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.
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.
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.
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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