Watson: There’s nothing council can do over £1.4bn Westfield

WALTER CRONXITE, who watches council meetings so that you don’t have to, on the latest Town Hall scrutiny committee meeting

The council has no “leverage” to encourage Westfield and Hammerson to speed up the delivery of their £1.4billion redevelopment of the Whitgift shopping centre, and more than five years after the Croydon riots ripped the town centre apart, the senior cabinet member in charge of the local economy has no plans for the site of Reeves Corner which was destroyed in that infamous night’s conflagration – beyond growing mushrooms from coffee grinds.

Mark Watson: keeping a check on cold callers

Mark Watson: no powers over Westfield, no plan for Reeves Corner

Those were two of the damning admissions from Mark Watson during an 90-minute-long grilling at Tuesday night’s scrutiny meeting on the Labour council’s plans for jobs and the local economy.

Watson is part of the four-councillor clique of Progress-supporters which dominates the Labour council and which since taking charge of the Town Hall in 2014 has tended to opt for “continuity” of many of the previous Tory administration’s policies and senior council appointments.

In  a presentation which seemed under-prepared, light on detail, was often bumbling and more than once included provably untrue assertions, Watson could not answer the key question from one of his party colleagues, Joy Prince, when asked “what leverage the council has to prevent more Westfield slippage?”

The involvement of shopping mall developers Westfield in the scheme to rebuild the Whitgift Centre was announced by the local Tory MP, Gavin Barwell, in 2012. The new supermall, developed together with Centrale owners Hammerson, was due to open in… 2017.

But after an extensive, publicly funded Compulsory Purchase Order of a vast tract of the town centre to enable the Hammersfield scheme to go ahead, the developers withdrew their original, approved plans and last year came up with a drastically revised scheme which, according to senior council official Emma Lindsell at the scrutiny meeting, is expected to be formally presented to the council later this month. The developers now say that demolition work on the dilapidated Whitgift Centre could begin in 2018 with a revised completion date of 2022.

“Everybody wants the same thing,” Watson asserted about the scheme, showing quite how the Blairite wing of Croydon Labour has bought into the developers’ agenda.

“The long delay is not good for the businesses in there,” Watson said, but he was unable to offer any examples of what he and the council leadership might do to urge Westfield into action.

Tuesday’s meeting was notable, too, for the near-complete absence of incisive questioning from Conservative opposition councillors, with the exception of Helen Pollard when the meeting turned its attention to the state of Surrey Street market.

So it was left to Sean Fitzsimons, Watson’s Addiscombe ward colleague and chair of the scrutiny committee, to make the most telling intervention.

Watson’s presentation lasted more than half an hour, as he recited various Disconnected Croydon schemes around the borough, which had cost many millions of public money and which he seems to think “make a real difference to the look and feel of the borough”.

Watson was merely echoing the line trotted out in the personal publicity of Jo Negrini, the council chief executive, but it is a view entirely out of step with public opinion, as the results of a recent poll conducted for Inside Croydon show, where 44 per cent of respondents said that they thought the council’s street scene works had not improved the look of the borough, and another 40per cent, asked “Have you noticed any real improvement”, responded: “Are you having a laugh?”

Not once in his initial presentation did Watson mention West Croydon or London Road, the areas worst affected by the rioting in August 2011, and it was on this that Fitzsimons questioned the cabinet member, asking what he was doing to further economic growth in those areas, citing Recommendation 18 of the Croydon Riots Inquiry, which called for a stronger local economy offering employment for younger people in that part of the borough.

Five years on from the riots and arson, and Croydon Council has no plan to redevelop Reeves Corner beyond a mushroom farm

Five years on from the riots, and Croydon Council has no plan to redevelop Reeves Corner beyond a mushroom farm

Watson had no answer, and after a bit of incoherent mumbling, Fitzsimons raised the issue specifically of Reeves Corner, the site which had been gutted by arsonists’ fires but which has since remained largely untouched.

“There is some meanwhile use,” Watson offered, “with mushroom growers using coffee grinds.”

This clearly did not impress the committee chair. “That’s not quite the green shoots of a recovery I had in mind,” Fitzsimons responded.

“But real growth, Mark? It’s gone five years now,” Fitzsimons said. “What’s the council’s priority to get this site activated? We’ve seen 30 years of no economic activity at a site like East Croydon. I don’t want to see that repeated. I’m concerned.”

Watson still had no answer.

But then, perhaps Watson had been poorly briefed by the senior council official, Lindsell, who was assisting with his presentation. Earlier, when asked about the borough’s economic performance and GVA, or Gross Value Added, Lindsell had said, “I don’t fully understand it. It is an economics term.”

And this from the person our council employs as its “head of employment and investment”.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Watson: There’s nothing council can do over £1.4bn Westfield

  1. Lewis White says:

    Re Gateways to Croydon.
    Thanks for the opportunity to do the poll. Have dear fellow readers of Inside Croydon not seen the tremendous street improvements along London Road from the corner by W Croydon Station up to Broad Green?. Lots of new street trees, renewed paving, and in some cases, painting of groups of buildings . I have been along the whole length several times by bus and car, and on foot, over last 6 months, and must say, am impressed by the new works. I definitely sensed a renewed vitality of the street and shops, and I don’t think I had rose-tinted specs on!

    Likewise, the repaved South Croydon restaurant “quarter” looks very good, although clearly they could not plant many trees. I would like to see some big planters with Italian Cypresses , but never mind, overall I think the improvements are good, and have made the area look so much better. I really hope that the Council continues this treatment up to Katharine Street as quickly as possible, as this is the real gateway bit that looks very very run down at present. It’s not so much the flyover, as the greasy looking pavements of grey asphalt. Far from welcoming, this entrance to Croydon repels the visitor.

    I was in Purley the other day, and saw again how the repaving of the “High Street” and station area (carried out about 4 years ago inspite of much grumbling from the “don’t waste our money” brigade ) has given a boost to the quality of the environment and footfall, in the renewed areas, but the same cannot be said of the Brighton Road, which looks crummy, due to the dirty grey asphalt paving of the pavements..

    Landscape improvements carried out in the Lower Addiscombe Road shppping area (from the tram stop going Eastwards) a few years ago have given that area a renewed public realm, which seems to renewed the appeal of the area to the shopping public,

    Apologies, as I have mentioned much of the above before in Inside Croydon feedback, but I think that investment in renewing the streets of the town centre (many of which are down at heel in the extreme), is really a good use of public money. as it makes the area look nicer and feel good, attracting shoppers and diners to spend money in the town centre.

    People in general might tend not to rationalise it, but see and sense the renewal, realise that it looks and feels much better than it did before, and respond by visiting the area and staying to shop or bring their patronage to the restaurants. So, my vote was in support of the street improvements, as without them, Croydon will sink.

  2. derekthrower says:

    Led by Barwell continued by Newman the neo-liberal philosophy again reveals it true bankruptcy in influencing development for the public good and not just subsidising developers balance sheets to commit to development when it is at the most favourable to them. What an ineffective way to run local government and what a grim and uncertain future they have passed onto Croydon. All it’s potential frozen in planning blight.

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