And so it begins…
The sheer scale of the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, together with Centrale, has already been illustrated by the rapidly rising estimates of the cost of the scheme.
From the £1 billion figure when it was announced by London Mayor Boris Johnson at the start of the year, it has already gone through £1.5 billion (a whole 50 per cent hike in just six months), to £1.6 billion when the very same Boris was talking up Croydon’s prospects most recently. This wasn’t some misreporting by a junior on a local paper; the words actually came out of the blond buffoon’s mouth. He really does make it all up as he goes along.
Boris is not alone in this respect: Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher managed to say publicly last week, his comment passing unchallenged, that the scheme will create 8,000 new jobs – a mere 60 per cent increase on all previous estimates that the scheme’s two developers had both suggested.
It’s the sort of speculators’ inflation that has building firms rubbing their hands together eagerly, as the pound signs whirl in their eyes, a response which in the past has usually been reserved for poorly managed public projects financed by the apparently bottomless pit of the tax-payers’ pockets (For the record: Property Week is dutifully still using the original £1 billion guesstimate of the cost of the Croydon scheme; the truth is most probably that no one really knows).
But a further sign of the scale of the scheme came this week, when our local council started to deliver 200 letters to existing businesses and other tenants on the Whitgift Centre site, threatening compulsory purchase orders if commercial agreements cannot be reached.
Two hundred separate occupants: Derren Brown would have an easier task juggling water than Croydon has of successfully pulling all those together seamlessly and smoothly.
The number of tenants involved is another measure of the massive scale of the enterprise facing what is calling itself the Croydon Partnership, or what we term Hammersfield, the shot-gun marriage between previously rival developers Hammerson and Westfield.
The council’s letter going out now is an interesting cart-before-the-horse move, and one full of risks – just ask the good folk of Bradford, who had to live with a giant hole in their town centre for a decade when Westfield failed to deliver its promised shopping mall there after having got the local authority to CPO the site and remove the previous occupants.
Hammersfield has lodged its formal application for the Croydon development, which includes 2 million square feet of shops, plus more high-rise flats and some “destination” leisure facilities (like Croydon doesn’t have enough multiplex cinemas). Yet they have delayed submitting promised, revised plans for approval by Croydon Council. Someone discovered that there might be some traffic issues in central Croydon. Who’d have funk it?
So the threat of CPO-ing current occupants of the Whitgift Centre could be pre-judging that everything will be acceptable in the submitted plans. Is a reason for the apparent urgency because the current, Conservative-controlled council is going into elections in less than 10 months?
The local Tories have been parading Westfield director John Burton at their party meetings, which may demonstrate how desperate they are to bask in the reflected glory of something – anything – being progressed in our town, however tenuous this benighted Tory council’s role in the scheme may be.
A change in administration next May won’t see the Hammersfield baby thrown out with the bath water, but if Labour gets in (and that’s far from being a foregone conclusion), they seem certain to bring with them a change in emphasis on matters such as public realm benefits and the ratio of social housing included among the 600 homes in the scheme, compared with the high-yield yuppie “apartments” so favoured by local Tories, the developers’ friends.
Property Week reports that, “The council is understood to have sent around 200 requisition letters to affected landlords notifying them of its intention to pursue CPOs if commercial deals cannot be agreed to sell their stakes to the Westfield and Hammerson joint venture.
“The CPOs will affect stakeholders including the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, Minerva and Legal & General Property, as well as all the retailers’ leases.
“If the CPOs are implemented, it would enable Westfield and Hammerson to finally gain control of the entire Whitgift Centre site, and progress their plans. The council will make a decision on Westfield’s outline planning consent in September, after it was delayed from last month. Changes will then be made to the plans to reflect the desires of the two owners.”
The developers have issued a statement that contained a number of key promises for the existing occupants. It will be interesting to monitor how these all play out:
- “The land assembly process is vital to bring forward this development at the earliest opportunity …”
- “… it is our priority to ensure that all businesses involved are consulted”
- “… we are sympathetic to the impact our proposals will have on some local businesses, and we will be working closely on a one-to-one basis”
- “For businesses that would like to remain in the town centre, we will work with each business to seek long- and short-term solutions”
Of course, Hammersfield will need many of the existing businesses to buy-in to the scheme, ultimately as occupiers of the vast space it will be providing, in what is the biggest retail development in the country.
But for all the talk of touchy-feely one-on-one consultations, there is mixed signals from Westfield’s Burton: “The clear message we are sending out this week is – it is full steam ahead.”
That might just be a clumsy mis-use of gung-ho language, but Burton probably considers that in this kind of situation, the side with the money usually wins. And the Australian-based developers, who have already delivered massive malls in London at Shepherds Bush and Stratford, have plenty of that.
Burton says he hopes that agreements can be reached with 99 per cent of the present tenants. Of the other 1 per cent, a public inquiry – probably next February or March – would need to approve the council’s CPO, a process which in the past in Croydon has too often ended in tears.
They say money talks, but in the past couple of weeks it has been Cash doing the talking, Marco Cash. He is the businessman who has announced that he is moving in on the Allders site. Was Cash’s bold “we’re be here for 150 years” claim this week just publicity bluster? Or might it have been a public negotiating tactic?
Burton has said that there will be no place in the Hammersfield development for Cash’s Croydon Village discount store. So Croydon Village may be taking up its tenancy, from landlords Minerva, just in the nick of time to force a potentially lucrative deal from Hammersfield, eager to avoid a stand-off over a CPO.
Otherwise, Hammersfield’s 2017 target opening date could yet prove hard to hit.
Having fired the starting gun on the property acquisition process, Croydon Council has made a promise of its own in a press release. “If redevelopment gets underway the council is determined to make sure the Whitgift Centre remains vibrant for as long as possible, that local employment levels are not affected and that disruption is kept to a minimum,” the statement said.
That comment was issued without being attached to the name of a Conservative cabinet member or senior council official. No prizes for guessing why.
Read Inside Croydon’s archive on the Hammersfield project:
- £1.5bn Hammersfield scheme hits a planning road block
- Hammerson and Westfield agree to work together in Croydon
- Shot-gun marriage provides £1bn Croydon facelift
- Mary Portas, Westfield, Bradford and a £1bn hole in the ground
- Boris’s cunning plan: too high, too many, too central
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
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