Is this where we say ‘we told you so’? The Nirvana of a megamall in central Croydon, first aired in 2012, could be another six years away following this week’s change of plan from ‘Hammersfield’, reports STEVEN DOWNES
Croydon faces years more uncertainty, delays and disruption, after Westfield and Hammerson’s revised plans for the redevelopment of the town centre, released this week, seem certain to require an entirely new planning application and probably a renewed Compulsory Purchase Order for the vast site.
That’s the view of one former senior council official who has reviewed the documents being submitted to next Wednesday’s council planning meeting.
“It looks like Plan A has been abandoned as undeliverable and they expect to have to do a whole new planning application,” said David Wickens, whose work included delivering the biggest engineering project yet seen in the borough, Tramlink.
“The proposals are all about the dreaded two-bedroom flats to finance developments.
“The Compulsory Purchase Order might also have to be repeated due to the increased housing element and perhaps less justification for the retail side.
“This is so disappointing for Croydon, but I have to say somewhat expected,” Wickens said.
The Croydon Partnership which has submitted the revised scheme is the shotgun marriage between the two giant mall development companies, Westfield and Hammerson, formed for the purpose of the development in Croydon. The Partnership announced on Wednesday that it had increased the cost of the scheme by 40 per cent, to £1.4billion, and that it would double the number of flats… sorry, “luxury executive apartments”, that it intended to build to 1,000. It has also increased the number of floors for retail by one-third, and that its principal “anchor store” was revealed to be a branch of (cue drum roll)… Marks and Sparks.
The decision to build yet more flats in the town centre may now set up a race to completion between the commercial developers and Croydon Council, who are dependent on the profits from the sale of homes around the College Green site to fund the £30million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls.
An over-supply of similar properties in the town centre, plus the glut of office-to-resi apartments (or “slums of the future” as senior Labour councillors have called them) coming on to the market around the same time might take the edge off profit margins, jeopardising both Hammersfield and Fairfield schemes, with potentially disastrous consequences for the town centre.
The CPO to buy-up vast swathes of the town centre to redevelop the fading Whitgift Centre and the unloved Centrale was given the green light last year, but progress towards starting on the scheme has since slowed to a crawl, with the developers eventually forced to admit that demolition work will not begin until 2017. Given this week’s revised plans, even that is looking very optimistic.
Wickens, based on his experience of dealing with council planning processes and contractor time lines, reckons that the Hammersfield timetable may now look like this:
- Revised planning permission granted early 2017
- New CPO, if needed, mid-2017 at best
- Demolition autumn 2017 to autumn 2018
- Construction in one phase autumn 2018 to autumn 2021.
- Opening: just in time for Christmas 2021
Even the Hammersfield scheme’s own website is admitting that its property speculation project, which was first announced in 2012, won’t now be open for business until 2020.
And who knows what the state of high street retailing will be like by then?
Oh, how different this all is from the vision of a bright new future which was flogged to the gullible and greedy Tory council by the local landowners and Croydon Central MP, Gavin Barwell, in 2013, as shown in this video from the time.
When a governor of the property-owning Whitgift Foundation, Barwell claimed much of the credit for bringing Westfield to Croydon. Will he and the Whitgift Foundation now accept their lion’s share of responsibility for the development blight that they have inflicted on the town centre for a decade?
As has been shown with Ruskin Square and Minerva’s stop-start schemes for the Nestle Tower, St George’s Walk and the surrounding land, grandiose developments such as these are never easy, nor swift. And Croydon Council’s track record for delivery is hardly dynamic.
The notion – still being peddled by Hammersfield in their press release this week – that the scheme will “provide the kick-start to Croydon’s much needed regeneration” is sounding increasingly hollow. If their development is not fully open until 2022, it could be that by that time, Boxpark will have come and gone, all of Ruskin Square will have been redeveloped, and the revamped Fairfield Halls will be planning its fourth anniversary arts festival.
