A lesson in town centre regeneration

In regenerating Britain's towns, we must look to an approach centred around commercially-viable projects

Concrete jungle: Lunar House, Croydon
Przemek Skwirczynski
On 22 August 2012 16:57

What a captivating story: we’re somewhere half-way through a decade-long (if lucky), worldwide depression, with an EU implosion around the corner and faced with a possible turn in London’s property price trend, yet two commercial heavyweights are fighting tooth and nail over the centre of a town most famous for a face-lifting hairstyle.

The place in question is Croydon and the competitors are Westfield and Hammerson -- shopping centre gurus and real estate giants respectively. Of course there is more to it than meets the eye – the regeneration of Croydon is hardly a purely charitable exercise. Rather it is centred on commercially viable principles of developing a centrally located supermarket in a London Borough, which, despite its dilapidated town centre, is actually quite an affluent suburban area.

There is also the potential to attract vast clientele from further afield, in Surrey – the UK’s wealthiest county which also happens to be shy of decent shopping centres where one can part with their money.

Urban redevelopment has of course been around since at least the years following WWII due to the necessity to rebuild swathes of British cities bombed out by German air raids. It has since then been applied to bringing various brownfield sites or derelict parts of towns and cities back to public use.

Since the emergence of post-industrial society in the UK, redevelopment has become a major priority with multiple centrally located sites becoming rapidly derelict. The fairly recent example of London Docklands, and especially Canary Wharf, became a poster for urban regeneration of brownfield sites and an inspiration for subsequent projects across the country.

A very recent trend of online shopping and eating in, combined with a prolonged recession and weekend shopping in out-of-town shopping centres, has helped destroy many centrally located high streets and turned them into derelict ghettos. Last summer's riots often happened in once-thriving town centres such as Tottenham, Wood Green, or Croydon, possibly acting as a barometer for degeneration of these areas.

Out of these three, Tottenham and Croydon have been promised the Government's and the Mayor's particular attention and public funding to help undo the devastation caused by riots as well as to alter their course.

Certainly, redevelopment has not always happened on a knee-jerk basis; Stratford was revamped in time for the Olympics and the Paddington basin area was done up to create another office hub to the West of central London and to potentially rival Canary Wharf at some point in the future. Shepherd's Bush received the first Westfield in London, which, due to its sheer square-footage, took care of various problems, social and other, persistent in that part of London. Elephant and Castle had its regeneration set out in 2004 but unfortunately its effects are yet to be observed.

Residing in the south of the London Borough of Croydon – which feels distinctively more like Surrey than the North which is very much intertwined with the rest of South London – I cannot help but praise the conservative pragmatism in the approach to the regeneration of Croydon's town centre.

Not long ago, Ken Livingstone attempted to take a bite out of this part of Boris Johnson's doughnut by offering us a referendum on leaving Croydon and London and re-joining Surrey in return for securing him a win in the latest mayoral elections. This very leftist approach, aimed at sweeping problems under the carpet as opposed to tackling them head on, fortunately did not work - Croydon voters stuck to their guns and chose Conservatives, hence also voting for regeneration of the town centre as opposed to simply putting up with it.

With the spectre of Red Ken firmly out of the picture, a vote of confidence was given to the Conservative leadership of the borough as well as London City Hall, with their appropriately capitalist approach to running London. The libertarian take on regeneration seems to have worked so far.

I know - nothing has actually happened yet. But the momentum is there. The basic principle of free market economics, i.e. the backbone of a truly conservative economic policy, is encouraging competition. Simple supply and demand laws dictate that the higher the supply, the lower the price, given a constant demand.

In Croydon and surrounding areas, including Surrey, the demand for a huge shopping centre is obvious; the supply is therefore the real variable, which is why lining up real competitors for the contract to redevelop the town centre has been so crucial to carving out the best deal for residents.

The consultation is still ongoing, but both Westfield and Hammerson have already upped their antes repeatedly in terms of what perks they would provide, in order to win the public vote.

Now let's contrast that with the overly optimistic regeneration plan, symptomatic of the latter part of the New Labour era, of another South London hub, Elephant and Castle, where it was supposed that throwing public money at a problem would resolve it.

The Labour stronghold of Southwark did not come up with a commercially credible plan, nor did it secure competition for contracts and ideas, hence resulting in a situation where deadlines have long been forgotten. It seems likely that the lofty aspirations for the area's regeneration will also be forgotten except for the handful of projects which actually managed to cross the line over the course of what soon will be a decade-long project.

It may be the case that Southwark simply took on too much in a difficult area, itself having been "regenerated" as a post-war effort to create an abundance of social housing, which by now is seen to be failing its residents.

Its plan seems to take care of pulling down a number of sink estates, building new mixed-use developments, creating new roads out of the existing roundabouts and possibly more. Tie in the facts of multiple investors, contractors, the railway, and the London Underground, not to mention the issue of re-housing one of the most populous parts of the third most densely populated borough in London, and you are faced with a number of dependencies that would make even the finest project manager run for the hills.

As great as Southwark's redevelopment ideas may be, having seen the transformations that a major shopping centre can make in areas such as Shepherd's Bush and Stratford, I am inclined to say that, where possible, an approach centred around a commercially-viable project should take precedence.

With a manageable handful of goals and led by a competitively-selected commercial giant, town regenerations in our austerity-themed, cash-strapped decade can be a success across the country.

Przemek Skwirczynski is an economist, banker, and Conservative

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