It’s a Tuesday morning in Croydon town centre and The Whitgift Centre is quiet. Eerily quiet. There are still some decent shops. The massive Superdry store would be right at home in Bluewater or any other shiny new shopping centre. There’s an M&S, a Boots and a River Island.
But there’s also boarded up shops and lots of them. Croydon’s main shopping centre feels about three times bigger than it now needs to be and parts of it look like they are feeling very sorry for themselves.
Peer through the steamed up windows of the part of the shopping centre where Allders used to be and things look even worse. Abandoned and neglected, it looks like the sort of place even squatters would turn their noses up at.
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The Whitgift Centre still confidently labels itself as the “ultimate destination for shopping and dining” but this is a narrative shoppers and traders feel couldn’t be further from the truth.
For years (possibly decades) the town centre has been promised regeneration that has not come. Those shop owners that still remain are desperate for something, anything, to be done.
Things were meant to be so different. A huge new £1.5 billion Westfield shopping centre was promised for the town centre. Shoppers from across South London would flock there. Big names like John Lewis would be a part of it. It would be a catalyst for investment across the town centre and Croydon would be the undisputed social hub of South London.
But Westfield never happened. Delayed because of changes in shopping habits. Delayed because of Brexit. Delayed because of Covid. And eventually ditched altogether.
And things seem to be getting worse. Only this week, Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin has explained that Westfield failing to materalise was part of the reason he has closed two of his businesses in Croydon – The Milan Bar and The Skylark. More empty buildings.
Many shop owners believe the demise of Westfield before building work even started was the final nail in the coffin for the town centre. Muhamed Suma, 39, who owns a telephone repair store within The Whitgift Centre was gutted when the scheme fell through. “It would have changed a lot of lives for the better and definitely mine,“ he says.
“We have no passers by here. People just think the shopping centre is crap so they choose not to come. Look around, it looks like people have been kicked out. No one would want to invest in a shop here because everywhere else is closing.”
(Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)
It’s hard to disagree with him. In parts of the shopping centre it feels as though for every one shop open there are three closed. The lack of footfall may primarily be down to the obvious lack of shops but many traders blame antisocial behaviour too.
Entering Whitgift from the east there is an underpass which takes you under Wellesley Road into the shopping centre. When we visited there were around a dozen tents, sheltering homeless people just yards from the entrance. Among them was a rough sleeper lighting a tin foil wrapped pipe and smoking from it at around 10.15am in the morning.
Despite recognising that it is not their fault that they have nowhere better to sleep, shoppers told us they have been put off by the antisocial behaviour which surrounds the shopping centre. Anna Tali, a 43-year-old beautician, who was shopping in Whitgift, admitted she is frightened by this and believes it a reason that people have stopped coming to Croydon to shop.
“There are gang fights, drug takers and drug dealers all round the [town] centre,” she said. ”Obviously that’s the same with every area but I feel like Croydon is particularly bad. It [the underpass] looks like a horror movie. I feel sorry for the homeless people but imagine you’re with your 10-year-old daughter and a man is smoking crack in front of you. You wouldn’t come back.”
Anna wasn’t alone in remarking that the town centre had become “dodgy”. A security guard who didn’t want to be named said that they are often warned about gang violence in Croydon and witness plenty of it.
Multiple shop owners told us they were terrified by how common the closure of shops around them had become, with one even labelling it a “weekly occurrence”. Michael Banrar, the owner of a furniture store, says: “Every day a different shop is closing down. Next, well I don’t know, it could be us, it could be next door or maybe just the whole shopping centre. No one is helping us so now I guess we wait until eventually there are no customers. I don’t think this is far away.”
(Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)
So what’s planned now we know Westfield isn’t happening? The Croydon Partnership, which was meant to transform Whitgift and neighbouring shopping centre Centrale into a “world class retail and leisure destination“ says it will be looking at reducing the number of shops with more offices and restaurants instead.
The Croydon Partnership is made up of developers Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield and Hammerson, who insisted they “remain committed” to the town earlier this year. A long-awaited review of Croydon town centre and what will happen to it has yet to be started. For now all the people of Croydon can do is wait.
A spokesperson from the Croydon Partnership said: “[We] remain committed to Croydon and both partners are working on a new approach which is required for the regeneration of Croydon. This plan will define a new vision for the town centre that responds to the changes brought about by the pandemic and embraces the needs of the local community.
“In the meantime, we continue to support existing Centrale and Whitgift occupiers and we are engaging our customers through a programme of family events and initiatives intended to support the Croydon community. The focus will be to continue to amplify the sense of place and local character through further larger-scale initiatives and continued new uses over the coming years.”
A spokesperson from Croydon Council added: “We are concerned about the people in the Wellesley Road underpass and we are doing everything we can to help them improve their situation while also responding to residents’ concerns. The issues that cause people to sleep rough are complex and can take time to solve; we aim to take a compassionate approach, which can involve enforcement if support and outreach fails.
“We are working with a range of partners, including organisations who help people sleeping rough to escape homelessness and move into permanent accommodation, alcohol and substance misuse support services, the police and local businesses, to address the behaviour that is taking place in the underpass.“
What do you think needs to be done to improve Croydon town centre? Let us know by emailing [email protected]
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