Should more community hubs be developed in Croydon?

By - Wednesday 16th July, 2014

Continuing his theme of supporting communities, Sean Creighton considers what community hubs can offer Croydon

Photo by hahnchen, used under Creative Commons licence.

Matthew’s Yard, the café, bar, work space, events centre and entertainment venue just off Surrey Street market in Croydon town centre, has been developing as a hub – a centre for activities, networks and flexible workspace. Octopus Community Hubs provides the following helpful definition of what a community hub is intended to be: “a focal point [where] facilities… foster greater local community activity and bring residents together to improve the quality of life in their area”. In Brixton a hub initiative is being developed in Lambeth Town Hall. The organisers are linked to hubs operating in North London. Essentially these are private enterprise entrepreneurial equivalents of multi-purpose community and social centres which go back to the beginnings of the Settlement Houses like Toynbee Hall and Oxford House in the 1880s, and the mushrooming of community centres after the Second World War. There is nothing wrong with this new style of hub being private enterprise-run. Perhaps historically, Crystal Palace was a precursor of such entrepreneurialism.

How many commercial and non-commercial hubs can exist in the same local authority area? Would it be possible to develop them in Norbury, Thornton Heath, Broad Green, New Addington, Ashburton etc? Could this be the future for SEGAS House? How can the Croydon Fun Palace Project fit in with the hub idea?

It’s important not to dilute the powerful network effect of hubs

It has been suggested to me that there is room for many different hubs in an area if the competition between them is not too direct. There is a risk that the powerful network effect of a hub is diluted if people are spread between many – that could defeat the point of the hub. That being said, where they serve a community with different needs and interests they can certainly co-exist. The borough is probably large enough for several hubs, but how far apart should they be? Are Norbury and Thornton Heath too close for a hub each?

Back in 2011 there were discussions about re-opening the Croydon Clocktower as this kind of facility. Unfortunately, it became clear that the then-council’s approach would not allow for a dynamic and speedy launch: the process to acquire the space looked as if it would take a very long time indeed. It would in any case have fitted poorly with the initiators’ vision. They wanted the whole space at peppercorn rent so they could rent out rooms and make the entire project entirely self-funding. The last the project initiators heard was that the council wanted to retain control and rent out space to a multiplicity of groups on an ad hoc basis.

The initiators, by contrast, wanted to create more of a curated cultural programme of events, alongside the renting of space as a service to community groups. They were keen to work on a social project and ultimately ended up initiating other projects.

As a hub, Croydon Clocktower is likely to remain a specialist one

Meanwhile, under pressure, the last administration took steps to improve the offer at the Clocktower, although more could be done. Should local studies be returned upstairs and its space be used to display the whole of the council’s art collection? The advantage of a move back upstairs would be that all the material on open shelves would become publicly accessible again. But as a hub the Clocktower is likely to remain a specialist one linked to the library, especially as the new community rooms are in Bernard Weatherill House not the Clocktower itself.

It is clear that the alternative concept for the Clocktower would have been close to being directly competitive with Matthew’s Yard and would perhaps have created exactly the potential problem mentioned above about vicinity – that hubs are unlikely to thrive too close together. Many of the same activities have taken place at the Yard, while the Spreadeagle pub’s first floor room has added another venue for cinema, plays and talks. On the other hand, as discussed at the culture seminar on 8th July, these different venues could be better linked together as a cluster.

Matthew’s Yard has both strengths and weaknesses as a potential community hub

Matthew’s Yard has lots of strengths as a community hub but also weaknesses, depending on individual responses to its atmosphere, price and décor. It still has to think through how to improve how it publicises the events that take place there. The information board and shelf for fliers is very haphazard. Unless you live or work in or near Croydon town centre, you have to make a conscious decision to go there.

The failure to find tenants for the restaurant and retail spaces in Exchange Square, where Matthew’s Yard is located, means that the latter does not benefit from high footfall. Whether these spaces will ever be rented out if the Westfield/Hammerson development is built remains to be seen. The developers around the square may need to re-think their strategy and offer premises to businesses which want stability during the shopping centre redevelopment, or work with the Croydon Arts Network and Fun Palace to have the units as pop-up venues.

I have been involved in advising social action centres so I’m aware of the problems of running them

There is of course already a network of community centres around the borough, such as Shirley, West Thornton and Parchmore Methodist Church Youth and Community Centres. Having been on the committee of a community centre in Merton some years ago, including serving as its chair, I am aware of the problems involved in running them.

The workshop programmes I organised for the annual national conferences were designed to encourage more outward and inclusive thinking about the way community associations ran their centres. The Environmental Action Pack I compiled out of discussions at one of the conferences was aimed at helping them move along the path of becoming greener. As Policy Development Officer I have been involved in advising larger scale settlements and social action centres as multi-purpose hubs.

To what extent are those running Croydon’s community centres and other multi-purpose buildings stretched and how might they usefully ally with the new developments such as the Arts Network to offer premises for use? Should the Fun Palace reach into different neighbourhoods by travelling around such centres and putting on joint activities with the centre activists? Which buildings can be identified as potential new hubs around the borough? How are they to be funded?

Libraries have been mentioned to me but there are problems given the privatisation of their management and of course they have limitations of space. The former Ashburton Library could be one possibility with an asset transfer to a community trust, and re-configuring the access to separate it improve its security within the park setting.

The issue of hubs is one that cuts across different policy agendas: social inclusion, fairness, building community identification and links, fostering small businesses, developing cultural and other activities from the bottom up. It is to be hoped that in the coming months the development of hubs will appear within a range of new policy approaches.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    I think direct competition is a good idea. It keeps people on their toes. A monopoly is never a good thing. Likewise, a councillor has suggested another radio station. Selsdon has a cafe which is part of a church and organises art and photography displays, films and other events, though the area is fairly small, so we are quite well catered for here. We have to think twice about driving into the town centre because of the cost of parking, when I am not earning.

  • Sean Creighton

    Of course private enterprise hubs can compete – that’s the nature of the beast. But there is no need for competition between community controlled hubs. Yes they can learn from each other. But as each should be basically serving their own local community there is no reason for there to be competition. Not everyone uses cars to drive into the Town Centre; they use public transport. This is either though choice because of the parking problems and cost; or because they do not own cars out of choice, or because they do not own a car because they cannot afford one..

    • Anne Giles

      And in my case it’s because of my disability that I have to drive.

  • Sean Creighton

    Fair point.

  • Wesley Jordan Anthony Baker

    Nice article Sean, I would love to see a community hub in Thornton heath. Matthew’s Yard has been so good for meeting like minded people but one in my area would help such people to come together face to face to see what we can do for our part of North Croydon.