It’s great that we have central venues, but there’s too much focus on the town centre.”

“It sounds like there’s also no central co-ordination point for the community”, James remarked. “Do you think there’s a problem with Croydon being politically divided, so that focus on one part of the borough makes people in another part upset?”

Rob was unsure. “I think that having a lot of voices means having a good cultural offering. But the eight districts need to be united in their delivery. You can’t that deny central Croydon will be the powerhouse.”

“Anyway”, James pointed out, “isn’t there a paradox here? We’re saying there’s a lot of cultural activity but nobody hears about it – and yet if cultural activity increases in the district centres even more, won’t that make it more diffuse?”.

“I don’t think that it would diffuse it”, countered Maddy. “There just needs to be one cohesive message across it all, to put everything under the umbrella of ‘Croydon’.”

Can a coherent message about ‘Croydon culture’ actually work?

James considered this point in relation to London’s other boroughs. “Some were absorbed into London whole, and others were artificial creations, such as Hackney. And if you think about ‘the culture of Hackney’ – well, does anyone actually think that? Surely it’s ‘the culture of Stoke Newington’ or ‘the culture of Shoreditch’? Isn’t Croydon like that too? Can the concept of Croydon’s culture and a coherent message actually work?”

Josi shared an experience which seemed to underline this. “Looking for artists to join Made In Croydon, we found people who had to be convinced that they even lived here. ‘No, no’, they’d say, ‘we’re in Crystal Palace…’.”

Maddy argued that were Croydon to win the title of London’s first Borough of Culture (we’ll know the results in February) the creation of a sense of ‘Croydon-wide culture’ would be boosted. She believed that it’s already partially there, and the group agreed.

“Croydon’s in the Evening Standard for the wrong reasons – property, new-builds and conversions”, Rob pointed out, “not the ‘greenest borough’ reputation that it should have”. Shaniqua also criticised the constant ‘property’ message. “You see so many spaces that are run down. Why hasn’t more love been given to these things? Open another new restaurant? Really? How much can we actually eat?!”

Croydon needs two different kinds of PR, one within the borough and one for the rest of London

Josi tackled the issue of negative perception head on. “Some people are terrified of coming into the centre of Croydon, because they have a perception of crime and gang violence.” Shaniqua had experienced the same. “My friends say ‘oh, Croydon’s a ghetto’, but talking to friends who’ve gone to live in Leeds, I hear of worse stuff happening there. But it’s Croydon that gets the reputation.”

“It sounds like we need two kinds of PR”, said Maddy. “A lot more internal PR within the borough, but also external PR to tell the rest of London that Croydon’s great.”

Josi raised the much-publicised issue of knife crime.”There’s a fear of this among people who don’t live here. But it’s primarily about gang problems.”

“Surely”, countered James, “if that’s true, parents will still worry about their children getting pulled into that world and into harm’s way?”. There is some evidence that those instrumental in changing the town centre are aware of the complexity of such issues. Rob pointed out that Westfield has hired an adviser who studied gang crime in South America.

“It comes back to young people having nothing to do”, said Josi. Shaniqua’s work setting up Young People Insight is all about tackling this.

If you don’t operate sustainably, how much good will you ever do?

James had noticed a theme emerging. “A concrete thing that we’re agreeing Croydon needs in 2018 is improved perception. Shaniqua, you mentioned more spaces for young people. Is that the only fix?”

“No. Giving them a youth centre wouldn’t fix it all. But it would be a step towards making them think that the place they live has something to offer them.”

Rob had a simple message for social enterprises wishing to stay the course. “Rather than relying on funding, build longevity into your model from the start. If you aren’t operating sustainably, there’s a limit on how much good you’ll ever do.” Andy also raised the lack of direction and sustainability as a further case for a central platform for publicity.

“We need the kind of co-ordination would prevent a food festival in South Croydon and another in West Croydon on the same day”, he said. (This is something that actually happened a couple of years ago.) Josi insisted that if certain big organisations got on board with a single promotional platform, others would follow. RISE Gallery was named as one such organisation. Maddy stressed that “to work, it has to be huge, and it has to involve everyone in Croydon”. Perhaps a community radio station could fill that role – the now-defunct Croydon Radio was praised for its news and events listings. Andy pointed out that we might soon get a new service with Croydon FM.

