The southern borough of Croydon believes it can deliver a substantial contribution towards London’s housing growth. And the commitment comes aside from the borough’s recently established pipeline of office to residential conversions.
“We are the biggest borough and we’ve got the biggest capacity,” the borough’s chief executive for place Jo Negrini claimed at mid November’s Develop Croydon conference. While the London Plan has set a target of 1,400 homes a year for the borough, it has given itself a larger target of 1,900 in its latest local plan. “So in terms of ambition we have got a lot more capacity than is stated.”
“Just in the same way as people are wanting more commercial space within their developments, we’re looking at applications coming back for more and more housing units so everyone is recognising that we have a lot more housing capacity than we’re stating,” she added.
“The other key thing for us is where is the capacity? We’ve got a very interesting borough in that we’ve got a very tight north in the borough and its Victorian nature; a mega metropolitan centre; and then we’ve got literally suburbs in the south of the borough. So there’s a lot of additional capacity in the south for us to really exploit.”
Lucy Owen, head of South London for the housing and land directorate at the GLA, said there was a desire to encourage local authorities to look beyond official targets.
“The targets we’ve set in the London Plan have been based on a lot of strong evidence and 49,000 a year is what we think is necessary to meet London’s needs, but of course we want people to be more ambitious.
“I would agree with Jo that in Croydon there is a lot of opportunity, both in the town centre but also outside. Croydon can be an area for families and young people offering different tenures and different types of housing.
“There is a gap between the number of homes we think we need and the amount of land we think is available at the moment which is why we work with boroughs like Croydon to make as much land available as possible to bridge that gap. There’s population growth in London and we need to meet it.”
The borough’s centre features a number of tower cranes on the skyline, as projects get under way. Among developments on site in Croydon currently is the Morello residential towers project, which will deliver 900 apartments on the former Bank of America site, close to East Croydon station. Across the other side of the railway tracks, work has now started on Ruskin Square, a development promoted by Stanhope Schroders that will include a first phase of 161 apartments, alongside new office space. Places for People is working as part of the team developing the new homes, within a 22 storey tower. Potentially a total of 625 homes will be included in Ruskin Square, as it is built out.
The borough has also been the focus of much developer activity, following the Government’s permitted developments experiment, allowing office space to be converted to residential. Large amounts of second hand office space in the centre of the borough have been converted, with some local office occupiers complaining of a lack of economical business space, as a result.
Among those particularly active is developer Criterion Capital, which has acquired three office blocks in Croydon, including the former BT offices at Delta Point, for conversion. The three together add up to more than 580 studio, one and two bed apartments.
Last autumn, the council issued an Article 4 direction to stop the free for all, requiring any further conversions to seek planning permission first. A report prepared by the council identified 1,236 apartments created in the borough under permitted development rights, with councillor Alison Butler claiming “the quality of the majority of residential accommodation is sub-standard”, not meeting London Plan space requirements.
Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor for London, told the conference that the progress on projects was due to teamwork, and a strong local ambition. “Two years ago, jointly with Croydon and Transport for London, we published a planning framework established that Croydon could produce with its partners 7,000 new homes and 7,500 new jobs.”
“The objectives of the opportunity area are to support the development of those 7,300 new homes; to create the infrastructure which is necessary for 17,000 new residents and above all to promote the retail core and get Croydon back to where it was many many years ago as the primary retail experience in south London.”
Negrini said the feel of Croydon was changing, with a major refocus on planning a more human central area. “In the 1960s and 1970s, Croydon was a cool place. It was a place people wanted to be. We want to get Croydon to that kind of place again.”
“We are moving from a centre that was catering for the fast car, a place where people were coming from all over, to a place that is a lot more accessible, more human in a way. We want it to be a place that excites people and is human at a ground floor level.”
Recent steps forward for Croydon have included the settlement of a long-running feud over shopping centres. Developer Westfield has now taken control, and will start work on its third retail centre in the capital, next year. New office space is also finding takers, with Croydon recently recognised as one of 13 new regional centres for the government tax office, HMRC, which will put 2,800 staff into offices in central Croydon.
One step the council has taken is the establishment of a development company, which aims to help pull sites through the first stages of the development process; and to capture more value for the local authority. Set up as a private company, the new organisation has the council as its sole shareholder, and there is a desire to find development partners, to help bring schemes forward.
“We need to deliver on schemes we’ve already got in construction, there are 1,000 or so at the moment,” said Colm Lacey, the borough’s director of development.
“The second key challenge is around public funding. Our level of central government grant has gone down by 46 per cent over the last five years. We need to deliver more for less but we also need to be more commercial; to make more money from the things we do.”
It is expected that the development company will borrow funds from the council, and deliver a mixture of housing under different tenures, according to local market demand.
Lacey said there were plenty of sites prepared for development. “We have major projects such as Taberner House which is a 400 unit development, possibly more. The site is prepared and cleared and ready for development.”
“Similarly a major regeneration of the College Green area will create upwards of 1,500-2,000 residential units so that is a very significant scheme. However the majority of the programme looks across the rest of the borough. Quite a lot of our smaller sites are in the other wards and we’ve identified around 70 that are for redevelopment.”
LPA Perspective: Croydon’s got its mojo back. With the shopping centre tussle sorted out, and long-promised redevelopments around East Croydon station now actually under way, the area is standing tall once more. The office blocks of the 60s – increasingly converted to homes – are being joined by a new throng of tall residential towers as Croydon gets its swagger back.
Effort is being made, too, to transform the central area’s car-dominated planning, with new pedestrian connections. New public realm, and a new arts centre, are among initiatives to ensure the central area is somewhere people will want to visit and live, not just commute to and from.
Say what you like about permitted development rights, the impact on Croydon has been significant. Councillors may be sniffy about the flats that such office conversions have created, but they have helped transform the centre of the borough. In 2012/13, office vacancy rates, at 52%, were worse than Detroit. Today, the figure is substantially less, while plenty more people can find somewhere central in the borough to live.
Thankfully, borough chiefs are rising to the capital’s housing challenge, by setting their own targets ahead of those of London planners. Here’s hoping they can deliver.