One of the most depressing cities in the world to visit is Brasilia.It was all built at once in a short burst in the 1960s, and as a result it is all growing old at the same time. There is absolutely no relief.
Brasilia to Croydon is a bit of a leap but it has a similar problem.
During the 1960s it was the place to be. A best-seller called The Property Boom written by a then Times journalist, Oliver Marriott, devoted chapters to the astonishing transformation of its City centre.
Today Londoners flock to Westfield in the Olympic Park, and to the shopping arcades under Canary Wharf. Hard to believe now when so much of its 1960s architecture looks so tired, that a generation ago their south-of-the-river destination of choice would actually have been Croydon.
At a conference in the Fairfield Halls on Wednesday local politicians, businessmen and community leaders outlined how they hope to bring back those glory days.
They have hugely ambitions plans for new office complexes and a facelift and conversion of some of the obsolete stock into residential flats. But the real key to changing the image of the place – at least for outsiders – is the demolition of a huge swathe of the current town centre and its replacement over the next five years with a state-of-the-art shopping centre, planning permission for which will be sought before the end of the month.
The shopping centre alone will cost £1.5bn and there will be perhaps twice as much spent on other projects.
Uniquely, this will be a joint effort between the UK’s two leading exponents of the shopping centre art – Westfield and Hammerson – and it will be intriguing to see how those two rivals co-operate.
It will be equally interesting to see how nearby residents and businesses cope with the inevitable disruption as they live next door to a construction site.
However, the big question is whether yet more shopping really can be the engine for urban regeneration.
Obviously it will attract visitors to the shopping mall itself as the Westfields at Shepherd’s Bush and Stratford have demonstrated.
But the key will be getting this spend and economic activity to spill out into the surrounding area so that it is not just the shops within the centre which benefit. That may be a considerable challenge.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing though was that at least the local community is giving it a go.
You get the sense in many depressed English towns that the local politicians think their problems are not simply daunting but actually insurmountable.
It would be great if Croydon does manage to transform its image, because it would show that if the local leadership is sufficiently imaginative and determined it can be done.
Believe it or not, Britishness gives finance firms an edge
The deal announced on Thursday whereby the mutual life group Royal London sold RL 360°, its offshore business, highlights a couple of things which are well worth thinking about.
The first is that RL 360° is the third business in recent times which the mutual group has nurtured – others being its investment platform Ascentric and the insurer Bright Grey.
None of these got off to a fast start – rather they required patience, commitment and time to get established and a willingness to allow the local management the freedom and flexibility for them to decide how the business could best develop.
It is surely significant that a mutual which can give space and time to these ventures has proved to be so much more successful as a seeding house than its listed company competitors where management is under pressure from the stock market to deliver results every quarter.
The second point is that the Isle of Man-based RL 360° is in the business of providing financial products for high net worth individuals everywhere except the UK.
Traditionally these businesses started by offering a haven for the money earned by expatriate Brits who did not want to put the money they earned in the local banks. Then it developed into a similar service for third-country expats – a South African working in Indonesia for example; and now it is beginning to move into a third life as provider of products for the indigenous population – as with the wealthy Chinese in Hong Kong.
The point is, however, that there are many people from many countries selling financial products, but what resonates with the customers and gives RL 360° a competitive edge is that it is a British institution.
Its chief executive, David Kneeshaw, says that the concept of Britishness is hugely important in attracting customers because they trust it.
At a time when here in the UK the financial-services industry is reviled as never before, the reputation for propriety and integrity remains its main selling point overseas and a highly effective one.
On one level that is ironic; but the more serious point is that there is an asset there of huge value.
It is not something to be lightly squandered.
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