East Croydon Cool talks…the High Street

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. This post is slightly different. We’re not quite sure who to speak to as “an expert” on this subject (for multiple reasons!) and so we’ve effectively turned to local residents.

The decline of High Streets across the UK has been well documented over recent years – the move to online shopping, the crippling rents, the increase in business rates, and general austerity have all played a role. Then lockdown happened and delivered the final (?) punch. Here in Croydon, we’ve had the additional issue of Westfield (or to use its original name; the Croydon Partnership – made up of two key developers: Westfield Corporation and Hammerson).

Last month’s news that Westfield (coz let’s face, it that’s how we all refer to it!) would definitely NOT be happening, was another blow to the town centre. Ok, so this “news” wasn’t much of a surprise for a project that was still “in the pipeline” since its announcement in 2013. But after a tough couple of years and an uncertain future ahead, to say the timing was a bit off, is the politest way we can think to put something described more broadly as a “bit of a Sh*tshow”.

The arrival of the super mall was pitched as the “crown jewel” in Croydon’s re-generation with visions that it would transform the Borough into the shopping destination of South England. That vision in turn raised confidence with developers, businesses, and individuals alike. Croydon was seen as a solid bet with Westfield triggering more investment into the area.

We won’t get drawn into the politics of what went wrong. Whilst it’s fair to say the retail landscape has changed dramatically since plans were first discussed and there’s no doubt Brexit and Covid have played a part, things didn’t change overnight. So it does seem a little strange that plans were not updated/pivoted/scrapped sooner. Then again, the number of people involved in a multi-billion-pound investment probably doesn’t make for the most agile of decision making.

So, since “we are where we are”; let’s keep things moving – but what happens next?

Whilst the developers have effectively scrapped plans for the original project, they won’t be walking away entirely and have said they will “continue to cooperate with Croydon Council on fresh ideas to regenerate the town centre”. A spokeswoman for the Croydon Partnership said: “Collaboration is a key part of this process and so we will ensure that local people and businesses are invited to contribute their ideas to shape the creation of a reimagined town centre”.

A few weeks ago, we posted on Instagram to find out what locals thought should happen to the Whitgift centre now. Located on what many view as the High Street (although the geography of Central Croydon means this is up for debate) feedback inevitably included broader discussion around the wider High Street/Town Centre regeneration.

It’s an emotive topic and Croydoners understandably have a lot to say* (with the post gathering over 200 comments).

There’s definitely some anger:
“I’d like to see the current useless council entirely removed. They have systematically destroyed the Borough” @samf2904

“It’s a joke after 10 years. Even before Brexit it was delay after delay” @Sukhstreetart

“Typical Croydon. Let downs after let downs. Never changes” @sarahakwiscombe

And many people want answers:
“Before we move on, a lot of us would like an explanation of exactly how we got here” @ICameToCroydonAsABride

“ACCOUNTABILITY” @Turfprojects

Some were gutted:
“This broke my heart. I’ve been praying for years” @FittieFodmapLdn,

While others were thrilled:
“The best news I’ve heard in Croydon for a long time” @SharonAdd.

“It’s probably a blessing in disguise as these huge shopping malls are a scourge and Croydon will do better to invest in projects that will enhance the local economy and create local jobs and business” @LordPeer1

Many championed a Mixed Use concept:
“I want to see a mixture of cultural spaces, social spaces, community spaces, local businesses and food stores as well as some well know shopping names” @ShaniquaBenjamin

“Split it into different areas so it appeals to lots of different people” @c.louise274

“Commercial, Cultural and Social Spaces” @Leelamalur

And focused on the Green Agenda:
“We would like it to become a central sustainability hub – a repair café, healthy food, refill station, sewing club, library of things to borrow” @Croydon_Climate_Action

“Bring green into town – a community type garden allotment, wild flowers, beehives on roofs etc” @GoughPhotography

“More eating places (including vegan and local produce), waste free shops,  second-hand shops – things that don’t focus around fast fashion” @rachelrib8

