Croydon’s reliance on retailing for its economic salvation will come under even greater scrutiny after the council’s most senior official overseeing the multi-billion-pound redevelopment schemes around the borough identified the decline of high street shopping for the collapse of a property deal in Coulsdon.
“The world has moved on in relation to retail format and viability”, was the stark warning from Jo Negrini, the council executive director for planning and regeneration, in an email to one of the borough’s MPs last week about the failure of a development scheme on the Lion Green Road car park site.
Negrini is the all-powerful “executive director, Place” in the council HQ, Fisher’s Folly. She was appointed to her six-figure job to smooth the way for the £1 billion takeover of the centre of town by Westfield. But Negrini also has wider ranging responsibilities for development elsewhere in Croydon.
In an email sent to Croydon South MP Chris Philp on Friday, Negrini admitted that a deal to build a supermarket on the site of the Lion Green Road car park had broken down – seven months after the 220-space car park was closed for the development, causing massive problems on the local roads and forcing some businesses to move from the area.
The supermarket development, intended in part to serve the 700 new homes being built by Barratt’s on Cane Hill, had been approved by the previous Tory council administration, at a time when one of the Conservative councillors and a sometime member of the planning committee, worked for a PR firm whose clients included… house-builders Barratt’s.
The Coulsdon build was due to be undertaken by CCURV, the urban “regeneration” vehicle, a partnership between John Laing and the council, which was dreamt up under Croydon Tories by the former council CEO, Jon Rouse and his successor, Nathan Elvery.
Planning permission for the Coulsdon project, which included a health centre and accommodation for a scout troop, was pushed through by the then Tory majority planning committee in April 2014, a month before the council elections saw Labour win control of the Town Hall. The supermarket was due to be built and open for business, with a re-opened, 200-space car park, by autumn 2015.
CCURV has already cost the borough’s Council Tax-payers at least £100 million more than better-priced deals on other projects, but the Labour council that was elected in May 2014 has failed to investigate the extravagant charges of CCURV and has continued the partnership with Laing for some schemes.
In Negrini’s email to Philp about Coulsdon, she wrote that CCURV “can no longer deliver a viable scheme on the site. However, the council are reviewing options to move forward and remain in discussion with Waitrose who are still keen to be part of the scheme.”
The project had been delayed due to an unsuccessful legal challenge, and the Museum of London had been on site to conduct some archaeological research. This was still being used as an excuse given by the council to community groups just days before Negrini’s email.
Tony Newman, Labour’s council leader, was clearly uncomfortable when questioned on the issue at last night’s Town Hall meeting, suggesting only that a new plan will be brought to cabinet. Whether this will happen before the council manages to provide suitable, alternative car parking spaces in Coulsdon town centre is anyone’s guess.
One Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon, “It seems likely that Waitrose found the extra costs of the planning conditions too much.
“It is a sign of the current crisis in retail nationally. It’s clearly a vote of no confidence in the future of Coulsdon retail, and a real warning for Croydon as a whole.”
Sean Fitzsimons, the influential Labour councillor who chairs the council scrutiny committee, said, “CCURV was set up by previous Tory council as a money-making venture, which it has patently failed to do.”
Tory MP Philp told Inside Croydon: “I was alarmed to hear that the Waitrose development will no longer be going ahead on the Lion Green Road car park site. The loss of this car park caused parking chaos in Coulsdon. The effects of this closure are still causing very serious problems.
“It is concerning that work never started on the site. Before the car park was closed the council said in a press release that, ‘The car park closes on the 19th July with work beginning the following day’. Clearly this was totally untrue, as work never started.
“The car park should never have been closed if there was no concrete plan for work to start. The council’s assurance has proved totally false. The car park should be reinstated immediately and not closed until they have a proper plan.”
This, of course, is not the first costly disaster inflicted on the people of Croydon by council officials and CCURV.
It is clearly long overdue that the council agreements with John Laing should be subjected to full public scrutiny, so that the roles played in the deals by the likes of councillors Mike Fisher, Tim Pollard and council officials Rouse, Elvery and Julie Belvir, the Borough Solicitor, should be properly and independently investigated.
And all council agreements with Westfield and Hammerson for CPOs and other public expenditure on their behalf should also be triple-checked to ensure that they are absolutely legally water-tight and in the long-term interests of residents and existing businesses.
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