Whitgift Centre to close for three years in Croydon facelift


Whitgift CentreSomeone must have forgotten to mention,  amid the local Establishment’s ecstasy over the vast acreage of retail floor space and 5,000 “new” jobs that the £1 billion new Hammersfield shopping mall promises to bring to central Croydon, that to enable the development, the builders will need to close what is now the Whitgift Centre for three years.

Three. Years.

No previous Croydon facelift has ever taken so long.

The Croydon Council cabinet meeting last night delivered the foregone conclusion of approval of using possibly millions of pounds of public money in compulsory purchase orders, or CPOs, to buy up properties to facilitate the development. The three-year closure of the shopping centre first emerged then.

No one bothered tacking on to the three-year prognosis the words “at least”. But it is the nature of these large-scale projects that they over-run, in terms of time as well as costs.

Suffice to say that from next year, a large swathe of central Croydon will be a building site until December 2018. At least.

Funny how the cheerleaders for the Whitgift Foundation, which owns the majority of the freehold of the site, never mentioned this previously. But hey, did they bother to draw attention to the fact that major players in the development, Westfield, also happen to be donors to the Conservative Party? Don’t be silly…

No, instead we have the flag-waving and pants-wetting performances of the likes of Gavin Barfwell, who is supposed to be the MP for Croydon Central, and his bag-carrier, state-paid constituency office fac totem Mario Creatura.

“Proud to have watched as Croydon Council took a historic vote to use CPOs to pave way for Westfield & Hammerson’s sorely needed £1bn scheme,” Creatura said.

“Proud”? About spending potentially millions of public money for what is a private development scheme? Creatura is a Conservative candidate in a safe Tory ward in Coulsdon in next month’s local elections.

One of Westfield's imagined views of how the new mall might look: much of this area will be closed off for building works for three years

One of Westfield’s imagined views of how the new mall might look: much of this area will be closed off for building works for three years

“Great news – Croydon Council has tonight agreed to use Compulsory Purchase Order powers to bring forward Westfield/Hammerson scheme,” Tory MP Barfwell announced on Twitter.

Barfwell keeps forgetting to mention that he sits on the influential board of the Whitgift Foundation… the same Whitgift Foundation which stands to benefit hugely from the development.

“The Westfield Hammerson shopping centre is a major and complex development and we want to ensure it moves forward as quickly as possible,” said Jason Perry, a director in a firm of building suppliers who is also the cabinet member responsible for planning and regeneration in Croydon’s Tory-run council.

Referring to the Croydon Partnership, the entity created by rival developers Hammerson and Westfield to handle the redevelopment of the Whitgift and Centrale centres, Perry said, “I’m pleased that the Croydon Partnership has already acquired some of the land for this development. They aim to reach agreements with the vast majority of other owners in the coming months.”

All options – that is, the developers are supposed to offer to buy out current occupiers – are supposed to be exhausted before the use of CPOs. There are around 360 shops and businesses on the current site. Any CPO would need government approval before going to a public inquiry.

“It is unlikely that the developers will be able to reach agreement with all parties within a reasonable timeframe,” Perry said, avoiding mentioning Minerva, the leaseholders of the old Allders site. There is already the threat of a legal challenge from something calling itself the Whitgift Trust, made up of what was the Anglo-Irish Bank and other leaseholders in the centre.

Undaunted, Perry continued: “Local authorities have these powers to ensure that regeneration projects like this – that will bring major social, economic and environmental benefits for everyone in Croydon – progress quickly for the good of the local community and the economy.”

Note that. “Will”. Not “may”. It “will bring major… benefits for everyone in Croydon”. “Major” benefits, indeed. For everyone.

Pardon us if we exercise a modest amount of patience to see whether these promises from a part-time politician and full-time builders’ supplier are ever realised.

By our highlighting the “overlooked” details, such as the site’s ownership by the powerful Whitgift Foundation, Westfield’s political allegiances and the three-year blight of the centre of town, Barfwell and his Glee Club cronies will try to suggest that Inside Croydon and anyone who refuses to subscribe to their rose-tinted vision for the borough is in some way opposed to the Hammersfield scheme.

We are not.

We have tried to maintain some distanced objectivity about the project, in an effort to better judge its true merits, the possible benefits for Croydon, but also the risks.

Because Croydon, and Westfield, have been here before. They are not experiences we’d care to repeat.

Who could Whitgift Foundation member Barwell have had in mind when he said people had been "working behind the scenes"?

Who could Whitgift Foundation member Barwell have had in mind when he said people had been “working behind the scenes”?

Croydon Council has in the past run some disastrous CPO schemes. First there was the Croydon Arena dropped bollock, including a costly public inquiry – the site next to East Croydon Station remains undeveloped to this day. Later, there was further trouble over Minerva’s ownership of another “prime retail site”.

That Minerva have appeared as a bit-part character in the Hammersfield drama, as the spectre at the feast with their leaseholding of the old Allders site and the ludicrous Croydon Village Outlet stunt, ought to be reminder enough of how, even with loads of public cash being thrown at CPOs, these things are never straightforward.

And then there’s Bradford. It is 18 months now since we warned Croydon of how not all Westfield developments work out, and how Bradford city centre has been blighted for a whole decade by a massive hole in the ground where Westfield had promised a mega-mall. It is not impossible that such a fate might befall Croydon.

Hammersfield in Croydon is already running behind its original schedule. Demolition work now cannot start before the second half of 2015. The transport plan for central Croydon remains like the unicorn – much spoken about, but hardly seen. Given Hammersfield’s dependence on shopping, even if everything opens on time, the fate of the new mall is at best only short-term and uncertain. As billions of pounds of retail business shift online each year, analysts in The City have no real idea what the landscape of the High Street will be like after Christmas 2014, never mind by 2019, which optimistically will be the new mall’s first full year of operation.

Marks and Spencer, Next, Waterstones, the long sought-after John Lewis: will any of them even want shop space by the end of the decade if so much of their businesses go online?

And meanwhile, thousands of Croydon shop-workers and small businesses in the existing Whitgift Centre face an uncertain future, perhaps being offered transfers to other stores, perhaps being given their P45s before the bulldozers move in. Where might these business’s hard-won trade go in the meantime – to Bluewater? Lakeside? the West End? – is anyone’s guess, and whether those customers ever return is the £1 billion gamble.

Funny how Barfwell, the MP for the Whitgift Foundation, forgot to mention any of this.

UPDATE: See what Croydon’s planning chief was saying just hours later

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This entry was posted in "Hammersfield", 2014 council elections, 2015 General Election, Allders, Business, Centrale, Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, Jo Negrini, Planning, Whitgift Centre and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Whitgift Centre to close for three years in Croydon facelift

  1. Hopefully excellent news and a much needed development.

    However given the history of stalled developments in Croydon and elsewhere, it would be prudent to have a robust, enforceable, Plan B should Croydon Partnership fail to make acceptable progress or cancel part way through. I’m sure Croydon Council will have this in mind and perhaps they will advise on details?

    Croydon must not be left with a “wasteland” in place of the Whitgift Centre.

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