£1bn Westfield and Hammerson scheme is Croydon’s last hope

CROYDON COMMENTARY: DAVID CALLAM welcomes the Hammersfield redevelopment of the centre of town. After all, there is no alternative

The Whitgift Shopping City proposals are a way for the Whitgift Foundation to secure its financial future for decades to come.

Westfield's preliminary drawings for how they want to change Croydon

Westfield’s preliminary drawings for how they want to change Croydon

Will the people of Croydon be paying extra council tax for years to fund a local authority investment in the scheme through compulsory purchase orders?

No. Council money will not be invested in the development. The CPO rules are clear: the council must have a commercial buyer ready to take immediate ownership of a property before it is allowed to issue an order.

Hence the debacle for the council in the past over the “Croydon Gateway” site next to East Croydon Station: it was never clear whether the developer had the funds available to buy it. Likewise Minerva, for all its bombast.

The closure plans for the Whitgift Centre need to be much better than the previous arrangement. Do you remember the upgrade of the centre in the mid-1990s? It was like The Somme. No bullets, but plenty of muck and duckboards for bewildered shoppers to cross the no-man’s-land of a building site.

Of course, there are risks in even a phased closure of a major shopping complex for three years. Neither Hammerson, nor Westfield, nor anyone else, knows what kind of retail market the Hammersfield shopping city will face when it re-opens.

But what is the alternative?

Croydon has been in decline as a shopping destination for decades – long before the most recent recession. I can remember retailers hoping that the last upgrade of the Whitgift Centre, now a generation ago, would bring long-lost shoppers back to the town. It didn’t. The consensus then was that the refurbishment hadn’t been radical enough.

Could the Whitgift Centre end up as a hole in the ground, like Bradford? Of course it’s possible, but I think it unlikely. The London economy has never been as badly hit as that of Yorkshire and there are too many ambitious politicians with reputations riding on the success of Croydon to allow it to fail.

You will accuse me of being heartless in not considering the short-term job losses; I’m not. I can remember interviewing successive groups of Allders staff as it became clear they had to go. It was difficult not to be moved by their stories. I would hope to minimise that kind of pain.

Croydon has had more plenty of closing down sales

Croydon has had more plenty of closing down sales

I believe the prospects for existing Croydon shop workers and for coming generations of retail staff will be brighter as a result of redevelopment. If we don’t do something now to halt the decline, many retail staff will lose their jobs anyway.

I believe there will be other big changes to Croydon as Hammersfield makes its presence felt in the town.

It will want the easiest possible access and egress by car to and from its shopping city.

Expect substantial proposals from Boris Johnson to re-model Fiveways and Purley Cross – but not before the local elections next month. And in a second phase, most likely to be made public after the General Election in 2015, expect further even bigger proposals to dual the A23 from Thornton Heath Pond or Mitcham Common to the M23.

The launch of Whitgift Shopping City will be massive, on the same scale as Stratford or White City, in an attempt to bring back to Croydon rich shoppers from the Surrey Hills and, I suspect, from as far south as the Sussex coast who haven’t shopped in the town for decades.

At present Croydon is a tip: the closure of Allders will have adversely affected every retailer in the town centre. Forget the PR hype coming from the council and others: the local economy is hurting.

Basically, we have two choices:

We can either manage the decline, waiting until somewhere further south decides to become a major retail destination. Then the remainder of our large stores will move out, leaving Croydon with just secondary shopping – a South Norwood or Streatham on speed.

Or we can reinvent ourselves as London’s largest shopping and entertainment destination, fit for the 21st century; the second-largest of its kind in the country after Trafford Park in Manchester.

I prefer the second option.

Coming to Croydon

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8 Responses to £1bn Westfield and Hammerson scheme is Croydon’s last hope

  1. Kristian Gregory says:

    Tech city? Financial services (RBS was rumoured to be thinking about moving to Croydon at one point)? A university town? Surely there’s other options?

    There’s something very cynical about pushing retail as the primary career option for Croydon’s next generation.

  2. davidcallam says:

    Kristian: get real! And stop looking a £1 billion gift horse in the mouth!
    Tech City is a good idea, but no more than that; financial services are contracting at a rate of knots; and we have been talking about founding a university college for decades, without making any significant progress.
    Meanwhile, there’s always someone prepared to rubbish retail as a career. Try telling that to the legions of buyers, middle managers and sales staff in shopping centres and high streets across the country who are earning a comfortable living from a myriad of retail outlets.
    We could and should be founding a college of retail: we’ve talked about it before, but like so many other things in Croydon, talk is all we’ve done.

    • All fine and well David, if you want a cart before the horse economy – Taking in each other’s washing.
      To have a sustainable local economy we must strive to generate added value and it must include robust industrial and technical sectors. Retail, in my opinion should be secondary to this.

  3. davidcallam says:

    Terry: the horse to which you refer is dead.
    Industry left Croydon in large numbers decades ago and it will not return; Greater London remains the most expensive region in Britain in which to manufacture.
    Technical firms are largely involved with research and development, employing small numbers of highly qualified people. Once they reach mass production stage they go elsewhere in the country, or abroad, where labour is cheaper.
    Nostalgia is fine in its place, but don’t let it get in the way of the future job prospects of our children. For better or worse Greater London, and that includes Croydon, is the centre of the country’s service economy.

    • There’s now’t wrong with ‘orse, just needs carrots and a bale of hay occasionally thrown in it’s direction. The good Chancellor has belatedly woken up to the fact, perhaps our town leaders will learn a lesson from that.

  4. davidcallam says:

    I’ve heard this argument about the good old days advanced for decades and throughout those tens of years manufacturing has continued to decline, particularly in the south.
    Now, at a time of economic uncertainty, I understand the attraction of looking backwards, but it won’t do.
    The days when the Purley Way was a hive of industry populated by the likes of Ford and Phillips have gone for good and we must adapt to the demands of the present and the future.
    The north of England, Wales and Scotland may see some limited revival of manufacturing, but not – repeat not – the south.

  5. I’m certainly not talking about the past, I’m trying to talk about the Now and believe me David, there’s plenty to talk about. Everything from Beekeeping to Precision Instrument making: CADCAM and 3D Print specialists – High End Automotive specialists – High Grade Component manufacture for the Aerospace Industries – The emergence of software applications engineering for the mobile telephony industries and particularly bespoke programs for local business – there’s lot’s more besides; all beavering away with scant recognition from the media.
    Of course the great assembly lines, press shops and lathe rooms of Purley Way are no more. I’ve swung the fly press, stood at the capstan lathe and rubbed swarfega into my hands and wouldn’t wish those days on any youngster now.
    Engineering and Science is an ever changing process, old skills become redundant and new skills take their place. Of course it wont generate mass employment but please recognise that Science and Engineering is still a driving force for the town’s prosperity.

  6. davidcallam says:

    Terry: of course Croydon has its share of technical businesses, each employing a handful of highly-skilled people, and long may they continue to thrive.
    But they cannot be the basis of the borough’s economy because they will never be big enough to replace the firms of the past, about which you are so keen to wax lyrical.
    We need to find a new way forward and retailing offers such an opportunity if only you and others wouldn’t keep insisting that it can only play second fiddle to the ‘good old days’ of heavy engineering.

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