My Croydon – southern powerhouse

By - Wednesday 24th January, 2018

Make our borough great again – by making it fit for purpose

Photo public domain.

When I arrived as an incomer to Croydon twenty-five years ago, the place struck me as eminently fit for human habitation. It offered excellent mobility – both social and physical. You could be in London in the time it took to read a morning paper, or be out in the open countryside even sooner. From this famously derided dormitory suburb, so many had stirred from dreamy back bedrooms to surprise the world: R. F. Delderfield, D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, David Lean, Peggy Ashcroft, Amy Johnson, Kate Moss and C. B. Fry. There were birds in the trees, foxes on the lawns, pheasants in the allotments, the occasional deer in Lloyd Park and engagingly batty dog walkers in the streets, which rang (as they still do) with those lyrical Sarf London refrains: ‘Y’know wha’ I mean? and ‘Vis is doin’ my ‘ead in!’. This was the hardening underbelly of a great capital and a resurgent England, the old market town with greatness thrust upon it by the relocation of much of the insurance industry in the ’60s and ’70s, and the ever-rolling stream of immigrants, the parade of nations passing by to Lunar House, buoyed by the hopes and fears of a British dream so powerful that nothing could check the beacon beam of its momentum.

The environs of the town are no longer the rural idyll which Betjeman’s Uncle Dick left once for all. The menace of change and decay now prompt an urgent urge to action to transform the place into the magnet for new businesses and jobs and modern living, which it must become. Straining after city status, it yet falls short of claiming that crown. Too long the plaything of architects and town planners, Croydon now faces a radical reconstruction. With no more ski jumps set to adorn the roofs of multi-storey car parks nor flutterings of coloured lights to waken early morning commuters, the city centre is about to have its heart ripped out, much like Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street in the ’70s. The ghosts of Grants and Allders and the old variety theatres linger in the mind’s eye. The dead urban spaces of St George’s Walk and College Green cry out for animation. Fairfield Halls are under threat of extinction if they close for two years for refurbishing. I first visited in the early ’60s for a poetry reading – fifty years later, I find myself reading my own poems there as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

This whole initiative – the rebirth of this place where we live – is a colossal gamble, but it seems imperative if Croydon is to accommodate all of those incomers who, like me, come in search of a different and better life. The fate of the borough hangs in the balance, but the scales are tipped by the sheer onward press of incomers – an estimated 35,000 of them over the coming years – all of whom will seek a home and a community of shared recreations and amenities without which isolation and a dull malaise will stalk their lives like an unshakable curse. Will there be provision for a central swimming pool, a larger auditorium for concerts, talks and religious services, a proper theatre, even an indoor running circuit? The Mayor of London may wave his wand, but who will magic all of these things into being, unless we ourselves can get our acts together to define and create conditions for the ‘good life’ that we and others should continue to enjoy?

Barnaby Powell

I'm a former development banker (in Europe and East and South-East Asia) and a Croydon resident for over 25 years. Currently I write and speak (mainly to schools and universities) on China and the impact of its rise on the rest of us. I'm also a school governor at Archbishop Tenison's School and a leader of the Croydon U3A China Group.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Hi Barnaby,

    It’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of someone who has lived in Croydon longer than I have! :)

    I was struck by your expertise in the rise of China and its impact. What do you imagine China’s rise could have on Croydon, in particular?

    • Barnaby Powell

      Jonny -
      I’m sure the Council/Borough have been assiduously courting more investment from Chinese companies. Perhaps they could do more to persuade property investors/developers to champion Croydon as a great place for other Chinese companies to set up their UK base, given its obvious logistical and skilled worker potential – particularly in light of your Croydon Tech City initiative. The key principle that the Chinese will understand here in their negotiation is reciprocity.
      Good luck

      • Jonny Rose

        Thank you for the response, Barnaby. I hope you’ll write more on these topics (inward investment, property development, etc) in future :)

  • Charles Barber

    A fascinating, thought provoking article, and certainly one of the challenges Croydon faces now and in the coming years is to provide better amenities in what seems an ever decreasing space for ever rising numbers of people. It also needs to create more businesses within the borough so that many of the new and old residents can both live and work locally without having to face the dreaded daily commute on Southern.