The decision of the council’s planning committee to give the go-ahead to the £1.4billion Hammersfield supermall last night was such a foregone conclusion that the Town Hall press team – never known for being quick off the mark with anything – managed to get a press release out within moments of the inevitable outcome.
The pre-written press release even had the “unanimous” vote included in its copy. It gave a whole near slant to the phrase “predictive text”.
And to think that the chair of the committee, Paul Scott, had the brass neck to lecture a member of the public about how Croydon’s planning committee does things properly.
In fact, all that the committee of elected councillors showed was how pathetically enfeebled they are when it comes to protecting the broader public interest when confronted by mega-millions of big business and pliant council officials.
Little additional detail emerged in the two-hour-long meeting. Indeed, one committee member, Councillor Joy Prince, was prompted to comment at how vague the plans were that been presented to the committee.
It has taken us five years to get to this point – again. Remember, this is the second time that Westfield and Hammerson, or the Croydon Partners as they like to call themselves, have been granted planning permission.
But so much is still undetermined.
Do they have a name for the new shopping mall yet? “No.”
How many residential tower blocks do they want to build as they create a giant wind tunnel along the urban motorway that is Wellesley Road? “Dunno. It might be four, it could be five. We’ll get back to you on that.”
Are you going to build a hotel, or student accommodation? “We’ll get back to you on that one, too.”
Who’s going to be the anchor tenant in the second department store? “Dunno.”
As the planning committee signed off on this multi-million pound blank cheque, the Glee Club among the Croydon Establishment was out in force to put up the bunting in celebration: the Whitgift Foundation, Croydon BID, Develop Croydon, the local Tory MP.
Hammerson and Westfield, for whom their big cheese, John Burton, turned up to give a little self-congratulatory speech, have now inflated the figure for the number of “new” jobs to be provided once the supermall opens. It’s up from 5,000 to 7,000. Though no one, since 2012, has provided any breakdown of what kind of jobs these will be, and how they will be “new”, as opposed to replacing the thousands of shelf-stackers and till operators working in the decaying Whitgift Centre today.
Suffice to say, no one on the council’s planning committee last night managed to challenge this magical 40 per cent uplift in employment figures, nor seek some explanation as to what kind of jobs these will be.
Indeed, for Bernadette Khan, the Labour councillor for whom the adjective “veteran” is woefully inadequate, the major point of her forensic questioning was whether the new centre would include a ball pond for the kiddies, like the one she’s seen at Ikea.
This was probably the point at which the evening reached peak inanity, though Wayne Trakas-Lawlor’s question about whether there would be a cycle hub ran it a close second.
Tory committee member Chris Wright mentioned that he’d quite like to see more offices in the mixed development, because office workers tend to buy their lunch-time sandwiches from nearby shops. Councillor Wright had clearly forgotten that part of the reason everyone wants to tear down the old shopping centre is because its owners, the Whitgift Foundation, couldn’t find tenants for their over-provision of offices in the 1960s-built centre.
There was a distinct impression that chairman Scott had briefed his committee not to ask too many troubling questions.
Which he had done, the evening before.
There had been just a handful of objectors to the proposals, and Scott went through the motions by inviting one of them, Sean Creighton, to speak.
Creighton rambled on, as he is prone to do, making a number of points for which there seemed little real basis (how demolishing the old Whitgift Centre is going to create a crime wave may be one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time), before he was rudely cut short by Scott for taking up too much time.
Given Hammersfield has kept the whole of Croydon dangling for five years, giving Creighton another 30 seconds was hardly going to delay the process much.
When Burton got his chance to address the meeting, there was no such rude interruptions. Scott – an architect by profession – knows what side his bread is buttered. He was far more deferential. He’d have tugged his forelock, if he had one.
Burton reeled off all the reasons why, as his company has dithered and delayed over the development, that the retail landscape has shifted, putting the scheme in some doubt. So, there may be more residential units (though there’s still no firm decision on exactly how many), and the 650 to 970 flats will be 20 per cent affordable (up from the previous 15 per cent, but still well short of the council’s and Mayor of London’s policies for new developments).
From Burton’s and council officials’ remarks during the meeting, there’s clearly some behind-the-scenes accommodation being agreed to reduce or minimise the amounts of money that Westfield will be expected to contribute to local infrastructure, through Section 106 and CIL payments.
The Glee Club fans nonetheless were out in force to acclaim the “exciting mixed use scheme” which will include “300 shops, restaurants, cafés and leisure facilities”, which will comprise “a multi-screen cinema and bowling alley”.
Sorry, but if you’re the sort of public official or councillor who goes weak at the knees about a multiplex (another one) or bowling alley, in exchange for developers providing real amenities such as schools and medical centres for the thousands of new residents who are about to move into an area, then you’re probably not up to the job.
Apparently, though, our council thinks that this “will cement Croydon’s reputation as one of the best destinations in the capital to live, work and play”. Which makes the town centre sound like a past-its-sell-by-date Mars bar.
Greg Hands, the Tory MP who took over as Minister for London in June, was quick off the mark on social media to applaud the planning committee’s decision. Perhaps a bit too quick. He tweeted that the new centre will provide 5,000 new jobs (they really are just plucking any figure out of the air as they fob off the public), and for good measure, the professional politician managed to tag a parody account of Chris Philp, the Jersey tax haven-user and sometime Croydon South MP.
Tony Newman, the council leader, pushed himself to the front of the queue to take credit for this red-letter day. “This is fantastic news for Croydon and we have been doing everything we can to bring the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre to fruition so local people can benefit from its wealth of offerings, including the creation of 7,000 new jobs.
“I’m pleased we have reached this major milestone in the delivery of a world-class retail and leisure facility and it’s another step to reinforcing Croydon’s growing reputation as one of London’s top destinations.”
World-class? It’s got an effing bowling alley…
Newman also said, “The new homes and the thousands of jobs this development will bring shows investors are rightly confident about Croydon as a place to live, work and spend free time. I am delighted contractors will be on site in 2019 to kick-start the exciting transformation of the heart of our town.”
What did emerge last night was that there are to be another two sets of traffic lights and junctions installed along Wellesley Road to help Westfield shoppers drive their cars into the mall’s vast car park.
And, as Newman confirmed Inside Croydon’s report from yesterday, work on demolishing the old centre now won’t be starting until 2019 – that’s seven years after the scheme was first announced, and two years after it was scheduled to be completed. We could be waiting until 2024 before Croydon’s town centre is finished.
Only then will anyone be able to judge whether Croydon Council’s planning committee served the people well on the night of Tuesday, November 14, 2017.
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