Danger in the dormitory

By - Thursday 8th October, 2015

Paul Dennis has seen the signs, and they aren’t encouraging

Grant’s of St. James, once one of the country’s biggest wine and spirits wholesalers, was based in Burton. It’s now being converted to residential usage.
Photo author’s own.

Before moving to Croydon I lived out a good chunk of my life in Burton Upon Trent, the Staffordshire town that can claim to be the brewing capital of the world. In fact, it was at a major brewery that I got my first job. I stayed with the firm for eighteen years.

It’s a long stride from Burton Upon Trent to Croydon, but there are similarities. One in particular chilled me to the marrow as realisation set in that I’ve seen it before. It was James Naylor’s piece in the September issue of the Citizen and the ‘Dormitory Town’ cover line that grabbed my attention.

Burton Upon Trent was, and some would argue still is, the epitome of middle England – solid, conservative, prosperous. Burton’s main industries were apparently recession-proof, and the town boasted a higher level of employment than the national average.

The industries weren’t as recession-proof as they seemed

But towards the end of the last wholly Conservative government (in the mid-90s), things began to change. Suddenly the industries weren’t as recession-proof as they seemed, and local employment opportunities began to disappear at a frightening rate. Housing developments had already sprung up on what had been green belt land; now they spread to what were formerly office sites.

It wasn’t all bad news. The former working population of Burton managed to buoy up the town’s economy quite nicely for a while. These were the days of generous final salary pensions, and with similarly helpful redundancy packages the ‘silver dollar’ kept things afloat and even produced a mini boom in some areas.

The pub lunch and golf club economies had a heyday.

New employment opportunities were but a drop in the ocean compared to what had been before

But it’s obvious that the clock is ticking if this is what is driving local commerce. That income has a lifespan of, say, ten to fifteen years… and it is dwindling (I should really say amortising) all the time.

Croydon, you don’t even have that parachute payment.

To be fair to the good burghers of Burton, they did their best to produce employer and employment opportunities. Some industrial sites were redeveloped and some of those developments were large in size. But new employment opportunities were but a drop in the ocean compared to what had been before. Giant warehouses and distribution centres took over the brownfield sites on the outskirts of town: low skilled and low paid work, but at least it was something.

‘This town is comin’ like a ghost town’. (The Specials).
Photo author’s own.

But Burton’s success in attracting these sort of developments was also its downfall. The town is handily placed right in the centre of the country, with superb road and rail links. It is bracketed on the east by Nottingham and Derby and on and the west by Birmingham. It’s a fast, easy and cheap commute to all of these cities, all of which offer white collar employment opportunities of the kind that Burton once kept ‘in house’.

Without workers with pounds in their pockets and a lunch hour to spend them in, myriad small businesses suffer

So increasingly, Burton has become a dormitory town. My mother still lives there, and her next-door neighbours commute to their workplaces from that central point. He to Nottingham, she to Birmingham. Burton is just so handy.

With white collar employment limited in Burton, and blue collar employment increasingly going down the zero hours route, the local economy has had the stuffing knocked out of it. The town centre no longer sees a footfall pick up during lunch hours, and after work socialising is almost non-existent on weeknights. The town is living for the weekend these days.

As James Naylor correctly pointed out, without workers with pounds in their pockets and a lunch hour to spend them in, myriad small businesses suffer. Not only that, but without the drivers that a healthy local economy has, the best they can achieve is to remain in business – expansion is more than difficult, and their local spending power is also reduced, the latter contributing to the town centre death spiral.

Croydon needs to attract good quality employers offering well-salaried jobs. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but that’s what it needs, lest the concrete canyons’ madding crowd be replaced by tumbling tumbleweed.

Paul Dennis

Paul Dennis

An award-winning journalist, Paul has worked on angling titles for much of his career, including 16 years as deputy editor of Angler's Mail and 4 years as editor of Total Sea Fishing magazine. He is a regular freelance contributor for a wide array of non-angling-related titles, author of two books on angling and a widely-followed authority on the subject.

More Posts

  • NeilB

    Interesting article – Thanks.

  • Ian Morris

    I used to live fairly near you in Chesterfield, the town you describe could equally be Chesterfield. It’s town center died a death about the same time for similar reasons (but with more poverty). The reason I don’t think it will apply to Croydon, is the proximity to The City. We are never going to have the chronic town center killing that the Midlands did, because frankly we already are a dormitory town and have been for nearly a hundred years. Local businesses are used to the environment. The other thing to consider is our population level, Croydon has a much bigger population than either of our towns did, it’s basically a city in itself surrounded by highly populated, but town center less areas of London e.g. Streatham. People from those areas will still be drawn in, and combined we have a large enough number of people “at play” to sustain Croydon throughout the week.

  • trypewriter

    What I forgot to mention, was that in its pomp with lots of quality employers in the town, people actually commuted to Burton from Nottingham, Birmingham and Derby.

  • lizsheppardjourno

    Interesting comments. Having worked in Croydon town centre since 2005, in three different locations, I’ve noticed how certain areas are micro-economies: clusters of coffee shops, for example, can be sustained by a large local office building and its employees. We saw this in Park Street (declining), around St George’s Walk after Nestle shut up shop – an area which is now being lifted once again by the arrival of the RISE gallery – and we see it in Dingwall Road which is sprouting eateries as buildings like Renaissance come on stream. The town centre is compartmentalised – numerous people, for example, get off the train, work, shop and eat at lunchtime then get back on the train at night having never crossed over Wellesley Road. So while I agree that towns like Burton have a vulnerability which Croydon does not, the loss of even one large key employer can impact negatively.

  • Susan Oliver

    I remember being at one of Barwell’s gatherings around 2011 or 2012 where someone asked him “What about the old-fashioned idea of making things? What about putting factories somewhere in Croydon?”

    Gavin basically said “Computer says no” almost in a David Walliams kind of way.