Grime culture is problematic in a discussion about role models

Shaniqua threw the panel a curveball: “We go on about stars who’ve come from Croydon (such as Stormzy), but what are we and they doing to help new people coming up?”. Maddy agreed. “What about leveraging their success to help new artists?”

It was Rob who raised the elephant in the room regarding the most in-vogue genre performed by Croydon’s musicians at the moment – grime. The panel was delicate about it, but nobody denied that a lot – though not all – of grime is problematic in a conversation about role models. The backdrop to the discussion is a wish to reduce gang crime and also the global #MeToo movement, in which women who have experienced sexual harassment speak out using that hashtag. This turns out to be an awful lot of women. Moreover, James spotted a potential contradiction in messaging. “If your music is about coming through difficult times and leaving a bad place behind, is that really compatible with giving back?”

Stormzy, for example, recently gained many plaudits for paying for a young person to attend Harvard. It was pointed out that that sort of money would build a recording studio in Croydon and kit it out. James ran with this idea. “A multimedia arts centre? Some people who are in a very positive financial position could be associated with it, and make a huge impact on lots of people.” Andy proposed the former Blue Orchid venue on Park Lane as its location.

Gentrification isn’t all bad – it brings in new talents and fresh perspectives

It was time to talk numbers, money, and economics. What does Croydon’s economy need in 2018? “Confidence”, said Rob straight away. “We need to have confidence in the changes that are happening, and that will make them work. Gentrification is natural in any London borough, but I think that it’s going to be hugely accelerated in Croydon.”

The G-word had been mentioned, and discussion of housing stock then became lively. Croydon’s new office-conversion apartments are popular with many, but they just aren’t big enough to raise children in. What about accommodation for families? Maddy argued that apartments are still vital to bring in new blood to the town centre. “Gentrification isn’t always bad – it brings new people in with new perspectives, skills and talents.”

So, speaking of the project most symbolic of the gentrification of Croydon – what does the town need from the Croydon Partnership in 2018?

Rob reminded the group of the scale of the transformation currently underway: “Who here realises that thirty-nine other projects have to happen at the same time as Westfield?”. Josi is still worried about what she calls “the Bradford nightmare, where work began on a new development, but having demolished buildings and created a hole in the middle of the city, Westfield walked away“. Rob isn’t so concerned about this, thanks to the level of commitment thus far and the huge scale of the undertaking.

Shopping has always sustained Croydon and still does

James, however, pointed out that the delays here have also been huge. “And more and more shopping is moving online. As the opening date for Westfield gets further away, isn’t there a real question of how many mega shopping centres people will need by 2021 or 2022? Isn’t this a ticking time bomb under the project?”

“But what’s interesting”, countered Rob, “is how big a draw IKEA is”. Shopping, he argued, sustains Croydon today just as much as it did in the hey-day of Allders and Grants.

And what about Croydon’s oft-discussed ‘great transport links’? A Croydon tram connection isn’t considered the equivalent of a (much-valued) tube connection in north London. Rob was upbeat about overcoming that mindset, and changing the message. “Get people to think that Croydon is worth that twenty minute connection.”

Andy raised the importance of encouraging more walking from transport hubs, triggering a discussion of another major need: to get Croydonians more active in order to address issues such as strain on the local NHS, levels of diabetes and incidence of childhood obesity. He also had an idea to embrace Croydon’s most famous natural export – the crocus – as a more explicit symbol of our town. “What if you could buy a crocus badge to wear? It represents Croydon, and the money could go to designated charities.” The idea met with approval from the table for its dual appeal – both to promote a Croydonian identity, and to do financial good for the community.

Westfield’s long silence in 2017 can’t be repeated

To sum up, our panel had concluded that Croydon needs a number of different, yet inter-connected things.

