Shops and flats.
That, in three words, appears to be sum and substance of the local Establishment’s superficial “vision” for Croydon’s future. It might be a slight improvement on “bread and circuses”, but not by much, and would seem to have similar dubious motivations.
Gavin Barwell is Tory MP for Croydon Central, an area of the borough which, thanks to the connivance of our Conservative-run council, is sucking up the majority of the £23 million Mayor of London’s riots relief fund, at the expense of areas worse hit by rioting to the north of the borough.
Barwell was at pains at his regeneration one-man-show on Thursday night to disguise any preference for either of the two rival schemes to redevelop the Whitgift Centre, belying his position with the Whitgift Foundation, the majority freeholder which is firmly in bed with Westfield.
Claiming 4,000 “mostly positive” responses to its somewhat self-serving survey of Croydon residents’ views for its vague plans, Westfield is promising to publish its findings, possibly as early as this week.
There is almost certainly to be one important word absent from anything that Westfield, or its expensive PR agency Bell Pottinger, puts into the public domain: Bradford.
Bradford is a salutary lesson for Croydon of how things can go very badly wrong with important development schemes.
Bradford, too, was once promised a wonderful new shopping mall by Westfield, upon which the city’s burghers staked the area’s future. The Yorkshire blog Louder Than War has this week published a dire warning for Croydon, and our hard-pressed high streets, based on Bradford’s bitter, nine-year experience.
Louder Than War’s Jim DeBarker writes that, “The proclamation by a company called Stannifer in 2003 that it was to build a £350 million mixed use retail and leisure super-mall in the heart of the city of Bradford was met with excitement in some quarters of a city that was already showing the first shoots of high street decay and stagnation, most notably in City Hall. Retailers in the existing shopping precincts of the centre were understandably nervous.” Sound familiar, Croydon?
“Planning permission for the project was granted on 10th September 2003 with the promise that 3,000 new jobs would be created.” In Croydon, Westfield is promising 5,000 new jobs.
“Excitement and hope for the future rang high around the council chamber and was met with a crescendo of optimism in the local paper, the Telegraph and Argus.” Nothing to do with extensive newspaper ad campaigns bought by the developers? Or was the local paper simply gullible? Either explanation could apply in Croydon.
“Demolition… began in March 2004. A flurry of activity was seen amongst Bradford shopkeepers nearby as everyone vied to be in the best position to exploit the new shoppers that would soon be flocking their way en route to the new mall. Accordingly, landowners in the surrounding areas increased their rents and forced out some independent retailers in order to cash in on higher rates they could expect from chain stores who had missed out on a seat in the main arena but could still make a profit from being located nearby,” DeBarker continues.
“Then, in December 2004, Westfield bought Stannifer and took over the project.
“By the summer of 2006 the site had been largely cleared with an expected completion set to occur in late 2007… A huge foundation was dug into the ground in the place that would house the car park for the centre. At this point construction stopped, and was left in the same state in which it can be found to this day.
“The official line from Westfield is that they are having difficulty in convincing enough tenants to offer assurances that they will take up space in the centre once it is built. BHS, whose existing store on the site was demolished in 2004, announced that they would not be seeking to return. Of the other secured tenants announced such as the Arcadia group chains (Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Burton etc), most already have stores elsewhere in the city centre which are expected to close if the mall is ever built, leaving the city’s retail offer unchanged save for more empty units in an increasingly deserted high street.”
Bradford’s “Hole”, as it is known locally, is 20 feet deep and measures 12 acres, with rusting girders sticking out from the muddy basin. DeBarker calls it: “A monument to the power of speculative excitement over rational attitudes to regeneration”.
Croydon is not without its own “monuments” already, such as IYLO or even the site of Ruskin Square, where its owners, Stanhope, have given a similar excuse to that offered by Westfield in Bradford, for a lack of progress: the absence of “pre-lets”. Without viable commitments from office or retail tenants, why go to the trouble and expense of building on the site, while the site remains on the company’s “land bank”, potentially increasing in value?
In Bradford, DeBarker reports, “Frustration reached such a peak that at one point the council attempted to buy the land back from Westfield so that it could be put to some form of use, but the company attached a price tag so high that this became an impossibility.” Councils and their commercial “partners”, eh?
“The Hole has been enough to demonstrate to the people of Bradford that huge companies such as Westfield, and the politicians who are so easily blinded by the allure of jobs and investment, may not always be working towards a positive conclusion,” DeBarker says.
Even until recently, hoardings around The Hole offered North Korean-style slogans: “Your shopping experience coming soon”. They also included “Your Westfield”, which the PR spinners have already begun to use for its Croydon-based Twitter propaganda, @YourWestfield.
