The Croydon man at the heart of the Hammersfield deal

The £1 billion deal to redevelop the Whitgift Centre and Centrale needs, among its many objectives, to rekindle Croydon’s community spirit according to the chairman of one of the companies in the big-money joint venture.

John Nelson, the chairman of Hammerson, right, at the Fairfield Halls announcement yesterday with Frank Lowy (left), his Westfield counterpart, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and David Atkins, Hammerson's CEO

John Nelson, the chairman of Hammerson, right, at the Fairfield Halls announcement yesterday with Frank Lowy (left), his Westfield counterpart, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and David Atkins, Hammerson’s CEO

John Nelson was born in Croydon. The 65-year-old who had been brought up in Selborne Road near East Croydon and later on Croham Park Avenue in South Croydon,  took evident pleasure in “coming home” yesterday, as the chairman of Hammerson stood on the stage of the Fairfield Halls alongside Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to make the announcement of his company’s agreement with Westfield.

Nelson is possibly among the best of the “local boy done good”-type stories: he has chaired Hammerson since 2005, one of the toughest periods imaginable for a property development company with large holdings in commercial property and retail centres (Hammerson also operates Brent Cross and Birmingham’s Bull Ring).

It has been on Nelson’s watch that Hammerson divested itself of much of its office block holdings, investing instead in… Croydon, with its £100 million deal to buy Centrale in 2011.

It was in that year that Nelson, a merchant banker with Kleinwort Benson, Lazards and JP Morgan, took over as chairman of Lloyd’s of London. He has a serious business background. Nelson seems determined to ensure that Croydon is very much at the heart of the “Hammersfield” deal.

One thing which businessmen like to avoid is lengthy and expensive legal entanglements. Certainly, that’s the first serious advantage of the declaration of peace between Nelson’s company and global shopping mall giants Westfield in the battle for Croydon’s future. Hammerson’s share price rose 2.9p yesterday on the news.

There are massive financial advantages in the deal for Hammerson, who under the outline terms of the agreement announced to the Stock Exchange yesterday, appear to recoup their investment in their purchase of a 25 per cent of the freehold of the Whitgift Centre (something which now appears to be a masterstroke of business chess-playing), while getting to own half of the whole deal.

Most importantly, for the first time in 40 years, the agreement creates the possibility of unifying the two shopping centres at the heart of Croydon, which offers myriad advantages.

“Now,” one Croydon councillor confided to Inside Croydon after the flamboyant press launch, “the battle is on for which plan will win – the outward-looking Hammerson scheme, or the inward-looking one offered by Westfield.”

John Nelson: a cultured approach to Croydon

John Nelson: a cultured approach to Croydon

At yesterday’s launch, Nelson spoke with a good deal of affection of Croydon, talking of “the regeneration of a town very close to the centre of my heart”.

Speaking to Andrew Pelling for his Croydon Radio programme due to be broadcast at 3pm this Sunday, Nelson said that he felt Croydon had lost some of the community spirit he remembered as a youngster.

He was open in his critical analysis of the reasons for this, blaming “poor long-term planning and mistakes on the development front”.

It was around the time that Hammerson bought Centrale that Nelson visited the centre of Croydon, seeing what it was like after the shops had closed after a day’s trading. According to one well-placed executive working on the centre’s redesign, Nelson was not only unimpressed; he was very concerned.

“The number of all-night bars and clubs, with young people falling out on to the streets in the early hours, frequently the worse for wear, goes against what we want to achieve with Centrale,” our source confided at the time.

“We want to attract families to the centre of town to shop, to eat out, to go to see a film, through the day and into the evening, and the general atmosphere in central Croydon works against that.”

With Hammerson’s ambition to create “destination” shopping venues, their success in Birmingham and 97.5 per cent occupancy rates at their other shopping centres, yesterday Nelson expressed the hope that his company can make Croydon a “vibrant place” once more. Passionate about the arts – he is a trustee of the National Gallery and for eight years was the director at the English National Opera –  he wants to restore Croydon’s cultural scene, recognising that his company’s investment may well depend on creating a more successful, broad Croydon community.

Such a cultured approach from the Croydon boy turned banker will be welcomed locally after some pretty nihilistic arts and culture destruction from Croydon’s Town Hall.

  • Separately to yesterday’s announcement, and as part of the on-going redevelopment of Centrale, the TK Maxx store in the centre is to close at the end of January, the retailer announced this week. The chain will continue to operate its shops on Purley Way and at Whitehorse Road. It is understood that the Centrale store is in space which the centre’s owners plan to develop a multiplex cinema.
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2 Responses to The Croydon man at the heart of the Hammersfield deal

  1. It’s reassuring that although Nelson a hard-nosed, successful business man, seems very well rounded,is that he’s Croydon born and bred and has a feel for the place that another non Croydon person wouldn’t. Ok, there’s only so much he can do but at least he has a connection of “the regeneration of a town very close to the centre of my heart”

  2. Leaving aside the issue that redeveloping shopping centres that do not need it is not regeneration;

    leaving aside the issue of why so much money is to be spent on this redevelopment rather than on genuine regeneration investment in those parts of Croydon that need it;

    leaving aside questions such as what will the rent and business rates levels be on new retail units and who will be able to afford them;

    it is welcome that Nelson has a personal commitment to Croydon. Perhaps he will consider persuading his company’s board:

    (1 ) to offer a substantial sum of at least £2-3m for the establishment of a Croydon Cultural and Heritage Foundation to be controlled by community, voluntary and arts and heritage groups (with no Council or Fairfield Halls involvement) to support and develop the cultural scene in the Borough (in addition to the Community Infrastructure Levy that will be paid on the redevelopment);

    (2) buy out the owners of the site by East Croydon Station, and renegotiate with the Council to ensure that the Warehouse Theatre can be re-opened..

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