Event report: the South Croydon Community Association’s Q&A on Croydon’s changing town centre

By - Wednesday 25th May, 2016

Will Croydon’s future be decided by a roll of the dice? Sometimes it feels that way, says Charlotte Davies

Photo of Jo Negrini by South Croydon Community Association, used with permission.

South Croydon Community Association organised its second Question Time event at Croydon College on the evening of Thursday 14th April 2016 under the title of ‘Croydon Town Centre Is Changing: How Will It Affect You?’.

The event was sold to us as follows: ‘Croydon town centre is changing and will be at the forefront of a new movement in urban revival’. Behind the scenes, discussions amongst audience members centred on how we all felt about the prospect of spending the next twenty years living in a building site and what is being done for the people who live here in terms of housing and arts provision.

  • How much do we know about the changes that are taking place?
  • How will the building of one of Europe’s largest urban retail leisure developments affect shopping in the town?
  • What impact will 8,000 new homes with 20,000 residents have on local services?
  • What job opportunities will be created by a new commercial district with over 1 million square feet of new high quality offices?

The panellists were chosen because they were either directly involved in charting the development of Croydon or were responding to the challenges and opportunities that changes to the town centre present: Stuart Collins, Croydon Council deputy leader and cabinet member for the environment; Martin Skinner, Croydon property developer, Inspired Homes; Jo Negrini, executive director of place, Croydon Council; Stuart Worden, principal of the Brit School; and Alex Andrews, area manager, Transport for London.

Questions ranged from transport to housing to the arts to the new Westfield

The event was ably chaired by Mr Steve Packer, a resident of South Croydon with considerable experience in education in the developing world. Copies of Croydon News were provided by the Develop Croydon Forum and handed out to the audience as we arrived. This was much appreciated as the middle page spread provided a clear panorama of how major developments will transform Croydon.

Questions were posed by members of the audience over a range of topics from transport to housing to the arts to the new Westfield development and the sheer scale of building taking place in Croydon. The answers to the questions had a habit of over-lapping and certain speakers tended to speak more than others. Jo Negrini, now acting chief executive of Croydon Council, found herself having to answer most questions since she is clearly at the hub of things.

After the event, a group of us reflected on the responses that we had received. It was not so much what was said as how it had been said that mattered.

‘Jo Negrini really frightened me when she said we would have to accept families living in one room’

Some people really liked Jo Negrini’s strong character and decisive approach. Others were deeply concerned. They picked up sound bites that deeply disturbed them, making them feel that whatever Ms Negrini’s words about ‘taking the community of Croydon with her’, that is not what she really meant. Nor, they felt, did she understand their deep concerns about the Fairfield Halls, housing, play space, traffic planning or population density. As one of the audience put it: “she really frightened me when she said that we would have to accept families living in one room”.

Martin Skinner of Inspired Homes also left people concerned about the housing market and the possibility of people being able to afford to live in family housing in Croydon. Mr Skinner spoke throughout of decisions being left to the free market and that we all had to accept that homes were going to be more expensive or much more ‘compact’. (Of course, what he actually meant was ‘tiny’.) But Inspired Homes’ compact homes have fold down beds if a friend should visit…

The nature of these sorts of meetings means that there was no time to question market sovereignty and point out that most advanced societies have some significant element of social housing. It has been long recognised that the free market cannot efficiently supply everyone’s needs where the good is a necessity such as housing.

A vaguely bright future promised by developers, who know about these things, to Croydonians who do not

We did question the lack of play space in Croydon and the density of developments. Mr Skinner assured the audience that many of the compact homes that are being developed are only for single people. We explained that when you put a lot of single people together in one building they go on to have families and need family home to move into. But they cannot afford to move out.

So much of the talk was ‘motherhood and apple pie’: nice phrases to which no-one could object promising a vague, virtually plastic, brighter future to be delivered by people who knew about these things to the residents of Croydon, who do not. It was hard to find a realistic, holistic vision in the answers that we were given.

There was palpable passion for the arts in all of their forms

Throughout the evening rumbled the spectre of arts provision in Croydon. There are many diverse and aspirational groups in our vibrant town, yet no central arts hub that brings everyone together. There’s a deep lack of confidence in the council to restore the Fairfield Halls and concern that the closure represents a great land grab by property developers. There’s bubbling anger from arts professionals, who know and understand their trade, that the plans for Croydon’s arts make no sense. Throughout the audience there was palpable passion for the arts in all of their forms to be properly celebrated across Croydon and for access to appropriate spaces that will accommodate a large audience, not just cope, patch and match in small spaces in between property developments.

Stuart Worden, principal of the Brit School, kept the lid on the anger in the room as he praised the audience for its passion for the arts. In many ways he was closer to the audience than the rest of the panel as he was not selling anything new to Croydon. Using humour and charm, he attended as a trusted member of the community, a person known to many for helping to educate their children and start them on the path of successful careers. He was among friends who valued him highly.

Stuart Collins wins the prize for sticking to a subject everyone wishes would just go away

Councillor Stuart Collins repeatedly promoted the council’s line on cleaning up Croydon. He has nobly taken on waste management issues in Croydon and took every opportunity to remind people of this. It’s a hard sell. No-one wants the waste, but most people want someone else to take care of the problem so that they do not have to think about it. In Croydon that is not possible: there are areas where population is so dense and space is so limited that shop and domestic waste piles up, then cheap builders drive down prices by fly-tipping across the borough rather than charging for waste disposal. Stuart wins the prize for persistence on a dull topic that everyone wishes would go away.

Overall the evening was considered a success, but to be honest the only management that left me inspired was the quiet efficient management at Croydon College. Afterwards, huddles of people stood about discussing concerns over plans for Croydon College buildings and worrying about housing, transport and the future of Fairfield Halls. It feels as if we are trapped in some children’s building set where all is decided by the roll of a dice.

Charlotte Davies

Charlotte Davies

I am an Educational Consultant, Director of Fit 2 Learn CIC, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. My teaching experience has covered Economics and Business Education including Enterprise; I have worked as a senior teacher. I now work to identify the root causes of educational under-achievement.

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