Croydon deserves more than cookie-cutter regeneration

An open letter to those “developing” Croydon

I didn’t go to the Develop Croydon Conference which was held last Thursday. It’s not that I wasn’t invited, I was. But, like so many other residents, I couldn’t afford the £350 + VAT to attend and discover what great plans are in store for our town centre.

Aside from ‘progress’ in Croydon, I have been keeping an eye on the news and developments in places like Brixton, Peckham and Brighton over the years. I have to say, I am getting worried. Not for those places. What has been lost in Brixton and Brighton is gone forever. As residents and a community, in Croydon, we still have a chance to save the things we love. To take pre-emptive action to force those blinded by the gold-rush to hear our voice.  

Please, please, please don’t bring your cookie cutter approach to regeneration to the Cronx.

Yes, we want a good quality retail centre with all our favourite high street and designer names and labels.

We lucked out with Westfield.

Yes, we want to eat at places like Jamie’s Italian Kitchen and GBK and Franco Manca.

So BoxPark has our blessing.

Yes, we want cleaner streets and greener public spaces.

Croydon Council (red and Blue) and the GLA have been doing an excellent job bringing in fresh investment.  

But, guess what? We want more.

We want to retain the things we already love about Croydon. The things which made us move here or stay here, long before you thought of it with anything other than contempt.

We want to keep the things which made us set-up shop and have families here. It’s heart. It’s soul. It’s spirit. It’s cultural scene. It’s community. It’s uniqueness.

Many of you will have researched Croydon heavily before investing. For every good bit of research or anecdotal evidence you found online, there were a thousand mistruths and plenty of harsh realities to wade through. But, you did, and for some reason, you still chose Croydon. You still saw its “potential”.

What me Matthews Yard and many  others in Croydon are keen to do is ensure the potential that transigent developers in our town see, aligns more closely with the potential which we, the community, see. We want to help you. We want to be your friend. We understand that all you see is ROI. We know you have a responsibility to maximise profits for your shareholders. It’s your legal duty to do so.

So, what if we told you that by actually working with us, the community, we could help you achieve those goals? That by engaging with us in a meaningful way. Not through superficial open-evenings, party buses or movie clips but with proper dialogue and engagement. We can help you achieve your aims. We can help you avoid repeating mistakes which will cost you dear further down the road. Will that get you to listen?

As an extreme example, The Croydon riots in 2011 cost the Met Police £200m in compensation payouts alone. While they were costly, they were but a blip by comparison to the social division and unrest which will be seen if the failing cookie-cutter approach to “regeneration” is used in Croydon.

Our local authority, like many, is faced with stringent cuts to its budget which are having a strong. but not unforeseen impact across the board. Services for the most needy in our community are being slashed. Homelessness and hunger are on the rise.

While this may not affect the value of your investment today, it will. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not the day after. But it will come back to bite us all in some form. You are the ones with the most to gain from Croydon’s “development”, it stands to reason then, that you are also the ones who have the most to lose if things go pear shaped.

The path you are on, in Croydon and elsewhere is a dangerous one. The arts, cultural and community service offering in Croydon should be protected. It should be expanded and it should be universally accessible. With no money in the government coffers to pay for it, it stands to reason that you, the entities that stand to benefit the most, should contribute. You should contribute by being present. By being  part of the fabric of our community. By bringing something positive to the table.

While you are all generating or anticipating ROI at an astronomical rate, you should spare a thought for those who welcomed you into our town. Who praised your arrival. Remember those who held high hopes that you would do more than pay lip-service to the phrases community, society and engagement.  

Don’t fight us. Work with us. Let us buck the trend of failed regeneration initiatives. Shoreditch is already becoming passe. Peckham and Brixton on the way, if not there already.

Let Croydon be different. Let masterplans, unitary development plans and the property boom be inclusive, not exclusive. There is plenty of scope for developers and big shots like Boxpark, Westfield and Stanhope to make a heap of money out of our human, social and economic capital without turning Croydon into a faceless, soulless ghetto exclusively for white collar workers and men with wacky beards.

Our town and our borough has a big enough land mass and a large and diverse enough population for us to do regeneration differently. To be the envy of other communities. Instead of forcing the less well off in our society out and driving rents up beyond the reach of independent businesses, let us try and be stronger, bolder, more compassionate and more inclusive.

