BARRATT HOLMES, our housing reporter, on how bungling by ‘award-winning’ Brick by Brick has put in serious jeopardy half-a-billion-pounds’ worth of new homes, has damaged the Town Hall’s relationship with Croydon College, and leaves a gaping funding hole for Fairfield Halls
Last week’s announcement that Croydon Council was now starting an architectural competition for a site next to the Fairfield Halls was confirmation that bungling over a multi-million-pound property purchase by house-builder Brick by Brick has left a key part of the town centre’s redevelopment close to collapse.
The failure of the council’s house-builders Brick by Brick to buy the Barclay Road Annex building from Croydon College, which they had been negotiating for more than two years, has been a catastrophic blow to the council’s plans and forced the postponement of plans to build 2,000 flats around what used to be referred to as College Green – new homes vital to the council meeting its housing targets, and potentially worth more than £400million.
This massive set-back to the biggest council-led scheme, which aimed to use Croydon College property adjacent to the Fairfield Halls, has prompted a local MP to accuse Brick by Brick of “incompetence” and to call for the council leadership to “take responsibility for this mess”.
Inside Croydon broke the news in July that Croydon College had earlier in the year 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, had been working on plans for College Green since 2014, hiring fashionable London architecture firm Rick Mather Architects to draw up a “masterplan” that included underground art galleries and windswept patches of open space between seven tower blocks.
The scheme, including 218 flats in the first phase, was granted planning permission in 2016. Sold on the private housing market, those flats alone might have been worth more than £60million, with the profits going towards the costs of refurbishing the Fairfield Halls
Those detailed, approved plans have recently vanished from the council’s online planning portal.
In a council press release dated October 2015, they announced that they wanted to include the college’s Barclay Road Annex in the first phase of works 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.
Some of the demolition work around the site began in 2016, but has so far been racking up extra costs as it is done in a piecemeal manner. The careful demolition of one multi-storey car park has cost an additional £1million alone.
Last week’s grandstanding announcement by Croydon Council’s chief exec, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, was, in fact, an admission that they have been forced to rewind much of the scheme and start again, but without including any of the land and property owned by the College, and now without providing the promised “state of the art” new educational facilities, either.
There’s even a sense of bitterness about the clearly troubled relationship between the council and the college: what the council once called the College Green site is now pompously retitled “Fair Field”.
Trade magazine Property Week homed in on the situation last week, reporting that, “Croydon Council is altering its plans for a major mixed-use development in the town centre after it failed to assemble all the land needed for the scheme…
“… Brick by Brick had been in discussions to acquire an annex building right in the centre of the site from Croydon College, which has its main campus adjacent to the development site. However, Property Week has learned…” they wrote, six months after Inside Croydon reported it, “that the college has now sold the property to a private developer – understood to be housebuilder Stonegate Homes – instead of Brick by Brick, leading it to reassess its plans for the site.”
Katharine Street sources this weekend suggested that complications over ownership and undertakings given by the College had hampered negotiations, and that Brick by Brick “did offer substantially over the asking price” for the Annex building. They suggested that the council will now have to consider issuing Compulsory Purchase Orders for the whole site, including the college-owned buildings, though this will take much longer and likely cost far more. The future for Croydon College being based in Croydon town centre seems uncertain.
It does not take much reading between the lines of the Property Week report for the bitter divisions between the college and council over their property stalemate to become evident. “Brick by Brick will no longer develop a new campus for the college on the site as previously planned, and will no longer be able to acquire the college’s current building, which has capacity for up to 1,500 residential units.”
Note that: 1,500 residential units, which would have a potential retail value of more than £400million, a sum enough to make a dent even in Negrini’s financial planning.
There’s more than a hint of desperation about the council’s revised plans as reported by Property Week: “This means its initial plan for 2,000 Brick by Brick units on the whole site will be unviable, but it is now upping the number of homes to be delivered in the first phase of the scheme from 218 in the original application to around 380.”
A 75 per cent increase in the number of flats to be built on the land which Brick by Brick has managed to acquire will up the density of that development considerably. The existing planning consent is for one tower of 29 storeys. A new, much taller tower will now be designed by Common Ground Architects, which Property Week fails to state is the council’s own, in-house architecture firm.