  • a central events platform that everyone actually uses
  • support for people getting more active
  • a permanent presence for a Made In Croydon-style shop selling locally-made goods
  • more cultural spaces, particularly large ones
  • a multimedia studio with specific outreach to young people
  • social enterprises geared towards the ‘enterprise’ part of their business, lest they stop functioning and therefore end up doing no social good at all.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone agreed that Westfield needs to stay on course and the Croydon Partnership needs to keep talking to the people of Croydon. The long silence of 2017 can’t be repeated. But if it’s replaced with regular updates and a growing sense of progress, “that will build confidence internally in Croydon for everything”.

James thanked our participants and all went their separate ways. It was the first time that the Citizen had attempted a discussion like this, but we’d like it not to be the last. Keeping an eye on Croydon’s progress in an open discussion format seems like a good approach. If you’d like to be involved, .

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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  • Alan Reynolds

    Perhaps for me, living in Croydon since 1968 and right in the centre since 2013 , the most interesting thing from this article was I had never heard of the 5 invitees nor of the projects of which they spoke.

    • Anne Giles

      Which goes to show that you rarely read the Citizen.

      • Alan Reynolds

        Since becoming a financial supporter of Croydon Citizen, I do get and read each issue. What sticks in my memory are subjects which interest me. If no interest (like Box Park), I don’t absorb it. I am interested in what happens to Matthew Yard, so remembe it!

        • Anne Giles

          I am also a financial supporter and read every article, but a lot of names of contributors and the articles themselves stick in my mind.

          • Alan Reynolds

            Anne. That’s great. But we are not all of the same mind! Alan

  • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

    An interesting discussion with some good very ideas but it would have been more interesting for me if it had been a public debate, that took questions from some of the Croydon public afterwards. Also, it would have been good if it could have been broadcast on Youtube, and if more discussion had taken place about how to make some of the things happen. How can The Citizen make its Whats On platform better known and more widely used? for example.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Don’t forget ‘I would make Croydon better by…’ Check out p9 of the December edition for an update on how the implementation of more than 60 practical do-able suggestions from readers is going :)

  • Sean Creighton

    Useful discussion post revised Whitgift approval. BUT atch this space as Westfield just been goggled up and Hammerson has gobbled up INTU. The boards may decide they have other priorities.

    It would be useful to publish the list of large spaces mentioned by Rob.

    Stanley Halls may be not ideally located e.g. difficult to get to from Norbury’s London Rd, but the governing committee needs to review the effectiveness of the administration and publicity.

    Croydon has a lot more social enterprises than most people realise, and the lobby for more support has included Croydon Trades Union Council and Croydon Assembly..

    The attempt to co-ordinate the bottom-up arts voice through Croydon Arts Network stalled mainly because the activists were over stretched. The Just Croydon events etc website spun off from the Network has not developed the hoped for impact.

    There have been many excellent bottom up cultural initiatives like the 2012 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival, the local Festivals, and next year’s Peace Festival. There are several ideas under discussion for bottom up events when Fairfield Halls reopens.

    The top down initiative of the Council’s Ambition Croydon Festival was a failure because it did not go with the grain of what was being offered from bottom up. The Council has failed to develop Braithwaite Hall as an important venue. Someone was only saying to me yesterday that it has failed to really promote the rich history of the Borough, and regretted the poverty of October’s Black History Month programme.

    But its not just the Council. The Whitgift Foundation’s Heritage Festivals depended for most events on the activities of the local history and other societies and individual local historians. But without discussion it upset the local societies by its decision last year not to have the North End stalls day – the societies felt frozen out.

    There are some fundamental problems that seem unresolvable: the extent of apathy and sense of powerlessness, the frustration with the perceived failure of the Council, TfL and the railway companies to listen to people, the developers’ control of the way Croydon is being re-shaped ignoring the needs of large numbers of locals which are reaching crisis point. There is is the toxic relationship within and between some organisations and between many individual activists, not helped by the trolls on social media.

    Turning this round positively requires a fundamental change in the aspirational culture of Croydon. New residents can help this process, but they need to understand that what they perceive is needed is not necessarily what the majority of existing residents want. Just as top-down can be alienating, so can many so-called bottom up initiatives.

    Over the last five years Croydon Citizen has been an important platform for debating many of these issues. It is useful to re-read many of the range of diverse views that have been expressed. More needs to be done to promote knowledge about it and to ensure the print edition reaches into every part of the Borough.