This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 21/06/2017.
Croydon’s space shortage
Whether you want to grow your business or enjoy an evening out with a difference, Croydon’s shrinking space should worry you.
Since its launch on Friday 3rd March, Croydon’s Small Business Commission has held roundtables, forums, and conferences all over Croydon for the small business community in Croydon. While business owners from a wide range of industries – tech, transport, media, marketing, and many more – voiced their concerns and put forward their solutions, there remained one central theme that presented itself time and time again: space. Commercial space. Community space. Cultural space. Where is the space? It’s Croydon’s big grey (often concrete) elephant in the room.
I had the pleasure of hosting fifty business owners at our own Shaking Hands Commission conference, gaining a first hand insight into how the dwindling venues are affecting organisations, big and small, across the borough. Here’s a breakdown.
If you picked your copy of the Croydon Citizen up near the Boxpark development, or endure a daily commute through East Croydon station, it doesn’t take a great deal of spatial awareness to discover that commercial high-rises are popping up all over. Far from being another residential skyscraper gracing the Croydon skyline, the Ruskin Square development – with its two million square feet of office space, shops, and homes – will be, and indeed has already become, a perfect landing pad for large organisations such as the HMRC.
Many residents and business owners with an ear to the ground will have heard that Superdrug Stores (net worth £50m), Bodyshop (net worth £321m), Metrobank (net worth £352m), HMRC, and A A Homes and Housing (net worth £66m) have all established a home in Croydon.
At the same time, the planned demolition of the Whitgift Centre in March 2018 will leave a number of larger corporates with a difficult decision to make: relocate to Centrale, fight for the limited space available elsewhere, or return to Croydon when Westfield re-opens for business in 2022.
Aside from Ruskin Square, it’s difficult to pin down where the more well-known retailers will be dispersed during the developmental transition.
With the College Green development flattening Suffolk House, the purchase of the Nestlé complex by Chinese investment firm Ho Bee bringing uncertainty to the tenants below, an abundance of commercial-to-residential conversions following relaxed government planning procedures, rising business rates, and an increasing race to shore up office space in Croydon from all around the capital, it is no surprise that growing companies of 15+ employees are finding it difficult to locate affordable, suitable accommodation for their established teams.
Startups and small businesses
Hubs such as StartUp Croydon, AMP House, TMRW tech hub, and Sussex Innovation Centre are a credit to Croydon, satisfying a significant surge of interest in the area from small businesses all over. Plus, with a number of cafés in Croydon, from Smoothbean! to Byte Café to Crushed Bean happy to house caffeine-fuelled hot-deskers (so long as coffee and lunch is being purchased as a nod to the hospitality), there is a fair resource for startups and small companies of teams of 5–10 staff. The real issue will come further down the line, as a greater influx of interest arrives in Croydon.
To give an idea of Croydon’s annual growth, Croydon has been growing by more than 500 businesses per year for the past six years, jumping from 11,995 in 2011, to nigh 16,000 in 2016, 90% of which are micro-businesses (0–9 staff members).
It all rather begs the question: where is the commercial space going to come from?
What about the community, external to private businesses?
Big businesses bringing big investments will act as a strong magnet for traders, renters and homeowners to the borough. Naturally, an increase in both residential and commercial space is desperately needed to ensure that local, native entrepreneurs and residents are not priced out by dramatically rising business and renting rates.
Unfortunately, nobody is excited by Croydon becoming a dormitory town with the same chains, brands, and unethical corporates that make places like Sutton and Bromley dull places to live, work, and go out.
The backbone of the hype around Croydon is all to do with innovation, local business communities, and the capacity for thriving cultural offerings. The borough’s central issue here is the lack of space for place-making activities such as pop-up venues for daytime festivals, late night music events, art exhibitions, and weekly marketplaces.
What will be Croydon’s response to Shoreditch’s Brick Lane?
Despite companies such as Unicorn Events, Pirate Projects, Hoodoos Open Mic (soon returning), Lost Format Society, and RISE Gallery carrying the cultural scene in Croydon, there is yet to be a defining centre-point to our town.
What will be Croydon’s response to Shoreditch’s Brick Lane, Brighton’s ‘Lanes’, Birmingham’s ‘Digbeth’, Liverpool’s ‘Baltic Triangle’, Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’, Amsterdam’s ‘Nine Streets’, Budapest’s ‘Ruin Pubs’, Taipei’s ‘Night Markets’?
Croydon has every potential to be on the UK and international stage as a destination for cultural, communal, and commercial enterprise… but only if we have the foresight to create space for our creative minds to thrive.