KEN LEE, our spending-four-days-on-the-lash-at-public-expense correspondent, detected waning interest among the world’s property developers in Croydon’s tired message at this year’s MIPIM
Apparently, it’s happening.
“It’s happening!” was the latest lame slogan for Croydon this week at the booze and hookerfest that is MIPIM.
It might have been a tad embarrassing if anyone had bothered to ask what “it” was.
Perhaps it meant the Fairfield Halls refurbishment..? Oh. It now won’t be fully open until the end of March 2019 – some nine months late on what was supposed to be a two-year project. Ah. Awks.
How about Croydon’s bid to become Borough of Culture, with all those zany pedestrian crossings..? Ah, right, no, that didn’t quite work out, did it?
Or what about Westfield… Oh, yeah. Sometime after 2022. Possibly.
It’s easy to forget that the shiny Westfield supermall in among some “luxury apartments” in Croydon has been a promise dangled before international speculators visiting the world’s largest property conference in Cannes every year since 2012.
But Croydon went back again this year, with a delegation headed by the council’s Australian-born chief exec, Jo Negrini, and still without any firm start date for the £1.4billion Hammersfield development.
Which might explain, at least in part, the somewhat disappointing turn-out on Thursday morning for the brunch on the beach, despite the offer of (yet more) free food, as well as the chance to hear another version of Negrini’s somewhat stale sales pitch.
The flaks at Develop Croydon, undaunted, tweeted enthusiastically that the brunch – the second of Croydon’s set-piece freebie events of the week – was “packed”, although pictures taken by those attending, and who did not have a vested interest, showed that was not the case.
The brunch was sponsored by builders Willmott Dixon, who presumably could afford to splash the cash out of the ample profits they have been making from all those public projects they’ve been building around Croydon.
Of course, when Croydon Council finally got around to answering a Freedom of Information request about the participation at MIPIM of the council and its wholly owned housing company, Brick by Brick, they said that they had no sponsors paying towards the £17,000 bill for Negrini and three other council employees to attend the four-day junket (© Tony Newman) in the South of France.
But then, the council’s FoI response also said that there would be no consultants’ agencies at MIPIM working for Croydon, even though a simple examination of the official list of attendees showed at least three agencies, all of whom have been paid handsomely by the council for their services in the past, also occupying stand C15 with the council.
A fourth agency could be said to be Develop Croydon, who effectively launder sponsorship money for the council, as they fronted up yesterday’s brunch and other activities (as well as dreaming up lame slogans).
Develop Croydon is run by Grey Label, a long-time beneficiary of the council outsourcing its public relations work such as this. The Develop Croydon committee is chaired by Richard Plant, who also happens to head up Stiles Harold Williams.
SHW are the property managers who handle most of the commercial estate of the borough’s biggest property owners, the Whitgift Foundation.
And it is the Whitgift Foundation which owns the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, which is in dire need of redevelopment and who called in… Westfield.
According to Develop Croydon’s own publicity, their delegation in Cannes this week had the backing of no fewer than 15 commercial partners – or sponsors – including Croydon Council itself, plus Redrow and Menta (the Cherry Orchard Road developers who have blocked the Bridge to Nowhere for half a decade), Hammerson and Westfield through their Croydon Partnership, Plant’s SHW, Willmott Dixon and a range of others with vested private interests, some of whom, such as property consultants Gleeds, also do very nicely out of regular payments funded by Croydon Council Tax-payers.
It was Grey Label who organised the design, build and theme of Croydon’s stand at MIPIM. And the slogan. This year’s exercise in vacuity, “It’s happening!”, follows last year’s “Urban Edge”. There were still some canvas bags left over from 2017, if anyone fancied taking one, and fair dinkum Negrini even gamely wore one of the not-so-edgy T-shirts.
Thing is, when you can’t even give away free booze to the usually thirsty delegates at a bash like MIPIM, you ought to be worried.
But such was the disinterest among MIPIM delegates for Croydon’s message that Grey Label’s dynamic team was reduced to offering the unwanted bottles of beer as the conference wound down on Friday.
The council-backed Beer on the Beach event on Wednesday evening had drawn in so few eager “punters” that there was still left over bottles of Cronx ale (from the Croydon brewery that donated to Tory Gavin Barwell’s election campaign).
Maybe it is the Brexit effect, with uncertainties over the commercial property market as Britain casts itself adrift from the EU in 12 months time. Consider this: we might be out of Europe before the Fairfield Halls re-opens.
Or perhaps there really was a more business-like attitude at the usually champagne-soaked conference. As one delegate said, “In 2007 it felt like the last days of Rome. This week it’s been more like Last of the Summer Wine.”
Croydon never justifies its attendance at MIPIM, for the pimping of public property to private interests, Russian oligarchs, Qatari royals or Hong Kong speculators.
It remains a closely guarded secret about what exactly it was that Negrini and her council colleagues – Shifa Mustafa, Heather Cheesbrough, and Colm Lacey – got up to while at the cocktails and sandals junket. Unlike other councils, which respond to FoI requests with the identities of the businesses who their staffers meet at MIPIM, Croydon refuses to divulge such information on the feeble excuse of “commercial confidentiality”.
Which is a pity, because many Croydon residents will be keen to know whether Negrini took the opportunity while in Cannes to sample the high life on Da Vinci, described in reports as a “swanky new superyacht”, complete with a hot tub, office and fridge stocked with wine, and moored in the Mediterranean port’s harbour for the duration of MIPIM.
Da Vinci is a recent £20million purchase by Vincent Tchenguiz, the multi-millionaire property developer and, through one of his network of companies, also the owner of Citiscape, who is forcing the Croydon residential block’s leaseholders to stump up at least £2million to remove the potentially flammable Grenfell-style cladding from… his property.
Now, if Negrini had spent even some of her time at MIPIM lobbying Tchenguiz on behalf of Citiscape residents, rather than acting as a glorified sales agent for Westfield and their Whitgift clients, it might have served as some sort of public interest justification for splurging thousands of pounds of council cash on the four-day jaunt.
But we’ll never know. Because Negrini swilling cocktails on the fore deck with Tchenguiz will be commercially confidential, won’t it?
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