Croydon Council has spent more public money on a new slogan, two years after the last one. But as WALTER CRONXITE reports, there are risks involved when senior councillors claim to be ‘Delivering for Croydon’ and a £1.4bn flagship development has come to a grinding halt
The “rush” to redevelop the somewhat sad and down-at-heel Whitgift Centre has slowed to a crawl, with the promised shiny new £1.4billion megamall now unlikely to be ready to open until 2022 – a full decade since the scheme was first announced and five years later than the original 2017 completion date.
Who says so? Hammerson and Westfield, or “Hammersfield”, in their joint guise as The Croydon Partnership, the developers who have been chuntering on about the town centre’s bright new future since 2012, but who have yet to cement a single brick.
The demolition of the existing Whitgift Centre now won’t begin until some time in 2018, at the earliest, with shop-owners and traders in the 1960s-built complex having been informed in the past few days that they can trade through Christmas 2017.
That is, of course, if work ever actually starts on the Westfield-driven project.
The much-revised scheme, with its tall residential towers to overshadow some of Croydon’s heritage buildings, will still need to be granted planning permission.
The latest plan update, released last week, is – as Inside Croydon has already reported – barely changed from the scheme presented for “consultation” earlier this year, with nearly double the number of high-value flats included as in the original, consented plans. But last week Hammersfield admitted that even these latest designs won’t now go before the council’s planning committee until “early 2017”.
This all adds up to at least a minor disaster for the borough’s public finances, because it postpones yet again the enhanced revenue income from business rates and Council Tax from Hammersfield’s new businesses and homes which the local authority needs to fund the skeleton services it still provides.
It may yet adversely affect the local property market, as all those speculators who have bought up the town’s ageing office stock and other buildings since 2013 in anticipation of the “Westfield effect” to enhance their bottom lines now have another six years to wait to feel any benefits. And that’s before anyone mentions the increased market uncertainties in the interim caused by Brexit.
It also presents a political dilemma which is likely to be well beyond the capabilities of the leaderships of the local political duopoly.
Both Labour and Tories fought the last local elections in 2014 on the expectation that the Hammersfield redevelopment would begin and be completed during the four-year term of the current council, with all the many wonders of its new shops and other benefits coming on-stream to placate the voters just before the 2018 Town Hall elections.
Having been foisted on the borough by the Croydon Establishment of MP Gavin Barwell, the Whitgift Foundation and their Tory mates such as Boris Johnson, the Hammersfield project was embraced utterly by the Labour group when they assumed power at the Town Hall in 2014. Tony Newman, the Labour leader, will struggle now to disentangle and distance his group from this long-running saga as it continues to drag on and on.
Now, the only thing Croydon’s voters are likely to see before polling day in 2018 is the bulldozers moving in, and even that’s not certain.
It is entirely possible that the new supermall won’t even be open before the 2022 local elections, meaning that Newman’s class of 2014, and even whoever wins the 2018 battle for control of the Town Hall, will not be able to claim the political credit when the developers finally deliver their megascheme.
This is all a bit embarrassing for a council which has just forked out a tidy sum of public money on getting the borough’s slogan redrafted and redesigned for its website, signage and publicity to “Delivering for Croydon”. Ahhh…
“Anyone would think there’s an election coming up in 18 months’ time,” one Town Hall figure chuckled when the new tagline was mentioned this week.
“Or that the council is going into business as a Chinese takeaway,” said another.
“Delivering” has replaced Labour’s 2014 aspirational election slogan “Ambitious for Croydon”.
But imposing a political slogan into council processes can have a nasty habit of coming back to bite those responsible – such as Newman – and those who have allowed it to happen – such as Jo Negrini, the council CEO – in the arse.
Westfield and its promised 5,000 new jobs, Fairfield Halls, Croydon College, Taberner House… Almost three years into Labour’s time in office, and Newman and his cabal of close chums who control the council might justifiably be challenged on their delivery record.
And Westfield does seem to be at growing risk of being undelivered.
Did we mention Brexit?
The fall of the pound is beginning to be felt in a range of economic activities, and big developments and retailing are far from immune to its impact.
Economists at Pantheon Macroeconomics have been telling clients that: “We continue to think that a sharp slowdown in retail sales growth lies ahead, as firms reduce hiring and inflation soars. Indeed, sterling’s further depreciation… suggests that goods prices will shoot up next year, reducing growth in retail sales volumes to a near-standstill.”
That’s hardly a rosy picture for a suburb of London which has hitched its entire future to a £1.4billion face lift for its ageing shopping centre.
And it doesn’t take much reading between the lines of the latest Hammersfield pronouncement to see that the developers are hedging their bets, too.
“Subject to having detailed planning permission, the required consents in place and achieving pre-letting targets, main construction would commence in 2018, allowing the existing Whitgift retailers to continue trading through the busy 2017 Christmas period,” last week’s announcement stated.
“Notice that? ‘Achieving pre-letting targets’? They’ve never said that so blatantly before,” someone with lengthy development experience in London said. “That’s their escape clause. Achieving letting targets ahead of the build is a big ask for any developer, even Westfield.”
Undaunted, the Glee Club was still peddling the same old tosh last week as they have done over the past five years.
“The development is set to transform Croydon’s retail centre to create one of the UK’s top 10 shopping and entertainment destinations alongside delivering 5,000 new jobs whilst continuing to act as the catalyst for the ongoing wider regeneration of the town,” gushed the Croydon BID group of various vested interests, echoing the same message they have been pushing since before London last staged the Olympics.
The propaganda includes some crusty porkies, too. The revised planning submission, according to Croydon BID, “follows extensive public consultation with the local community, where the updated plans were overwhelmingly well-received by local businesses and residents, with over 90 per cent of respondents being ‘supportive’ or ‘very supportive’ of the new updated regeneration plans.” None of that consultation was conducted independently of the developers, of course, and therefore is about as reliable as a second-hand three-wheeler bought from Delboy Trotter.
It is Hammersfield’s own press release which gives away the 2022 completion date, though. They advise that, “The 3½-year construction programme for the centre is aligned to fit in with this to minimise disruption during construction and ensure that Croydon is ready to accommodate the influx of shoppers, workers and new residents to the town.”
Ignore the all the waffle: the hard fact there is the “3½-year construction programme”, on a project not due to start until 2018. Do the maths.
And they’re not even singing from the same hymn sheet as Croydon Council any longer.
Westfield’s head of development John Burton tells us that, “The opening of the new centre will propel Croydon into one of the top retail, dining and leisure destinations in London and will deliver significant economic and social regeneration.”
Because there we were, believing Newman and Negrini when they claimed that their £3million loan of public money to Boozepark would achieve just that.
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