Others highlighted the need for Social Spaces:
“After the last 18 months, I would say No.1 priority is social spaces. Somewhere we can surround ourselves with likeminded people” @1singo

“Shops yes, but we need more social options for adults!” @x_instabec_

Several mentioned Markets:
“A weekly market for crafts would be excellent” @frankie646559

“We’d love to hold a series of vintage fairs here” @So_Last_Century

“More interesting food stalls, like Tooting or Brixton market” @x.b.y.9

And Music:
“I’d love to see things like music and recording studios” @Shohidul_

And Sports:
“An indoor skate park would be a great addition” @themamaseamstress

And Family Friendly spaces:
“A large kids café and play area” @tamas.szakal83

Some rallied for nightlife:
“Need bars/clubs to bring people back for the nightlife” @bushman283

“Give it to us so we can turn it into a party paradise” @funkmeparties

“Somewhere young professionals could enjoy a night out” @lauhug

While others rallied against it:
“The Council should keep all late licence venues away from residential areas” @thomasza

Public Services were touched on:
“With so many flats and residential units coming up, I feel like the town centre could really use a fantastic GP hub complete with big dentistry practice, maybe a minor injuries unit and then pharmacies around it” @thepurleygirlyeats

As was Parking:
“And stop charging for parking!” @penny_worrall

And there was no shortage of “extra creative” ideas:
“How about an immersive Terry and June theme park”! @RichardDeDomenici
“Massive power-lifting gym. Brewery. New Water Palace” @_Leesahh
“We gotta get some kind of public swimming pool” @plants.at.93
“Stratford is getting V&A East so why not something like that?” @CDN_Creative
“An indoor ski slope” @ThomasRomain

Some felt a softly softly approach to development would be best:
“How about just keeping it as it is and invest in it” @belchmonkey

“Redevelop organically (knocking down and starting again has a history of not working in Croydon)” @antsie_pants

While others want something a bit more proactive:
“The whole shopping area needs to be ripped down and started all over again” @fiona.simpson.777

“In truth, only a drastic intervention will fix the problem, tinkering is pointless” @Chris.Humphreys.Photo

Some were intrigued by a Boxpark led intervention:
“The town needs an entrepreneurial creative mind such as Roger Wade to get the wheels in motion” @nickyzoid

“Seeing as Boxpark Croydon isn’t permanent, would be nice if it could be on a larger scale” @Kokopopsweet

While others weren’t so keen:
“God help us if Boxpark try to get hold of this space” @JamesMacve

“Roger Wade is not the answer” @APTaylor

Whilst there was some love for brands:
“The big guys bring in much needed modern shop fronts and money” @WillBeardmore

“More big brands on the Centrale side – John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Selfridges etc” @haymans_adventures

By far the overwhelming response was for Local and Independent:
“I’d like to see more independent shops championing local entrepreneurs” @alittletraveller

“Local, Local, Local” @small_kitchen_uk

“A hub for local independents would be amazing” @SaraDoesCurry

“Building community wealth is key and Whitgift could be the key to making it happen” @Julie.Setchfield

“A centre full of creatives, independents and wellness entrepreneurs” @holisticptstudio

“Fill up the units with cool, independent shops” @lettice_and_the_weasels

“Something made by locals for locals” @oddlymarketing

“Lets make it a fantastic independent shopping area for creatives rather than another vapid shopping centre” @MatthewCurd

Although many were keen to stress the levels of support local and independent businesses would need:

“What we want more of is space for all of Croydon’s creative communities and local businesses to have low rental-based units” @isifiso_clothing

“They need to make rent reasonable – no one can make it with the current prices” @littlegem.studio

“I went there the other day asking for a unit to work from. Rent negotiable but Service Charge £25k a year!” @touchwood_vintage_designs

“Affordable rents for start up shops, as lets face it, we are in the middle of a crisis. A big one!” @queenshabbyuk

