The £1bn Hammersfield supermall may prove to be regenerative for Croydon’s economy. Once it is built. But as STEVEN DOWNES reports, uncertainty over development timescales is blighting existing businesses
The start of building work on the redevelopment of Croydon town centre could be delayed until 2017, according to sources among the businesses based in the Whitgift Centre.
Much of the Whitgift Centre is expected to be closed for at least three years while the “Hammersfield” building works take place – and with diminishing prospect of the £1 billion new supermall being ready to open this decade.
Today, the 1960s-built Whitgift Centre is slowly decaying, while the property owners and their developer chums from Westfield and Centrale owners Hammerson carve up the multi-million-pound deals which they have already been negotiating over for more than four years.
For those working in the Whitgift Centre, meanwhile, the realities are that they face another three years of a form of planning paralysis.
Uncertainties over the redevelopment’s timetable, the absence of any significant spending on repairs and upgrades to existing infrastructure within the Whitgift Centre (not unreasonably, pending its demolition), and the reluctance of other traders to move in to the doomed shopping mall have all contributed to the ageing centre becoming evermore empty and run-down, and therefore unappealing to its businesses’ lifeblood, shoppers.
Just a week ago, Tony Newman, Labour’s leader of the council, was hailing the decision of the government inspector to allow the Compulsory Purchase Order to go ahead on a large swathe of property within the doomed Centre as “a day of celebration for Croydon residents”.
But ordinary shop workers, cafe owners and other traders based in and around the Whitgift Centre have little to celebrate. For many, they fear their jobs are under threat. Some have their businesses on the line. They face another key Christmas trading period with diminishing “footfall”, as customers take their trade elsewhere while the promised Nirvana of the Westfield redevelopment remains just that… as yet unrealised promises.
Traders within the shopping centre, the freehold of which is majority owned by the multi-million-pound “charity” Whitgift Foundation, have been told that they can expect to trade for two full Christmases – that is, 2015 and 2016 – under new “flex leases”.
“It’s the epitome of a ‘like it or lump it’ offer,” one business owner told Inside Croydon, not wishing to be identified.
“We’ve been kept hanging on for years already, with all sorts of talk of the wonderful future ahead. There was a suggestion that we’d be offered a transfer into Centrale when the Whitgift was closed and demolition started, but that seems to have gone away now.
“Instead, we face the prospect of soldiering on for another year or more, with fewer people coming into the centre, and more of the shops around us packing up and leaving all the time.”
As the Whitgift Centre slowly rots, its management has security guards patrolling its walkways between the Poundlands and the Sainsburys, the Marks and Sparks and Boots. The guards are there as a deterrent to shop-lifters and anti-social behaviour, but part of their role is also to stop people taking photographs of the centre’s interior, and of the increasing number of closed shops and cafes.
Managing the current hiatus, from sad decay to the Promised Land, is clearly becoming an issue for developers and the council. This may explain the PR offensive undertaken recently from the Town Hall, paying thousands of pounds of public cash for an “advertorial”, a bought-and-paid-for supplement in a weekly magazine. The New Statesman soft-focused the future, conspicuously promoted Newman’s role in the regeneration, and included not a single image of what the inside of the Whitgift Centre looks like today.
“Newman keeps talking about how it will create 5,000 jobs,” said one central Croydon worker we spoke to. “But he’s not been able to deliver on a promise of a single job.”
Newman supposedly presides over a Labour council. Since taking office 16 months ago, they have done little to influence or amend the Whitgift Foundation’s plans. Instead, Newman has become an enthusiastic cheerleader of a scheme which was originally pushed through by the Tory MP for the area, Gavin Barwell, working together with London’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, and Westfield director John Burton. Both Boris and Burton spoke at the rally to launch Barwell’s election campaign 12 months ago.
Many of the proposals for the new supermall remain under wraps, deemed “commercially confidential”. Details of what form a promised “community amenity” might take are scant: some council insiders suspect that this will be where the casino will be situated in the new Westfield centre.
