In the aftermath of yesterday’s EU Referendum, WALTER CRONXITE finds some senior figures close to the £1.4bn Whitgift Centre redevelopment feeling very nervous about its prospects
“The real fear now must be that Westfield walk away. They’ve done it before, after all. Look at Bradford.”
That’s the view of a senior Croydon figure, closely connected with the council and familiar with the proposals to build a £1.4billion supermall to replace the Whitgift Centre, after the announcement this morning that the British public had voted to quit the European Union in yesterday’s referendum.
For one of Croydon’s three Remain-supporting MPs, Steve Reed OBE, the referendum outcome is nothing short of a “crisis”.
“It’s a crisis,” the Croydon North MP told the Croydon Guardian. “It’s a political, economic and constitutional crisis – but it’s one the British people have voted for.”
The thing is, the crisis could be a lot closer to home than anyone in Croydon imagined when going to the polling stations yesterday.
The impact of the 52%-48% vote in favour of Brexit has already been felt on the currency and stock markets around the world, with Sterling taking its biggest hit for 30 years, shares in housing firms falling by 40 per cent once the London markets opened, and the Bank of England pledging £250billion from its reserves to shore up The City’s finance sector.
All of that market activity could have an impact on investment and development in Croydon, both by the private sector and for the council’s own housing schemes.
But it is the biggest Croydon face lift of all time, the scheme being run by Westfield and Hammerson, which has the most at stake for the town centre.
It is nearly four years since the Hammersfield scheme was first announced, as a supermall panacea to Croydon’s economic woes, and a regeneration development which had the borough’s Establishment, led by the land-owners at the Whitgift Foundation and their egregiously ambitious tame MP, Gavin Barwell, doing back-flips at the prospect of coining it from the tired, old Whitgift Centre.
This morning, Barwell said he was “devastated about what the country has chosen to do” over the referendum. Privately, his concerns are sure to include the Whitgift Centre development plans.
Since Barwell first claimed the credit for luring Westfield to Croydon, progress has been glacially slow. Work has not even begun on the new mall, which was supposed to be open and ready for business in 2017; 2021 is now the most optimistic estimate of when the place might have regenerated.
The referendum result throws even that into doubt, as the international investment markets look very different for projects in Britain than they did just 24 hours ago. And Australian-based retail developers Westfield, part of the “Croydon Partnership” with Hammerson, who were once eager to carve up a large part of the town centre for their profits, are not known for their sentiment when it comes to their bottom line.
“The Whitgift Centre is very tired and in desperate need of some serious investment,” the senior figure told Inside Croydon, on condition of anonymity. “Everything has been staked on Westfield coming in to redevelop it. If that does not happen now, you dread to think what might happen.
“Westfield are known to be ruthless in matters of business. When a smaller scheme, in Bradford, didn’t add up for them, they walked away, and left a massive crater in the city centre for a decade, until they finally found someone else to come in and develop the scheme for them.
“I do worry that one of the first impacts of Brexit on Croydon will be to threaten the Westfield scheme.
“The new plans they have put forward include twice as much residential, most of it in very tall blocks. But if the housing market suffers a set-back after the referendum, and there’s no longer the money in it for Westfield in building 1,000 new homes, they could decide not to bother.”
Those fears have been voiced by the council leader, Labour’s Tony Newman. The referendum result, Newman said, “has the potential to damage growth and potential in Croydon”.
Newman said that the council will be seeking an urgent meeting with Westfield and Hammerson to seek assurances. “There’s clearly a potential risk. I’m confident we’re in a strong enough position to withstand most things but nowhere is immune if the economy really goes into a tailspin.”
In other words, it could be 2008 all over again.
The prestigious “Croydon gateway” site, alongside East Croydon Station, stood derelict for more than a decade as a consequence of the global economic crash. Work only began on the Stanhope and Schroders-owned Ruskin Square site 18 months ago. Meanwhile, development blight is already showing signs of taking hold elsewhere in the centre of Croydon as other businesses wait for Westfield and Hammerson to get on with their as-yet unnamed scheme.
Today’s date is significant at Croydon Council for another reason, too. It marks the last day of the last full week that Nathan Elvery, the Croydon chief executive, is employed at Fisher’s Folly.
Elvery might just consider he has got out at the right time.
Jo Negrini, Elvery’s Australian-born interim replacement, was widely thought to have won her job as Croydon’s development chief because of her close working relationship with Westfield during her time working for another local authority as the developers built their mall at Stratford.
Now, Negrini may need all the fair dinkum help she can get from her Aussie mates now to ensure that Croydon’s biggest development is not slowed further, or halted altogether.
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