“I agree no more tat. Independent businesses can be beautiful like those on Etsy, they just need lower rates” @josie.allen1

“If they are going to target (independent) businesses, they should provide support for shop-fitting and branding. So often you get independent retailers who have an interesting product but they rattle around in a sparsley fitted out unit with a cheap looking sign and businesses stay away. It’s the sort of affordable intervention Councils could help with.” @chris.humphreys.photo

People were also keen to highlight things they liked in other parts of London:

“I think some sort of market like Brixton Village or Mercato Metropolitano. There’s a lot of opportunity for places like Flight Club Darts or Ldn Shuffle to provide great date activities. I’d welcome a regular weekend market like Vinegar Yard (South London Makers Market, I’m looking at you!) @HomeFromMyTravels

“Its ironic as all we have to do is look at neighbouring towns (Brixton, Norwood, Crystal Palace and Beckenham) to see that these areas thrive around independent businesses” @Ms.Bow

“Something like Old Spitalfields or Borough Market” @Littlegem.studio

Whilst there are understandably some sceptics:

“Sadly it won’t happen because Council’s are risk averse and existing on a financial knife edge these days. There’s also the issue that Councillors aren’t willing to back ideas that won’t deliver until after their term of office. I suspect we will just be stuck with empty units for decades with the place getting less attractive to investors by the week” @Chris.Humphreys.Photo

Overall, the post showed that many local residents were open to seeing this as a positive opportunity:

“This could be a game changer for our community if delivered well” @RachelRib8

“Maybe it needed to happen in order for Croydon to grow in a more creative way” @LisaFaulkner_x

“Croydon people deserve something unique to support local business and big brands. Let’s go”. @ScannersInc

 “Let’s show Croydon to be the amazing creative place we all know it is” @Charlieo_s1983

“Instead of looking at it as something bad, this could be the making of a new way of thinking about what we do in town centres. It’s a great opportunity to move past retail and create incredible experiences”. @afrodianamic

And so what’s next?

Having seen the responses the post generated, Croydon’s Chief Planning Officer, Heather Cheesbrough, got in touch. She was keen to highlight the Cabinet Paper she had helped put together on the Post-Covid Vision for the Town Centre. This paper (report) is publicly available via the Croydon Council website but for ease, you can download it below:

She also sent over another public document that records the timeline of events since the 2013 announcement. That can also be seen below:

Published in August (two days before the official press announcement about Westfield), the report essentially sets out the council’s ambition to “develop a new vision for Croydon town centre that responds to the fundamental societal and economic changes that have been driven by the global Covid 19 pandemic”.

It explains that the council is “ambitious for the future of Croydon as a cultural and night-time economy hub, with a vibrant day time economy” but realises “this vision will require us to use our convening power to bring together a diverse partnership that can respond to the challenges created by the pandemic for every economic and social sector”.

In summary, the report seeks to establish a board and proposes wide engagement with the community and stakeholders to ensure an inclusive vision is developed.

Heather explained that a “Croydon Urban Room” is likely to be set up early next year to provide a dedicated space to have conversations with the public and get their feedback.

With so many people expressing their thoughts on our post, we’ll be keeping a close eye on this public consultation project. The Council haven’t won too many fans over recent years, and we know as much as anyone that they have a lot of work to do to rebuild people’s trust. Sorting out the town centre is a huge project and (as highlighted by comments on this one Instagram post alone!), trying to keep everyone happy is a pretty tall ask. And that’s without all the new financial, administrative, and political issues this new redevelopment plan will run into.

Residents who have been involved in discussions for years will no doubt be wary. But there’s a new generation of Croydoners who might be able to bring some fresh energy to discussions.

We hope those dedicated residents who have been in conversations from day one and are feeling deflated by it all, will get on board again later down the line – once the rest of us have put in the same amount of effort they have!

*All quotes have been shortened. Head to the INSTAGRAM POST to read all quotes in their fuller context.

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