STEVEN DOWNES reports on how a panel of design, engineering and architecture experts assembled by the council might yet be denied the chance to review the biggest regeneration scheme in Croydon for generations
One of the co-chairs of the Croydon Place Review Panel, appointed by the council to oversee major developments and to assess the architectural merit of schemes in the borough, does not yet know whether the group will be given any opportunity to comment on the £1.4 billion supermall proposed for the town centre by Westfield and Hammerson.
Speaking to Inside Croydon, the PRP co-chair Angela Brady said, “I would love to have a look at that scheme.
“I believe that we could really add value to the proposals.”
But extraordinarily, given that Hammersfield is the largest redevelopment scheme of its kind ever to take place in south London, Brady – one of three co-chairs of the review panel – was uncertain whether her group would ever be given the chance to look at the scheme’s plans and pass their comments on some of the more controversial aspects of the proposals.
“If they don’t get to look at Westfield, then it does make you wonder what the point is of the Place Review Panel, doesn’t it?” one of Croydon’s most senior councillors said when the situation was put to them.
“If they don’t get a say on Westfield, then it begins to look as if it is entirely a cosmetic exercise.”
Proposals for the new Westfield Croydon supermall already have planning permission.
But earlier this year, Croydon Partners (the company formed between rival developers Westfield and Hammerson for the project, which will bring together the old Whitgift Shopping Centre and Centrale), came up with drastically revised plans which almost double the amount of residential development and could have significant impact on the town centre’s heritage buildings, such as the listed-status Almshouses and St Michael’s church.
Those plans have had a lip-service public consultation and have been run past the council’s planning committee, but have not yet been formally submitted for planning permission.
Having missed an opportunity to go before the committee’s meeting last month, it is expected that the councillors will be asked to rule on the scheme early in the new year – meaning that the new supermall is won’t be open for business at least until 2022, a decade after the scheme was first put forward by the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, and its cheerleader-in-chief, local Tory MP, now the housing minister, Gavin Barwell.
The new Place Review Panel, meanwhile, won’t be having its two-day induction session on Croydon until next month.
“Once we’re up and running, we will be getting together, a group of five or six panel members, once a month for a day, when we’ll be looking at up to three schemes in the borough,” Brady said.
“We won’t be meeting until mid-January, though. That might be too late for us to see the plans for the big shopping centre.”
The Place Review Panel is the brainchild of the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner” Jo Negrini, who was the council’s executive director for “Place” – meaning planning, housing and development – until she was promoted to be the council’s CEO in the summer.
The panellists, who all applied to take part, were named last month, and in addition to Brady, a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, they include the celebrity designer Wayne Hemingway, Hugh Pearman, the editor of the official RIBA journal, and David Bickle, the design director at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Each session will be chaired by Brady, Metropolitan Workshop co-founder Neil Deely or Orms director Oliver Richards, with five other panellists drawn from the remaining 22 members.
The site of the former council offices, Taberner House, which the council sold off earlier this year, is reported to be one of the first projects likely to be subject to review by the panel. If Brady chairs that session, then the chances are she might have something to say about the manner in which Queen’s Gardens, virtually the only piece of public open space in the town centre, appears to have been annexed for the use of the developers.
“For me, public space is public space,” Brady told Inside Croydon.
“The whole issue of the privatisation of public space is important to me.”
The Croydon tram derailment saw the Place Review Panel’s first session postponed, but Brady spoke about the prospect of the panel’s work at a developers’ conference last week. “The conference was very interesting and it gave us a flavour of the current schemes on the go, including the new shopping centre,” she said, referring to Hammersfield.
“It would be great if our PRP panel could review this project as it is still at a relatively early design stage and it is something I intend to ask the Croydon organisers if we can review its design details and vision, as it is such a large inclusion into Croydon it will be one of the most important projects going forward,” Brady said.
“We are looking forward to being that ‘critical friend’ in our reviews, to make Croydon a better place, as good design needs to be at the heart of every decision to benefit the community of Croydon to attract business and leisure and make it a great place to live.”
Brady has worked on similar reviews in the past, including for seven years on the English heritage panel for CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.
Brady does not think that the review panel will in some way be second-guessing the decision-making of the councillors on the planning committee, which is chaired by architect and RIBA director Paul Scott. “I would hope not,” Brady said. “They don’t have to listen to us at all. We’ll be saying to planners and the developers, ‘Try better at this’, or ‘Have you looked at this?’. We’re an extra level of advice.
“I would hope they think our advice is good.”
But Brady was uncertain how the PRP’s recommendations will be reported publicly, and whether they will be put in the public domain before schemes seek planning permission. And she also did not know whether the panel would ever get to see the revised plans for the £1.4-billion Westfield shopping mall.
“We won’t be meeting until mid-January,” she said. “That might be too late.”
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