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Lessons from Croydon for the future

WellesleyRoadCroydonI remember buying one of those novelty books a few years ago which enjoyed the title Boring Postcards. It was a book that revelled in the peculiar excitement that local authorities have for their new developments, however mundane they might appear to the outside world.

As an example of this, I remember getting a press release from Walsall when I was being a weekly newspaper editor with the headline ‘Joy at Opening of Tourist Kiosk’.

It was this kind of attitude that led the London Borough of Croydon, sometime after 1965 when it opened, to publish a postcard of the Croydon underpass, which had pride of place in my postcards book.

I thought of this as I drove through traffic in the Croydon underpass – still there (it’s a survivor) a few days ago, down the strange and unlovely Wellesley Road, originally designed in the disastrous 1951 plan as a bypass for the overcrowded and now pedestrianised Croydon high street.

The southern flyover envisaged under the same plan destroyed most of Croydon’s old town. But it is the Wellesley Road that gave Croydon its reputation for dullness. ‘At least we’re not in Croydon,’ says a battered lady in some disaster in a recent cartoon. When the cartoonist drew that picture, it was the Wellesley Road they were thinking of.

But driving along it at dusk this time, and looking up at the tall offices that line the six lanes and tramway, I had a kind of revelation. Practically every one of the offices along the road was empty. The lights were off, the To Let signs up, and sometimes the wreckers were in.

There are some new concrete monsters. And Lunar House survives, of course, home of the UK Border Agency. So does the back of the Whitgift shopping centre (1969), shortly to be redeveloped. But the vast majority of offices were clearly vacant.

It was a revelation of the absolute failure of the local economic strategy before last – office-based development. There is plenty of failure also to be seen on the same drive of the last local economic strategy: property-based regeneration.

The vacant sites are overgrown. The IYLO building – the tall flats planned as a gateway to Croydon – is abandoned with plastic fluttering in the wind, a monument to the property bubble.

It is hard to forgive this kind of failure. It was expensive. It was ugly. It enriched a handful of developers and it undermined Croydon’s reputation as a good place to live – and it didn’t work.

Worse than that, it undermined the ability of other regeneration to work in the future.

Wellesley Road has become a symbol for me of the failures of local government to rise to the challenge of local economic development, to understand where the money flowing through their the local economy actually goes, and find ways of keeping it for longer.

It is a symbol of the failure of local government to claw back a grown-up role in economics beyond simply selling off sites and a rather passive, arms-length duty to have developers in for lunch.

But there is something in the air, thanks partly to the localism act and thanks also to the kind of entrepreneurial revolution that is happening in the some American cities – and increasing awareness that local enterprise that really matters, because it stays put, employs local people and increases local energy – and the local tax base – in a sustainable way.

Local government officers are taken aside at birth so that the treasury can whisper in their ear and told that this is not their business. They are trained from the age of seven that they must wait around, wringing their hands, for outside investment or for government initiatives.

It is time they began to break free of these strictures, the legacy partly of Thatcherism, partly of the reaction to the imprisonment of T. Dan Smith and Our Friends in the North. Because neither outside investment nor the government seem likely to rescue them.

It is nerve-wracking though. What can they do after all? Who will guide them?

The answer is that they must look around the world and see how they are linking new co-ops in Mondragon, or linking this to the way they use their procurement powers in Cleveland, Ohio. Or how they are setting up community banks that act as bartering hubs for small businesses in Brazil.

Or in this country how they are pioneering town centre energy in Woking or business start-up coaching in a range of places (modelled on BizFizz).

Exactly how this new drive is going to manifest itself is hard to predict, but every time I drive through Croydon underpass, I know it is coming – because the status quo is unsustainable.

The real challenge is not so much to launch innovative new pilots. There are brilliant projects everywhere, especially where local government is beginning to grasp the new powers of general competence that were made available in the localism bill.

What has not happened yet is a concerted and ambitious attempt to link them all together, and claw a way out of recession by doing so, as part of a balanced approach that raises local wellbeing, lowers carbon emissions and makes urban populations less unequal.

This would be a local, and a neighbourhood, approach to making economics work for people rather than against them – based on increasing the local velocity of money, on import replacement not comparative advantage, on greater levels of co-operation rather than competition, and on a much more personal approach to enterprise.

Much of it is tried and tested and waiting for local government to see the opportunity and forge an approach which is, in its own way, as important as Joseph Chamberlain’s urban revolution of the 1870s when he transformed Birmingham and laid down a pattern for others to follow.

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