While you are developing our town, pay attention to what the people want. Don’t presume what is right for us. What works in other parts of London, won’t necessarily work here. Yes, we want big brand names and a shiny new mall. But we want more. We want to retain our independence and our independents. Our homes and our neighbourhoods. We talk. We interact. We often still say good morning, not only to our neighbours, but to complete strangers. Please don’t conspire to take that away from us, instead be involved and help nurture it.  

Citizen driven initiatives like Croydon Radio, The Croydon Citizen, Croydon Tech City, Croydon Creatives, Beats & Eats, Turf Projects, The David Lean Cinema and Rise Gallery are a tiny fraction of the great things happening in our town. Each and every one driven by people who know our town more than you and all the senior executives in the council ever will. They don’t do Croydon from 9 – 5, Monday to Friday. They do it 24/7. These people have tacit knowledge you could only dream of and they are willing to share it.

Many of these initiatives were the very things which gave you the confidence to invest in our town even before Westfield had been approved. These initiatives are largely self-funded or operate at a loss. They are borne from passion. From love. From hope. So, on this front, we implore you to do the honourable thing and put your hands in your pockets, sooner, rather than later. Help each and every one of these initiatives and others like them in Croydon and in other areas in which you work. They are the lifeblood, the beating heart, the soul, the passion in our communities and they need to be nurtured. They are the core columns upon which your towers are being built.

Work with them. Support them. Engage. Join communities, don’t “enter markets”. Give them money. Cash money. Identify a saving you can make in your business and pledge the financial equivalent to one of the groups listed above or many of the other grass roots, positive activities in Croydon – Green Croydon, Lives not Knives,, Project B, The Oval Tavern and the list goes on. They won’t ask for your money. They are too proud. It doesn’t fit their business model. It’s not very British. They won’t criticise you for not giving it, not publicly anyway. They don’t want to rock the boat.

Guess what? The boat needs to be rocked. Now, before its too late. Somebody has to start a process of meaningful discussion and engagement with our community. Someone needs to fund the work we are all doing to make Croydon a better place. Each of the initiatives I have highlighted is limping along. Achieving great things on shoestring budgets. While they may not need your money to stay afloat, it would sure as hell help them do more of what they do and do it better.

Do you feel me yet? What I am saying is, you “developers” are a fairly wealthy, cash rich bunch. Our grass roots initiatives are cash poor. Without our grassroots initiatives, your wealth will depreciate. Ours on the other hand will remain the same. You have everything to lose in the “battle” for Croydon and we have little. Share the love while it’s still an option. Failing to do so, will only end in tears.   

The projects highlighted in this letter are just a couple of examples in a long list of projects, organisations and initiatives which are dear to the heart of Croydon’s community. They have changed the reputation of the town for the better. They made it investable. Each and every one of these projects didn’t happen because of Boxpark or Westfield or Saffron Square (in fact, it’s likely the opposite is true), they happened because local people are passionate about the town and full of hope and promise for its future. These same people risked time and money they could not afford to help make Croydon what it is today: a dynamic, vibrant and exciting place to live and do business. On the cusp of amazing things. For your sake and ours, let’s keep it that way.

Please don’t come back with the CIL (community infrastructure levy) as your rationale for excusing yourselves of your obligations. The CIL is nothing to the local community. None of these groups sees a penny of it. By the time they do, it will be too late. Imagine what adding just 1% more to your investment in Croydon could achieve if it went to grass-roots community initiatives, rather than even more glass and steel?  

Remember, where we pointed out that these things, which benefit the community, are staffed by people that live in the community? They need to continue to live in the community for those initiatives to continue. For them to continue to live here, it needs to, somehow, remain affordable for them to do so.

On this front, I put it out to the biggest landlords in the borough and the wealthiest of developers, to do something, to do more, to create decent, central, high quality AFFORDABLE rental accommodation in the town. It doesn’t need to be dripping in gold, but it need not look like a prison camp either. It can be done and you can turn a profit and get that shareholder value you yearn. I don’t mean somewhere in the borough. I mean in the town centre.

The minimum wage employees going into staff the stores occupying the space you produce need somewhere to live. The cleaners that will wipe the urinals and mop the floors of your billions of feet of retail and residential developments, need somewhere to live. The nurses, police officers and teachers that will see to your tenants when they need help. They need somewhere to live. The homeless, the unemployed and the unemployable who will “plague” the town centre and cause a nuisance, they need somewhere to live.

As developers, you have a responsibility to Croydon. A responsibility to contribute to our community in a positive way.

Please don’t betray us, we won’t stand for it and we won’t wait until its too late.