Croydon Council has been accused of ‘incompetence’ after a building it needed as part of a multi-million-pound development has been sold to a private developer. BARRATT HOLMES, our housing correspondent, reports
Croydon College has sold part of its site to private developers, dealing a body-blow to the council’s “ambitious” plans to create a so-called “Cultural Quarter” on and around College Green, including more than 2,000 flats next to the Fairfield Halls.
The council, and its wholly owned house-builder Brick by Brick, have been working on plans for College Green since 2014, hiring fashionable London architects to draw up expensive blueprints for underground art galleries and windswept patches of open space between seven tower blocks.
The scheme was granted planning permission 17 months ago.
Yet what has been kept a secret closely guarded by chief exec Jo Negrini, her development director Colm Lacey, and the Labour-run council’s leaders Tony Newman and Alison Butler was that they never managed to seal a deal with Croydon College to acquire all the buildings and property that they needed for the scheme.
Town Hall sources have said that Croydon College was offered “very generous terms” for its property. In a council press release in October 2015, they announced that they wanted to include the college’s Barclay Road Annex in the first phase of works (which began in 2016) for the construction of what they called then a “state-of-the-art college”, to accommodate all the college’s faculties, including the acclaimed Croydon School of Art.
But Inside Croydon has discovered that earlier in 2018, after three years of negotiations, Croydon College turned its back on all offers from the council and instead opted to sell that crucial Barclay Road Annex building to private developers, Stonegate Homes.
The sale happened just before the college’s principal, Frances Wadsworth, left for a new job.
“It was virtually the last thing she did as principal,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon.
“It was as if it was her farewell to Croydon and the council.”
Croydon Council’s often poor liaison with partners in the borough has proved costly before. A row between the then council CEO, Jon Rouse, and Nestlé, then the borough’s biggest employers – also over redevelopment – saw the company quit its long-time corporate HQ tower in the town centre in 2012. The Nestlé Tower has remained vacant ever since.
But even that blow could not be as destructive to the council’s own schemes as the potential collapse of its plans for College Green.
Even as recently as February 2017, when planning permission was granted (view the planning documents here), council leader Newman was still brashly inflating expectations by describing the refurbished Fairfield Halls as “the new South Bank”.
A council press release to mark the granting of planning permission gushed so much you thought it might wet itself, such was the unbridled excitement.
“The plans for Croydon’s stunning new cultural quarter at College Green – one of the largest regeneration projects ever approved in the borough – were given the thumbs up by council’s planning committee last night,” they said then.
“As a key part of Croydon’s overall £5.25billion regeneration, the ambitious development will see College Green and Fairfield transformed into a vibrant destination for arts, education and culture.
“The plans include more than 2,000 much-needed new homes, various new high-quality public spaces, a brand new college, a 2,000 sq m art gallery, new shops and office space, all with the refurbished Fairfield Halls at its heart.”
The council was at pains to explain that the “overall College Green regeneration… is being delivered by the council’s development company Brick by Brick”, a company founded by the council in 2015 and which, to date, has not managed to complete a single home, nor has it overseen the successful delivery of a project of any size, never mind the scale of what has been planned for College Green.
Alison Butler, the Labour cabinet member responsible for housing and regeneration, could barely contain herself. “I’m absolutely delighted this project has been approved,” Butler said at the time, failing to mention that it was her own husband, Paul Scott, who chaired the planning committee which granted approval.
“College Green is a hugely symbolic project for Croydon and crucial to the borough’s overall regeneration and growth ambitions. The proposal will revitalise an under-used and tired area, turning it into a vibrant public space and reconnecting it with the rest of the town centre. It will also supply much-needed new homes and jobs as well as fantastic arts, leisure and educational facilities.
“It’s fantastic news for everyone in Croydon,” Butler promised.
Yet she, Newman, Negrini and Lacey must have all known at that point, already more than two years into the planning process, that they had yet to persuade Croydon College to agree to sell its land and buildings.
To allow this important property asset to slip from the council’s grasp, at such a late stage in the process (the Fairfield Halls refurb was due to have been completed this month, after all) seems to be ripe for allegations of negligence. Local MP Chris Philp today described it as “incompetence”.
To have kept the sale of the property a secret can only be viewed as a deception, since the deal will have been done no later than April – weeks before Newman and Butler went to the polls in the local elections boasting of their regeneration successes.
All may not yet be lost, although the price to be paid will be considerably higher, with the Croydon Council Tax-payer inevitably picking up the bill.
Stonegate Homes, the new owners of the Barclay Road Annex, are a Dorking-based business, founded in 2010. They specialise in office-to-residential conversions.
They claim to have experience of gaining planning permission for 2,600 units, and must have some confidence, given the oft-cited “housing crisis”, of being able to put forward a workable scheme in central Croydon.
Either that, or they may be hoping to make a decent premium on their investment by forcing the council into issuing a Compulsory Purchase Order for the site.
Inside Croydon approached Colm Lacey, the council staffer who wallows in the grandiose title of “CEO Brick by Brick”, to seek his explanation of how he intends to retrieve the situation. But Lacey refused to respond. He didn’t even answer our question about whether, in light of this latest calamity, he will be considering his position.
We tried phoning Lacey in his executive office in Fisher’s Folly. The line was dead.
But Croydon South Tory MP Philp, who has his own experience of brokering property deals around the capital, did respond when we asked for his view on the stuttering scheme.
“When the Fairfield Halls were shut down, the council promised private development adjacent would fund most of the refurbishment costs,” he said.
“Now it seems this is not happening thanks to the council’s incompetence, leaving a gigantic bill for the Croydon tax-payer to foot. The council should stop complaining about lack of money when their own incompetence is creating such a large drain on public resources in Croydon.”
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