Working in limbo: an axe hangs over a Croydon business community

By - Monday 13th October, 2014

Danielle Lowe is invited to meet the occupants of a North Croydon business centre, where she hears a troubling story

Showing the traffic parked up on both sides of Peall Road.

A mustard coloured exterior conceals a vibrant business community within.
Photo author’s own.

Rather garish mustard yellow painted brick walls, crowded out by three storeys of PVC windows, are the public face of Croydon House, Peall Road, Thornton Heath. It is surrounded by cars and vans on both sides of the road, leaving barely enough room for vehicles to get through. Its appearance is quite a contrast to the chirpy church music you hear on a Sunday and the perfectly timed patter of dancing feet coming from the drama school hidden within.

There’s more to Croydon House than the community vibe presented by the church and drama school, however. When you walk through the main entrance, the cold white walls contrast with the warmth that greets you, along with the smell of coffee and cakes coming from the café. Walking through the centre you come across people grafting everywhere – making unique furniture, tasty locally-produced ice cream and printed goods for local schools and businesses. The smell of Italian bread wafts through the building and the occasional musician can be spotted walking through the corridors. There is chat amongst business owners and a real sense of friendship, commitment and support from everybody involved in the centre.

A business owner tells me he is living in fear

All this, though, could be gone within months. According to one business owner there, this business community has been left “living in fear”. Another tells me that the whole situation “is a nightmare”. The anxiety of everyone involved is testified by their request to remain anonymous in this article. For the building has recently transferred hands after a previous owner went bankrupt. Now a planning application is underway which would result in many of these businesses being thrown out and the building’s conversion to apartments or bedsits instead.

One business owner said the proposed changes came as a complete surprise. He recalled looking for assurances in the past: “I talked to the council a couple of years ago and they said the building was ring fenced.”

For many, the consequences of moving out are unthinkable, leaving some able to say nothing more than: “it is so sad. The thought that all this could be gone is just so wrong”. This would not just be a simple pick-up and move to a new building. Owners tell me how they cannot just replicate the units that they currently have and how moving their equipment and client base is not only impractical but often impossible. It would also be very expensive, damaging and potentially lead to them being put out of business completely.

No-one has spoken to us at all. We’re stuck

One owner told me their business would have to “leave the borough or go out of business” to cover the increased rent for the space they require elsewhere. Others said that at least knowing whether or not it is bad news for them would be a step in the right direction. “If we knew, at least we could plan.”

Planning permission application on local lamppost

What a way to find out you might need to move out. The notice that went up outside Croydon House.
Photo author’s own.

The number of businesses that would have to be moved out of the centre is at present unknown, as owners are yet to be informed in writing about any of the events occurring. “We’ve had no one speak to us at all,” said one concerned owner. All they know is that no new contracts are being offered and that planning permission notices attached to local lampposts mean something is afoot. This leaves them to question whether all this was a “done deal from day one”.

In the meantime, small independent Croydon businesses providing employment to over 100 people are left “stuck,” unsure, as one puts it to me, whether to “hire more people or get rid of people”. Some at the centre have been left feeling baffled and angry when they consider how many empty office blocks in Croydon could be converted into housing, Ultimately, says one, “[it]comes down to money and what is cheapest to convert”.

Many are scared that even if they have the chance to remain, their work will lead to noise complaints from new residents unable to handle the business noises from 8am on a Saturday morning or until 7pm on a Friday night. Those that also remain believe that the cul-de-sac road will not be able to handle their trade traffic and deliveries as well as vehicles for the additional proposed 34 new apartments on the site. At present they all pay for parking in the off-street spaces provided, but they are concerned about whether those are likely to remain available to them at all.

Is the loss of this business community really in the interests of Croydon?

The drama school puts on evening performances throughout the year and the church holds services, both leading to an increased number of vehicles parked on the road at times. Concerns are naturally being raised that increased resident numbers will mean they lose out on visitors because of a lack of available and safe parking.

Finally, there is certainly no denial from anyone I meet in Croydon House that the area is in desperate need of more accommodation to address the housing crisis. But with empty office blocks throughout the borough that could be converted without casting doubt over the livelihoods and job security of over 100 local people, you have to wonder whether the changes at Croydon House are really in the best interests of the borough.

