Political Croydon: The Nineties

By - Tuesday 5th May, 2015

David White’s series nears its end after taking us from 1960 to 1999

Clockwise, from top left: Tony Blair, Prime Minister 1997-2007; the flag of the EU; John Major, Prime Minister 1990-1997; Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London 2000-2008; Croydon Tramlink; Cllr Mary Walker, Leader of Croydon Council 1994-1996, St George’s Walk, which Croydon’s first Labour council failed to regenerate.

Croydon had been a boom town in the 1960s and 1970s, with massive office and retail redevelopment. However, by 1990 it had started to decline economically. A recession in the late 1980s had led to cutbacks and redundancies. House repossessions soared, and new technology reduced the number of workers needed in financial services, a sector which provided many of Croydon’s white collar jobs.

On top of this, companies which had previously relocated from Central London to Croydon now had more choice – for example, the Docklands. And Croydon’s Whitgift Shopping Centre, once cutting-edge, was now looking a bit tired compared with new kids on the block like Lakeside Thurrock.

How were national and local politics developing against this backdrop? In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister. However, the magic touch which she showed earlier in her premiership was eluding her. In March 1990 the largest poll tax riot took place in Trafalgar Square. In September 1990, Labour had a 14% lead over the Tories in the polls. Thatcher was challenged as Leader within her own party and by November she had been voted out. John Major took over.

John Major’s government began its slow walk to electoral annihilation

To the surprise of many, John Major won the 1992 general election. However, his government has been described as a “slow walk to electoral annihilation”. He promised to restore family values, but his Government was beset by sex scandals (though his minister David Mellor has always denied making love to his mistress in a Chelsea strip!).

Major’s government was also beset by arguments between pro- and anti-EU Tory MPs. In September 1992, Major’s government suffered the ignominy of seeing Britain forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Britain was ready for a change after eighteen years of Conservative rule. In 1997, Labour under Tony Blair won the first of three general elections. In those pre-Iraq days Blair was popular and the D:Ream song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ summed up the feelings of many.

Throughout the 1990s, London had no devolved government. Margaret Thatcher had abolished the GLC in 1986. However, one of the most important steps the Blair government took for London was to set up the Greater London Assembly, and the office of Mayor of London. The first elections were held in May 2000, with Ken Livingstone being elected mayor – as an independent candidate (he would later receive Labour’s nomination in 2004).

The 1990s saw Labour’s first sustained breakthroughs in Croydon

Croydon politics in the 1990s followed a similar path to the national situation. In 1990, Croydon had a Tory council (as it had for the whole of its previous 107 years of existence). The town had four Conservative MPs. However Labour made a breakthrough in 1992 when Malcolm Wicks was elected MP for Croydon North West, becoming the first Labour MP in Croydon since David Winnick in the 1960s.

In 1994, Labour won control of Croydon Council for the first time. I remember the enormous sense of elation amongst Labour supporters, and despondency in the Conservative ranks, when the results were declared at the Fairfield Halls.

The first Labour Leader of the Council was Mary Walker, a popular and hardworking Fieldway councillor. However, she perhaps lacked the strategic vision needed and in 1996 she was replaced by New Addington councillor Geraint Davies (who went on to become Labour MP for Croydon Central in 1997).

The Croydon Tramlink Act was passed in 1994

Despite the dramatic political shifts in Croydon in the ’90s, there were remarkably few policy disagreements between Labour and the Conservatives in the council. Perhaps because of the economic difficulties I referred to above, the parties set about trying to revive the town, often on a cross-party basis.

The best example of this was light rail system Tramlink. The project was steered through parliament from 1990 onwards by David Congdon, MP for Croydon North-East. The Croydon Tramlink Act was passed in 1994 and the system opened under Labour in 2000.

There was opposition to Tramlink, but not from any councillors. A pressure group called Tramstop was formed. I attended a number of their meetings and in my opinion some of their objections had validity. For example, many people in the Park Hill area of Croydon were opposed to the widening (to six lanes in parts) of Barclay, Fairfield and Chepstow Roads to accommodate displaced traffic. But Tramlink opened nevertheless, and has been running ever since.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can say Croydon missed out in an important way in the 1990s

Another project which had cross party support in the council, and which was designed to revive Croydon’s image, was the Clocktower Centre. This successfully combined a state-of-the-art library with a museum, café, visitors’ centre, space for concerts and the David Lean Cinema. The centre opened in 1994 and the following year staged a Picasso exhibition called ‘Picasso’s Croydon Period’, one of the most successful arts events Croydon has ever held.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can say Croydon missed out in an important way in the 1990s. Many of our large towns and cities renewed themselves in this period. We only have to look at, say, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham to see how dereliction was challenged and new employment, retail and cultural environments created.

Croydon, by contrast, had a series of planning disasters. The large ‘Gateway’ site by East Croydon Station remained undeveloped, as plans for an Arena stalled. The area round St George’s Walk suffered suffered similar planning blight and lack of progress.

There were a lot of changes in society in the 1990s, but often these didn’t have much to do with parliament or councils. Instead people themselves redefined social norms. All the big institutions of the establishment – monarchy, the Church of England, government – were challenged as never before. In 1990 69% of Britons said homosexuality was wrong. By 2000 that percentage had halved, the age of consent had been slashed and there were openly gay cabinet ministers.

The decade of the 1990s in Britain doesn’t yet have an instantly recognisable image like, say, the Swinging Sixties or the Thatcherite Eighties. But it was a decade of profound change. The economic decline of Croydon was perhaps slowed down by the steps taken by the council and by individuals. However it is undeniable that the underlying process continued. We are, even today, wrestling with the issue of how Croydon should reinvent itself – as it has done so many times before.

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David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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  • Robert Ward

    Thanks David. A good read.

    I grew up near Coventry, which suffered a similar fate. From being a place that had one of the highest disposable incomes, in twenty years it became an unemployment black spot. A modern, indeed I think the first fully pedestrianised city centre became bleak concrete canyons filled with down at heel stores.

    Croydon is getting another chance. Let’s not waste it.

    • David White

      Interesting to hear the comparison with Coventry, Robert.

      For Croydon I hope Westfield/Hammerson is successful. However I think the borough should have other irons in the fire as well. These might include further expansion of the already successful tech businesses throughout the borough and development of the London Road and Surrey Street shopping and restaurant areas.

      • Robert Ward

        Couldn’t agree more David. All the eggs in one basket is a high risk strategy so we need to pursue three or four areas of opportunity and support what works. Tech is good because it does not require big investment. We need a couple more like this.

        Whatever we might pursue (and put money into), we need to be clear and hard-nosed as to why it should succeed in Croydon rather than somewhere else. For example, every town thinks it has great people and maybe they are all right, but that means none has an advantage.

        When it comes to investing money, I would also be wary of putting more into retail until we see how Westfield/Hammerson actually works. Restaurants are good too, and certainly agree there are gaps in the market, but I have seen lots of restaurant area failures in affluent areas of Central London.

  • NeilB

    An interesting read – as an occasional visitor in the nineties I didn’t actually notice the decline.

    • David White

      Fair point, Neil. I think a lot of these developments only really become clear some years later.