While Newman merrily adds his weight to the Glee Club narrative surrounding the Hammersfield redevelopment, he and his fellow Labour councillors face a pressing political dilemma: the next local elections are in 2018, when Croydon town centre will be a vast building site, in the midst of all the pain of the “regeneration”, while the promised benefits – including a hoped-for boost in Council Tax revenues – remaining like a mirage in the far distance.
Those still working in the Whitgift Centre, meanwhile, feel ignored and abandoned.
“It seems to be very difficult to find out information on the redevelopment plans and timescales,” one anxious resident, the partner of a shop worker at the centre, told Inside Croydon.
“I appreciate that there is a process to be followed and that dates move but it seems that one thing that hasn’t been taking into consideration is the human side. There is a lot of unease at the Whitgift at the moment, with Chinese whispers flying around and the ordinary people like us are thinking ‘when is this actually going to happen?’
“I wrote to my councillors, Mike Fisher and Richard Chatterjee on August 20. I have had neither response nor acknowledgement that my email has even been received.
“I previously contacted Gavin Barwell asking for an update as he seems quite vocal about the project – or was prior to the election – and I’ve heard nothing. To say I am less than impressed with them all is an understatement.”
Like many who live and work in Croydon, the resident has a litany of unanswered questions.
“Where will the retailers relocate to? Will their rents be comparable and affordable? And most importantly for the remaining staff, if the centre closes, where will I work and how will I pay my mortgage?”
The uncertainty and insecurity is worsened for employees because they hear different accounts from other stores within the centre.
Staff at Sainsbury’s were told by management earlier this month that their landlords were trying to extend their lease for another couple of years. “It just doesn’t seem to make any sense at all,” a member of staff told us.
Hale Man, the artist-in-residence in the Whitgift Centre (or, put less charitably, the person given some free space by the owners to help make the centre appear less like a ghost town) was supposed to move out last month ahead of the expected arrival of the bulldozers. Now, she has been given a six-month extension on her stay.
“The information we are fed seems to change, week to week,” the shop worker said. “People working for smaller businesses appear to be getting less information than those working for the big chains and banks. But there’s uncertainty everywhere.”
Another Whitgift Centre source fears for the future of the smaller retailers, many of whom feel trapped, not knowing whether to move on or hang-in there to try to benefit from the promised regeneration. Westfield – through its previous developments, including Stratford – tends to prefer larger chains to take up its new retail space, squeezing out independents with high rents.
Others draw comparisons with what happened with Minerva’s never-realised plans for Park Place – in and around the Nestle building and St George’s Walk. “Long-established and respected Croydon businesses like Turtles just shut up shop and went out of business because of the uncertainty over their lease and future trading conditions,” one shop-owner in the Whitgift told Inside Croydon.
“How many decent, hard-working Croydon people is that happening to again, now, here?”
The partner of the shop worker said: “I doubt that many of the smaller retailers will be able to afford rents in the new Westfield development. So what happens to them? Are they banished to the High Street? Or from Croydon altogether?
“We heard that there were plans for some of the Whitgift retailers to move to Boxpark by East Croydon, once it is built. But then we were told that Boxpark will be just food and drink outlets.
“It all seems to be a case of ‘just wait and see’, which fills me with unease and dread as we are unable to make solid plans for our future because we don’t know where one income will come from.
“How can we plan to move on? To do the best for our family and look to buy a bigger property?
“Who is going to give us a mortgage if we only have one income?
“If we do stay put in Croydon, can we afford to live with only one income while another job is found in what is now a country of Zero Hour contracts and part-time work for shop staff?
“It’s not just about us, but there is a bigger picture here. The staff and retailers at the Whitgift are people. They are not just businesses of units and stock, of profit and loss, but ordinary, hard-working people. With families, with lives, with plans for the future.
“But why would the developers, the councillors, or the Members of Parliament be concerned about that?”
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