This article was first published on The Croydon Citizen on 28/11/2016
Undercover at Develop Croydon
I’m not a fan of overstated promotion and management-speak. ‘Placemaking Croydon, Space Age City’ would normally see me walking quickly by on the other side of the street, staring intently at my shoes. But if you believe some people, this year’s Develop Croydon conference was a chance to meet capitalism, red in tooth and claw, in its toothiest and clawiest incarnation: property developers. Jetting in from their penthouses and country estates intent on pillaging Croydon for the evil profit, this was an opportunity too good to miss.
So although just a little fearful, I dug out £150 of my own hard-earned and signed up for an afternoon session. I chose the ‘A space to work?’ session at the TMRW tech hub.
Unsure what property developer conference clobber might be, I deployed my best suit and for the first time for a long time, a tie. This seemed like my best chance of getting through undetected.
The afternoon was two panel sessions: a few prepared questions answered by panel members, followed by questions from the floor. Puzzlingly, the vast majority of those present either lived or worked in Croydon, or both. More disconcerting still, all were in varying degrees thoughtful and positive about Croydon’s future whilst recognising that much work still needs to be done.
Most instructive was an account of the move of Body Shop from London Bridge to Croydon. The Body Shop staff had a sudden collective intake of breath when Croydon was announced as their new head office location. Yet an exemplary transition plan has, so far at least, resulted in no resignations.
Yet that experience has shown up some of the gaps in Croydon’s offering. Body Shop’s previous culture of after-work drinks has disappeared. Rightly or wrongly, their largely female staff are concerned that Croydon of an evening is not safe.
The reliability of trains is an issue. Their staff, who leave work at irregular hours, find this makes managing their evenings impossible. So far only two staff have moved, but disappointingly some are contemplating leaving when Body Shop’s transition arrangements end.
So although there is much to commend us, there are still areas to address. The council has rightly identified the night time economy as an area to work on. The performance of Southern is hardly ever out of the news, and not in a good way. There is some hope for improvement once the infrastructure investments have been completed. The sooner the better. Addressing anti-social behaviour was rated the highest priority although, as was supported by councillor Mark Watson’s remarks on the subject, this is in my estimation a problem that is more imagined than fact.
More puzzling was the result of a survey that judged Croydon’s housing offering as poor. We have many advantages, from new developments to the green spaces that should be attractive to families. Worth further work to get to the bottom of this one. Is there a real issue or is this another that is more imagined than real?
Panel discussions over, we headed off for the social drinks at the ANP building. Champagne and caviar perhaps, or Patum Peperium thinly spread on slices of buttered toast with the crusts cut off? Not exactly. More Cronx beer and vino plonko. Austerity has reached even into the ranks of the masters of the universe.
A few short speeches and then time to go home to ponder what I had learned before my cover was blown. This was a sales event, an opportunity to promote Croydon, to connect decision-makers and for them to network with each other. Deals won’t be done here but contacts would be made, relationships developed and faces put to names, oiling the wheels to move Croydon forward.
The right people were there, at least from Croydon’s side, although from my non-representative sample there were perhaps not enough from elsewhere. Visitors from outside will have got a good positive sense of Croydon and its offering, from Boxpark to Cronx beer, from the TMRW tech hub to the London Mozart players now homed in South Norwood. Our elected representatives, council officials and local commercial representatives were all there. If you’re looking for something to complain about, I suggest you look elsewhere.