By Ken Lee, Town Hall correspondent
Tony Newman, the Labour leader of the council, was missing from the Town Hall for last night’s extraordinary meeting on the state of the borough’s children’s services. Apparently, he had more important matters to attend to.
According to Stuart Collins, who chaired last night’s Town Hall meeting, Newman and the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, Tim Pollard, were away in London to meet with ministers to discuss the situation over Westfield’s badly stalled £1.4billion redevelopment of the town centre.
“Even the Brexit negotiations are proceeding with more speed than Westfield’s development plans,” one Tory back bench wag muttered.
No further details were provided about Newman and Pollard’s diary appointments. The cross-party nature of the delegation may be a shrewd move by Newman, making it more difficult for the Tory opposition to continue to attempt to pin the blame for the lack of progress on the council, and its Labour administration.
While Pollard eventually arrived late at the children’s services meeting, Newman failed to make any appearance. He no doubt had to go away to reconsider his misconceived council slogan of “Delivering for Croydon”.
Westfield, in a forced partnership with shopping centre managers Hammerson, were supposed to be opening their redeveloped supermall on the site of the Whitgift Centre and Centrale this year. No building work has been undertaken, despite a Compulsory Purchase Order on the large area and planning permission being granted by the council two years ago.
Westfield are known to want planning permission for a significantly altered scheme, one which almost doubles the number of town centre flats to be built, to 1,000, in half a dozen high-rise towers along Wellesley Way. But the developers have been stalled for more than a year and have so far failed to submit their revised plans to the council.
Anxiety over the lack of progress has extended not just from the local council, but also to the borough’s biggest landowners.
The Whitgift Foundation, the charitable trust which owns the freehold for most of the Whitgift Centre, depends on the commercial income from the property to help fund its three large private schools and old people’s homes. The office block above the existing Whitgift Centre has been all but vacant for five years, providing little or no rents, and the occupancy rates of retail areas of the shopping centre are also in decline.
“The Foundation’s property income is well down,” one source told Inside Croydon. “But we still have to pay business rates on the empty property.”
It seems unlikely now that work could begin on demolishing the old centre before 2019, which means that the earliest that Croydon’s Hammersfield might be open for business could be 2023 – more than a decade since Tories Gavin Barwell and Boris Johnson announced the deal between Westfield and Hammerson.
Whether even Tory Government ministers have the powers to persuade Conservative party donors Westfield to take their handbrake off the development is debatable.
But the situation is serious enough that Barwell has in the past fortnight broken off from his busy workload as Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chief of Staff to attend a meeting with the developers.
John Burton, Westfield’s head of European operations, is out of the country on business this week and unavailable for comment, though some close to the developers suggest that there could be a significant announcement in the next 10 days or so.
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