The magazine quotes Colm Lacey, Brick by Brick’s managing director, council employee and part-time architecture competition judge, as suggesting that his firm might eventually “get close to that number” of 2,000 homes around the site. The magazine did not report Lacey explaining how he might achieve that, though we should find out more in the new year when a much-revised planning application is submitted.
Last week, in an advertorial paid for by Council Tax-payers and published by Architects’ Journal, Negrini fired the starting gun on a competition to find designers for what is left of the space between the Fairfield Halls and the college.
In its brief, the council says that Fair Field “will be a truly world-class public space. It will be one of the most exciting public spaces in London; a destination space accessible to and accommodating a broad demographic…
“Proposals should integrate water, public art and lighting; promote cultural and community activity; improve connections to nearby George Street and East Croydon station; and celebrate the history of the area.”
There are a number of references to desirable water features: this from a council which, when it had a town centre public fountain, in Queen’s Gardens, chose to concrete over it rather than spend money on its maintenance. Indeed, much of the public open space which was once Queen’s Gardens is now also being concreted over for more flats, built by private developers (one scheme which the even Negrini’s council didn’t dare put into the hands of “award-winning” Brick by Brick).
Perhaps naively, the Architects’ Journal’s own copy refers to “The historic Fair Field – also known as College Green – was transformed into a civic plaza during Croydon’s reconstruction in the mid-20th century. The Arnhem Gate at its eastern end is a reference to Croydon’s twinned town in The Netherlands.”
The Arnhem Gate, a piece of brutalist architecture constructed in the 1960s, was bulldozed more than two years ago, an inconvenience for the Brick by Brick scheme, significantly the first move to eradicating the borough’s historic links with the Dutch town, which has been further pursued since with Philistine proposal to rename the Fairfield Halls’ Arnhem Gallery as “The Croydon Wreck”.
The failure to do the basics, and use many millions of public money to secure ownership of the packets of land needed for the original scheme, ought to be a huge embarrassment for Negrini and Lacey, and will prove massively awkward for the borough’s political leadership, Blairite councillors Tony Newman, Alison Butler and Paul Scott.
It was Scott who, when chair of the council planning committee, helped to push through the College Green and Fairfield Halls schemes, which included firm assurances that the private housing built in the area would defray the costs involved in refurbishing the arts centre.
Newman, Butler (the council deputy leader and cabinet member for housing) and Scott ought to have known about the impending crisis for the project when Croydon College first delayed and then refused to sell its buildings.
The deal to sell the key Barclays Road Annex to Stonegate Homes is understood to have gone through last April – a month before the Town Hall elections.
Yet Newman, Butler and Scott have remained silent on the matter, failing to keep the borough’s residents informed of the impending disaster to their pipe dream, and even failing to advise some of their fellow Labour cabinet members and councillors.
Their “award-winning” house-builders Brick by Brick have yet to complete a single new home since the council formed the company in 2015.
It is Brick by Brick which is in charge of the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, which was meant to be a two-year, £30million project, but which is now running at least 15 months late and an estimated £10million over budget.
Brick by Brick is involved, too, in the over-running and over-spending New Addington Leisure Centre build. Due to cost £17million and open in autumn 2018, the facility (with added housing, naturally) now won’t open until 2021 and could cost more than £25million.
Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, is increasingly concerned by Brick by Brick’s record, especially over the risk of losing nearly 2,000 flats in the town centre, estimated as potentially worth more than £400million on the private market.
“This is a further example of the council’s failure to deliver, via Brick by Brick, the homes we need,” Philp said today.
“This critical project has been in the council’s sights for several years and it has been snatched from under their noses by a private developer. Not only does this scupper their plans to redevelop the wider Fairfield site, announced with much fanfare a few years ago, but the profit they would have made from this project was earmarked to fund the
Fairfield Halls refurbishment.
“Once again, the council’s incompetence is reducing housing supply in Croydon and causing taxpayers to pick up the large Fairfield Hals refurbishment bill. It is time that the council’s elected leadership takes responsibility for this mess, and is held ultimately accountable for their failures.”
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