EXCLUSIVE: Our retailing correspondent, M.T. WALLETTE, reports on the Godot-like wait for an anchor tenant for Hammersfield’s not-so-supermall
Westfield have delayed re-submitting their plans for the £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre and Whitgift Centre because are they are still pursuing an agreement with John Lewis to set up a flagship department store in their proposed supermall.
The developers have this week had a visit from the new MP for the area, Sarah Jones, and also received a “firm letter” from Alison Butler, the council’s deputy leader, urging them to pull their fingers out.
Westfield, together with their “Croydon Partners” Hammerson, have been negotiating around the fate of Croydon town centre for nearly six years, since Gavin Barwell, the then Tory MP for the area and a governor of the land-owners, the Whitgift Foundation, did a behind-the-scenes deal with Boris Johnson to bring the two shopping mall operators together in the biggest land deal in this borough for half a century.
The local council has eagerly agreed to the developers’ plans and CPO’d a vast swathe of the town centre for their benefit.
“A historic day,” was the hyperbole of choice for council leader Tony Newman in September 2015 – a date so long ago now that it can no longer be regarded as “recent history”.
Since then, progress has come to a grinding halt as Westfield’s negotiations went on, and on and on…
First, Westfield decided to get even greedier, and wanted to build far more money-spinning housing on top of their shopping centre. Revised plans, including a near-doubling of the number of housing units (“luxury executive apartments”) to 1,000 in five towering blocks along Wellesley Road were unveiled nearly 18 months ago.
The revised plans require revised permission from the council planning committee, but scheduled presentations in April and June have come and gone with no explanation for the delays from Westfield nor from the Whitgift Foundation.
And those revised plans might have to be revised yet again, too, if John Lewis belatedly agree to jump on board and demand a flagship store to their own specifications and requirements.
At present, the biggest retail name lined up for Hammersfield’s not-so-supermall is … Marks and Sparks. Which is a bit, well.. pants.
John Lewis has long been trailed as a supposed panacea to all central Croydon’s ills, having been suggested for previous developments, but they, too, turned to dust. They have operated an out-of-town store on the Purley Way since 2010, but have never yet taken the bait to move into high street premises.
It is becoming increasingly clear that including a John Lewis in the new shopping centre is seen by Westfield as crucial to their scheme’s success. Discussions have been on-going between the parties for more than two years. The department store operator is clearly aware of the developer’s position, and is understood to be using the situation to its commercial advantage: they will want a fully fitted new store and a long-term rent-free deal.
And one sign that they might be ready to sign an agreement with Westfield came at last night’s planning committee meeting, with an application for a development on the Purley Way.
The new owners of the Purley Way Retail Park, together with developers Reef Estates, submitted plans at a pre-application stage for a two-phase development around the current site of the John Lewis at Home store. The scheme as presented appears very much as if the landowners are preparing for a time when John Lewis are no longer their tenants. It will see the development of a store next door for German bargain-basement supermarket Aldi – hardly the kind of neighbours that the epitome of the middle-class retail wet dreams would usually expect.
There was another clue yesterday in a series of tweets from new MP Jones after she had had her meeting with Westfield.
“I had a constructive meeting to press Westfield on progress,” Jones said.
“I am frustrated, as are my constituents, and want to see progress. Although plans are at an advanced stage, negotiations are on-going with retailers. I’m hopeful for movement before the summer.” This tweet is dated July 20…
“We won’t allow our town to be another Bradford,” one Labour council cabinet member said this week, referring to the decade-long wait that the Yorkshire city centre had to endure waiting for the “economic circumstances” to be right for Westfield to develop its property there. In Croydon, there has been a development blight around the Whitgift Centre since the Tory-backed Hammersfield scheme was announced in 2012.
Originally due to open in 2017, the redevelopment now won’t be fully operational possibly until 2022 – a full decade on from its launch. Which sort of suggests that Westfield has already, very much, “done a Bradford” to Croydon.
The Labour-run council is having to re-position itself over Hammersfield, ahead of next May’s local elections.
Instead of opting for a more objective, arm’s-length relationships with the developers when they were elected in 2014, Newman, Butler and their Town Hall clique warmly embraced the Tory supermall scheme, buying in to the notion of a retail Nirvana.
After allowing the developers to freewheel along for three years, Croydon Labour’s leadershp has created a whole new set of political problems for themselves, as local voters can see on a daily basis the decaying state of the old Whitgift Centre, with larger retail outlets – such as Clas Ohlson – closing down and moving away.
Croydon Tories are shamelessly trying to exploit this, even those who worked in Barwell’s constituency office when the MP for the Whitgift Foundation was carving up the town centre for the sake of the landowners and developers.
Westfield, it is worth remembering, donated £438,000 to the Conservative Party between 2011 and 2017, and last month the head of the company, Frank Lowy, received a knighthood.
In Croydon, meanwhile, Sara Bashford, Barwell’s former constituency office worker, has been trying to take the high moral ground, appearing to take the side of residents over a development blight which she and her boss helped to instigate.
As the deputy leader of the Conservatives at the Town Hall, Bashford dissembled, “What I know is that residents are seeing the decline of the shopping offer in our town centre and want the works to start so they can see something positive happening. They are fed up with start dates that aren’t met and now want certainty over the future.” Given that her former boss used to have Westfield’s John Burton on speed dial, you’d think Bashford might have given him a call for old time’s sake.
The council, meanwhile, is taking the line that the delays are all caused by the developers (which they mostly are, despite the struggling, under-staffed planning department) and that they’ve “done everything it needs to”.
“A date for the planning meeting will be set once the Partnership is ready to progress,” the council said, taking its line from Samuel Beckett.
Retailers in the Whitgift Centre currently have leases which straddle the 2017-2018 Christmas and sales season. After which, demolition works are expected to begin, with the building work likely to take at least three years.
John Lewis permitting, of course.
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