BARRATT HOLMES on the charade of a planning meeting to take place at the Town Hall tonight
The long-delayed re-application for planning permission by Westfield and Hammerson – “The Croydon Partners” – for a £1.4billion redevelop-ment of the ageing Whitgift Centre shopp-ing mall will breeze through what passes for the scrutiny of local councillors on the planning committee tonight.
It has to. The brinksmanship played by the developers of “Hammersfield” leaves the local authority with no alternative. The council and the developers are now in a race against time before the deadline on the Compulsory Purchase Order, in September next year.
Westfield’s representatives will be able to swagger into the Town Hall chamber tonight and tell the council, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, “Take it or leave it”.
Neither prospect is particularly appetising.
What the councillors who form the committee, chaired by Paul Scott, will be voting in favour of tonight amounts to a multi-million-pound pig in a poke. What was originally proposed as a vast retailing temple to Mammon when Westfield first rode in to town in 2012 has now been changed to a huge housing proposal with a bit of a shopping centre tagged on.
There is a chance that the Mayor will use his powers to call-in the planning application once permission is granted by Croydon Council. The 20 per cent of affordable housing included in the maximum of 967 flats proposed does not meet with recent expectations of new schemes as announced from City Hall.
But what is really shocking about the report submitted by the council’s planning department ahead of the meeting is quite how much detail is “reserved”, that is, withheld, not just from the public, but from the elected councillors on the planning committee.
The hard detail, we are told, is to be thrashed out in private between the property developers and the council’s own planning experts. And that will reassure no one except Westfield.
Tory Party donors Westfield, and their (largely) silent partners Hammerson (who effectively are contributing the Centrale property to the scheme) have been sitting on a perfectly workable planning permission for nearly four years. Croydon Council and a government planning inspector went through a lengthy, and costly, CPO hearing in 2015. Now, even if planning permission is granted tonight, it could be 2022 before the development is completed.
But the accelerating decline in the economy of the retailing sector, Westfield’s failure to secure any agreement from John Lewis as tenants for an anchor department store, and Brexit uncertainties have all contributed to make what was sold as the salvation of central Croydon into a scheme which, frankly, even the developers don’t seem to fancy much any longer.
As is made clear throughout the 166-page report to the planning meeting tonight, “The changes encompassed within the current planning application are largely commercially driven”.
The planning committee has had two pre-app views of the emerging scheme, the last one in July 2016. Tonight’s formal application, therefore, is about a year overdue.
All the time the clock’s been ticking, the Whitgift Centre has been steadily decaying, tenants have been drifting away, shoppers’ footfall has been declining, and the land-owners, the Whitgift Foundation, have been getting increasingly concerned at the reduction in their income.
Staff in one of the larger, remaining stores in the Whitgift Centre have been offered what passes for reassurance by their employers, who have told them that they won’t be re-located for at least a year. So Westfield are clearly in no rush to get on with the demolition work.
The CPO – paid for by the council – was agreed by the inspector in 2015 on the proviso that the Westfield redevelopment would be “deliverable”. Yet even before the end of the planning inspector’s inquiry, the developers were mumbling about the viability of their own project.
Now, Westfield are playing a game of high-stakes poker with Croydon town centre, and they know that council chief exec Jo Negrini and council leader Tony Newman won’t call their bluff and tell them that what is proposed is just not good enough.
Newman, of course, had the opportunity to do just that in 2014, shortly after his Labour administration of the Town Hall inherited the Tory-backed, Croydon Establishment scheme for the town centre. Had he done so then, and taken a more arm’s-length, “critical friend” approach to the project, he might have saved the town three years of uncertainty and development blight.
Instead, Newman sided with Negrini and fully embraced the Tory scheme. More recently he has adopted a new council slogan of “Delivering for Croydon”. Exactly what Newman and Negrini have managed to deliver for Croydon is left unsaid.
Now, Westfield expect even more public help if they are to do the people of Croydon the great favour of reshaping the town centre. The council’s planning department says as much in its report.
“Since the time of the pre-application presentations to this Committee, extensive discussions between the Council, TfL, the GLA and the developer have taken place to establish whether there is the potential to improve the viability of the scheme, without which it is considered unlikely that comprehensive redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre and surrounding land would proceed for the foreseeable future,” reads paragraph 2.7 of the planning officer’s report.
The developer, the planning official reports, has been looking to reduce development costs and increase income (hence the near-doubling of the number of “luxury executive apartments” being proposed).
But now, it seems that multi-billion property speculators Westfield are rattling the begging bowl. They are asking for “alternative sources of funding, including public funding”.
And any hopes that the supermall might provide some social benefit in the form of public spaces, artworks or other public facilities can be binned right now. “Careful analysis of the mitigation required to make the scheme acceptable in planning terms” is required, the planners tell us.
It really is: like it or lump it.
And there’s much to dislike about the scheme, which in many aspects appears ill-thought-out, especially when it comes to road and public transport issues raised by encouraging cars to use the 3,140-space car parks.
It is quite depressing to consider that the best brains of Croydon Council and the modellers of Transport for London have had five years to come up with a better solution for traffic on Wellesley Road and access to the car parks, and have still not delivered.
It seems to be suggested in the planning report that southbound traffic will need to cross Wellesley Road to enter the centre’s northern-most car park, while cars in the southern car park wishing to head south after exiting have to cross the northbound carriageway. And you thought traffic through the town centre was bad already.
Pedestrians – like all those thousands of new residents in the tower blocks along Wellesley Road – won’t have a dedicated footway at street level, but will have to negotiate the car park entrances and exits.
What any of this will do to improve the air quality in Croydon town centre is barely considered.
Of the revised housing proposals, the five towers along Wellesley Road (nicely sited for all the emissions from the car parks below) have been criticised for too much “massing” in one area, and for being “bland and unimaginative”. It is hardly surprising that the developers have not bothered to engage with the expert architects and designers on Croydon’s expensively assembled place panel.
But more troubling than anything else is the vast amount of detail that has been left to “reserved matters”, to be sorted out between the planners and the developers, because they know best. This is not so much a planning application as a blank cheque, and one worth many millions to Westfield and Hammerson, and likely to cost Croydon for decades to come.
It is the elected representatives on the planning committee who should determine what can, and cannot, be delegated to senior planning officials at the council. As one resident, who has been following the progress (or lack of it) of the Hammersfield scheme from day one has said, “The detailed design should be put before the planning committee in stages or at regular intervals so that they can guide the design process. Councillors are representatives of the local people and therefore can reflect local views.
“There is too much being left to officers to decide without local representation.”
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