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Danielle Lowe

Danielle is a student at City University London and fascinated by all things food, culture, politics and sport. You can often find her in the food and drink section of Croydon Central Library. Lived in Croydon since August 2014. Find her on twitter @DanniiLowe.

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  • David Callam

    An interesting part story, but only part.
    How many businesses are there in the building?
    How much do they pay in charges?
    What is the nature of their tenure? Are they tenants, or do they occupy on some form of license?
    How much notice, if any, is their landlord required to give them?
    Are the businesses viable? Is the charge they pay comparable with a market business rent elsewhere in the borough? The suggestion is that it is not.
    I suspect the new owner bought the building cheaply because of the bankruptcy of its predecessor. I also suspect that the present income from the building is much less than the new owner could realise from conversion and sale.
    And I suspect the conversion process has been given added impetus by the decision of Croydon Council to set a time limit on commercial building conversions to avoid any more sub-standard flats being created than it can help.
    It seems central government has given property developers exemption from planning regulations to convert commercial property to residential and some are taking the opportunity to create tomorrow’s slums; flats the size of rabbit hutches that wouldn’t be allowed under normal planning rules.
    I’m afraid that’s the free market for you!

    • lizsheppardjourno

      You’re right, David, of course – but that’s such a cop-out. It’s all of a piece with ‘sorry children, no affordable housing in Croydon ‘cos of land values – that’s markets!’

      It wouldn’t be beyond human ingenuity (although admittedly it has been, so far) to devise structures that support a developed economy (creating wealth to fund public services and national infrastructure) without leaving the vulnerable, and indeed all the rest of us, to the mercy of markets. I’m not claiming to know how to do this, but I am very optimistic that in due course a way will will be found.

      What’s happening to Croydon House seems to me to be very wrong, a decision taken by those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I believe it should be opposed, not shrugged at.

      • David Callam

        I’m slightly surprised and disappointed that someone who calls herself a journalist is so eager to shoot the messenger.
        The answer, of course, for both affordable housing and affordable workspace is some form of subsidy. But that raises hackles among politicians of both left and right, and until that situation changes the market will prevail. End of story.

        • lizsheppardjourno

          I met some of these people and talked to them, and as a result I find that I care what happens to them. I’m sorry you find that surprising – but I prefer my response to yours.

  • RSDavies

    Unfortunately this is a story that is likely to be repeated elsewhere as SME’s are in direct competition with residential tenants for space and are likely to lose on most occasions. It is also reflects Croydon’s narrowly based regeneration approach that fails to protect its SME base. SME’s need relatively large amounts of space in relation to the amount they can afford to pay in rent.
    For the last two decades Croydon has done little to support and develop the SME sector, tending to favour large companies and property interests. In fact given the extent of development in Croydon, it is quite surprising that we are not greeted at East & West Croydon Station with massive “Invest In Croydon” banners. If we glance at the composition of Croydon BID partnership there is no direct representation of the SME sector, outside of a few white collar interests perhaps.
    While the council and its partners have been indifferent to the loss of basic SME’s over the last 20 years, the impact has been acutely felt by those sections of our community that now find it hardest find meaningful work, namely young men at the lower end of the educational achievement scale. The problem with this is that these individuals are the one’s, who if disengaged with society, pose the biggest challenge.
    Arguments that this is the market, while valid, miss the point that it is not in the interests of the market either to lose the local SME’s or have high young male unemployment. Even “laissez faire” states like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore enforce strict planning zoning to protect the SME base.
    Croydon needs a balanced economy and community where opportunity exists for all to explore their potential and support themselves through employment. The creative industries, retail and office based commerce cannot provide work for all people, not because it does have the potential to employ however many units of labour, but because some individuals simply lack the basic aptitude to work in those sectors and those sectors apply their own very specific prejudices in employment. (Try getting a job in an office if you are a 2 metre tall heavily built man, with a gruff deep voice and hands like slabs of meat, never mind a job in House of Frazer!)
    But we will nothing about this, until the shops of Croydon are burning once again and the great and the good realise that people who don’t share in the prosperity and opportunity have no incentive to sustain a community, less still to obey its laws.