Allders could hold key to Westfield’s Croydon development

It is beginning to look as if Croydon Council leader Mike “barbed wire and attack dogs” Fisher and his Tory mate on the London Assembly, Steve O’Connell, Britain’s most overpaid local councillor, may have jumped the gun in proclaiming a done deal over Westfield moving in on the Whitgift Centre.

Where will Allders fit in with any Westfield development plans in Croydon?

Westfield, the multi-million Australian developer which operates a major shopping mall at White City and recently opened another at Stratford, at the gateway to the Olympic Park, issued a statement yesterday, just in time to make front-page news in this week’s Croydon Sadvertiser.

In the press release, it was announced that the developers “had entered into exclusive arrangements with the Whitgift Foundation (UK) to explore the potential redevelopment of a major retail centre at Croydon in south London”.

Under the headline (remarkably similar to yesterday morning’s Daily Torygraph) “Deal agreed for third Westfield at Whitgift”, the Sadvertiser threw in the possibility of a £250 million investment in the 1960s-built Whitgift Centre. “We will do everything we can to facilitate this deal,” Fisher was dutifully quoted as saying.

Today, however, it seems that the Sadvertiser‘s bullish headline got it spectacularly wrong, and what has actually taken place is another Croydon botch job, with Councillor Fisher at the heart of it.

The Westfield-Whitgift “agreement” is a little bit too “exclusive” for the liking of the other co-owners of the shopping centre, who between them control 75 per cent of the leasehold and today were expressing their dismay at not being properly consulted.

Royal London Asset Management, which owns 25 per cent of the centre’s leasehold, said it was “surprised” to hear of the move. “Whilst we at Royal London are admirers of Westfield’s London developments, we are aware of several other major shopping centre developers similarly capable of delivering an excellent scheme in Croydon.

“To achieve the best possible outcome for all stakeholders, we are continuing with the ongoing process of identifying the most appropriate partner with which to move the development forward and are excited by the opportunity that this presents.”

Royal London, together with the Anglo Irish Bank which owns 50 per cent of the leasehold of the Whitgift Centre, could pull the plug on the Westfield deal at any point.

Even as this news was breaking, O’Connell was blissfully Tweeting another “victory” for him and his secretive chums who are in charge at the Town Hall: “Westfield coming to Croydon. Tells you all you need to know that Croydon is the 21st Century coming place.”

Or not, eh Steve? For a wannabe future MP, he really ought to have his finger on the pulse a bit better than that.

Of course, Westfield and the Whitgift Foundation may yet get the other owners on board, but it is hardly an auspicious beginning. Most bizarre of all is that they chose to announce this “exclusive” agreement of a possible redevelopment when neither party owns nor controls the premises.

It looks like yet another false start for the centre of Croydon, which is falling apart before our eyes after more than a decade of planning blight through dithering local authorities and the evident greed of fast-buck developers.

St George’s Walk was supposed to be the site of a brand new John Lewis store. The retailer (now ensconced on the Purley Way in a new format store) and developers walked away from that scheme long ago. Some of the small retailers in St George’s Walk have recently been offered new five-year leases, so it would appear unlikely that there will be any much-needed development on that eyesore any time soon. Makes you wonder why cherished stores like Turtles had to close at all?

Another retailer inextricably linked to Croydon, Allders, must feel like it is in the midst of a tug of war here. It is unable to plan long-term for the store’s development in the midst of so much uncertainty. The arrival of a rival department store, like a John Lewis, might signal the business’s ultimate doom.

There were rumours, strongly denied by Allders, that this Christmas could be the store’s last, with around 1,000 jobs – part-time as well as full-time – under threat. A new Westfield mall on its doorstep could also sound the death knell for Allders.

The old Victorian store that did so much to shape central Croydon, after several tough trading years, is under increasing pressure. Later this month, Centrale, right across the High Street, is expected to get permission for its redevelopment plans from its new owners. Will that see even more trade leach away from Allders?

But Allders, conjoined to the Whitgift Centre, might yet hold the key for any Westfield move into Croydon. Because once you peel away the cheerleading of Fisher, O’Connell and the Sadvertiser, it is worth questioning some aspects of the Westfield proposal for the Whitgift Centre site.

Whitgift is a significantly smaller site that White City and Stratford; Westfield developments tend to depend on economies of (large) scale to make them work. So how could that happen on the Croydon site, unless extensive extra land was obtained – including Allders, perhaps?

And as we have mentioned, Westfield already has major retail sites to the west and east of London, but they are not the only show in town: competing with Croydon for those 3 million customers in Surrey, Kent and Sussex will also be Lakeside in Essex and, closer to home just around the M25, Bluewater. When the Westfield beancounters “do the numbers” on Croydon, will they all add up?

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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