According to Wickens, to comply with planning law, Hammersfield will need new permission and the whole CPO process may have to be revisited. It is a view supported by other developers and property owners in the borough who have spoken to Inside Croydon: “The CPO will have to change,” one developer with experience of large-scale schemes said, asking not to be identified.
It is just one year since the three-week hearings for the Westfield project were held at considerable public expense at the council offices.
“If the changes to the scheme are ‘substantial’, then the terms of the CPO would have to change, requiring a new consultation, which will take many months,” the developer said.
“From the look of the pre-app documents filed this week, this can only be called ‘substantial’. How else can you describe turning a £1billion project into a £1.4billion scheme, or changing plans for 400 to 600 flats to 1,000 homes?”
Former council official Wickens takes a similar view. “As a supporter of the need for a development, this late redesign is somewhat alarming,” Wickens told Inside Croydon.
“It does explain the delay we have observed. Interestingly Croydon and Hammersfield have kept this very quiet.”
There was no mention of the revision of the plans, for instance, when Jo Negrini, Croydon’s “executive director of Place”, and the Croydon Partnership were at the MIPIM developers’ conference in Cannes only a month ago.
Negrini has been named this week as Croydon’s interim CEO, once Nathan Elvery leaves Fisher’s Folly in June. “This is going to be a big test for Jo, in whatever role she is working for Croydon,” one senior Katharine Street source said today.
“There’s been plenty of warnings about, ‘This could be another Bradford’, and how Westfield can be ruthless when it comes to shoring up their profits and walking away from schemes that do not work for them. These latest changes suggest that those warnings have not been heeded by the council.
“The fact is, having staked the town’s future on the scheme, the council is pretty much obliged to grant permission to whatever plans the developers present, regardless of the best interests of the borough’s existing residents and businesses.”
Wickens explains how Westfield and Hammerson have gone for extra housing, at the expense of meeting any delivery schedule: “Planning authorities, such as Croydon, have the powers to allow ‘non-material’ changes to planning consent.
“What is ‘material’ is not defined. It does often depend on the scale of the original proposal.
“A doubling of the residential dwellings planned and an extra floor of retail must, in my opinion, be ‘material’ as it will affect the development in a number of ways. This is really not debatable given that they say the cost is a further £400million.”
Indeed, the developers are not even trying to disguise the scale of chance to the scheme. Robin Dobson, Hammerson’s retail development director, used the words “important” and “enhanced” to describe the revised proposals this week.
“I assume the development will be more massive and that will be visible,” Wickens said. “The traffic impact will change, environmental considerations will change.The impact on schools and other infrastructure will change with the extra housing. The list is quite long.
“I think the CPO may need revisiting since displaced land owners could suggest that the scheme is now much more of a housing speculation for which Croydon and others have significant plans to undertake elsewhere and hence it is unnecessary. CPOs should not be confirmed until the acquiring authority has a clear idea of what it intends to do with the land and this material (40 per cent change) must surely be a meaningful change in what the council and Hammersfield intend to do.
“It would be a high-risk strategy not to repeat the planning and CPO process as a successful challenge would be very costly if upheld,” Wickens said.
The Hammersfield announcement includes the possible inclusion of an IMAX cinema – a massive, wrap-round screen for CGI blockbuster movies. The size of such a cinema, instead of the previously suggested bog-standard multiplex (of which there are already two in Croydon), and its need for a very tall screen, has seen Hammersfield’s execs admitting that they might require a revised planning application.
And there’s not a mention of John Lewis, the department store operator that has long been desired and promised for what was once the Allders site. The spin that Hammersfield have put on getting an agreement with M&S is hardly convincing.
“Marks and Spencer is a staple essential of every high street,” the Katharine Street source said last night, “but because its stores are already everywhere, it’s hardly the sort of brand that will make Westfield Croydon the ‘retail destination’ for the whole of south London that the scheme’s backers have always claimed it would be.”
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