But locals have subverted this, with a revised “Wastefield” logo and huge signs that ask “What the hole’s going on?”
The only real answer to that question came from the company last year, when it announced “scaled down” plans for a shopping centre. Similar to a scheme announced this week by Croydon MP Barwell, where business rate concessions would be made for new businesses coming to the borough (to the commercial disadvantage of long-term, existing Croydon businesses), Bradford’s council offered significant relief to Westfield on business rates in order to try to attract tenants.
When Westfield announced its £1 billion plans for Croydon, the reaction in Bradford was a mix of disbelief and some foreboding. “There is no doubt that Westfield are once again speculating that the recession they claim has stalled the Bradford centre will be over by the time they expect the first tills to ring in Croydon,” DeBarker says.
ACROSS THE ROAD from the Whitgift Centre, work has already begun on upgrading Croydon’s rival shopping mall, Centrale, with a £100 million spend by owners Hammerson.
Chosen by the Whitgift Centre’s majority leaseholders, Royal London Asset Management and Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, as their preferred developer, Hammerson is due to have detailed consultations with Croydon Council this month about the Whitgift site.
Hammerson has recently made a £500 million divestment of some of its office block interests, to free-up the cash for its retail developments – which also include Brent Cross in north London. But Croydon, Hammerson claims, is “our No1 priority”.
Hammerson’s plans for Croydon involve unifying the two, separate malls in a retail “village” with four anchors, Debenhams and House of Fraser in Centrale and Marks & Spencer and a new department store in Whitgift. As well as a multiplex in Centrale, the scheme would include about 30 restaurants and cafes, a bowling alley and a small independent cinema.
Hammerson remains small enough that, just as with Stannifer in Bradford, they might easily be swallowed up by global giants Westfield. There are already rumours in The City that the Australians are girding their financial loins to buy-out Hammerson.
The alternative Big Play is that Hammerson gets granted planning permission for a scheme at Brent Cross, in return for walking away from any interest in Whitgift.
However the billion-pound tug-of-war is resolved, it will require our council to behave far more firmly and proactively in ensuring maximum and guaranteed development benefits for the existing people and businesses of Croydon. They need to act on our behalf, rather than that of the developers. Whether Croydon’s leadership of Mike Fisher and Jon Rouse is up to that task is in serious doubt. The £450 million CCURV? The £20 million Bridge to Nowhere?
Our council’s pusillanimous posture at the feet of the powerful is embarrassing at times. For all this talk of £1 billion, even £100 million developments, the £100,000 offered as part of a government-run Mary Portas competition for high streets is unlikely to achieve any lasting impact unless the shopping mall big boys are encouraged to do far more for the traders of Surrey Street and Old Town. It is the generosity of spirit that has been absent since last year’s riots and is missing from the distribution of the Mayor’s recovery funds.
It is difficult not to view the Portas scheme as anything other than a state-sponsored budget for a reality TV show. That much was plain by the retail “guru’s” petulant reaction when questioned in Margate, another of the winners of the modest seed funding for high street regeneration.
“You either let the cameras in with me or I go back on the train and some other town gets it,” Portas threatened local traders in Kent at a public meeting last month, as if the money being provided was in her gift.
Margate locals fear that by appearing on prime time TV in Mary, Queen of the High Street, their town would be portrayed in a negative light – a response which the people of New Addington will understand after their neighbourhood’s recent appearance on what many saw as a very sympathetic Secret Millionaire.
The Margate traders also expressed strong reservations over the restrictive nature of contracts they were asked to sign if they agreed to appear on the programme.
“It’s going to be warts and all but at the end, from my heart, I want this to be wonderful and I want Margate to be wonderful,” Portas told the meeting.
So just what will Croydon get out of that £100,000 production budget? And how much hard work – “pre-production – is being done for free by Croydon Council, by traders’ associations and other volunteers to smooth the way for Queen Mary and her camera crews?
Whether it is Portas, Westfield or Hammerson coming to Croydon with their various wads of cash, someone needs to ask the right questions, of why they are here, what do they want, and above all, what do we, the established residents and traders of Croydon, want in return?
The real answer to that latter question is unlikely to involve a 12-acre hole in the ground, or bread and circuses.
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- Hammerson gets green light for £50m scheme at Centrale (insidecroydon.com)
- “War over Whitgift” has planning showdown tonight (insidecroydon.com)
- Boris promises to end Croydon’s planning paralysis (insidecroydon.com)
- Westfield Croydon plans unveiled (bbc.co.uk)