It is six years to the day since Westfield and Hammerson said that, jointly, they would redevelop central Croydon. KEN LEE, our Town Hall reporter, on the increasingly beleaguered mood among senior council figures
Croydon Council’s chief executive, Jo Negrini, is coming under mounting pressure as it emerges that the long-promised redevelopment work on the Whitgift Centre will not begin this year after all.
Negrini has held the £200,000 per year role as the borough’s most senior civic servant since June 2016, but leading figures in Katharine Street have suggested that she may be considering her position. Inside Croydon has twice in the past month given Negrini the opportunity to comment on such speculation; on each occasion, she failed to deny that this may be the case.
Today marks six years since the “marriage of convenience” between Hammerson and Westfield was announced over the redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre. Then, the shiny new temple to retailing was all supposed to be rebuilt and open for business by 2017. Now, no one appears to know when it might open, or even if it ever will.
Last June, Negrini and council officials were reporting that demolition work on the old shopping mall would begin in September 2019. At the Town Hall this week, that start date had been put back, at least until after Christmas.
Any further delays to the redevelopment of the town centre will be a massive blow to Negrini, the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner”.
Last year, when asked whether her council had a fall-back position in case Westfield decided not to go ahead with the scheme, Negrini responded, “We’re not stupid.” It seems increasingly likely that councillors from the majority Labour group as well as opposition Tories will soon be asking for Negrini to share with them what her “Plan B” really is.
For although the “Hammersfield” development is a private scheme, the fate of the borough’s finances, and those of Croydon’s largest land-owners, the Whitgift Foundation, plus the state of the town centre, all now depend on some resolution of the development blight that businesses and residents have had to endure in the town centre since the glitzy announcement in the Fairfield Halls by the then London Mayor, Boris Johnson.
Australian-born Negrini has made, and staked, her career on Westfield. She arrived in Croydon as executive director in charge of planning and development just months after the Hammersfield deal had been sealed. Negrini’s previous job in Newham had seen her working closely with Aussie developers Westfield on their Stratford development before the 2012 Olympics.
But last year Westfield was subject to a £18.5billion takeover by French retail giant Unibail-Rodamco. John Burton, Negrini’s fellow Australian who was Westfield’s development director in Europe, left his post soon after. And now Negrini is left to give less-than-satisfactory answers to Town Hall meetings about the uncertain prospects for the Croydon supermall.
Tuesday night’s council cabinet meeting saw council leader, Tony Newman, with Negrini at his side, unable to provide precise answers about when work will begin on the redevelopment scheme, which under much-altered plans is supposed to include nearly 1,000 flats as well as the shopping centre with John Lewis and Marks and Spencer as “anchor” stores.
What was noticeable this week was the apparent lack of any firm information from Negrini about when work might be expected. Newman was left floundering when pressed for answers.
“I’m not sure that Negrini’s position has got any worse,” one Town Hall source said following that meeting, “although I guess it will if there are further problems with Westfield.”
The latest Westfield delays come on top of a host of poor decisions by Negrini in senior council recruitment since taking over at Croydon, while the run-down public services in the borough appear to be closer to the brink of collapse on her watch.
There’s been no great improvement in the children’s services department which has been under Whitehall special measures since 2017; Brick by Brick, Negrini’s brainchild, the unpopular house building company, has failed to build a single house since 2015; and rubbish contractors Veolia are struggling to meet the terms of their waste contracts, leaving mess strewn across Croydon’s streets like never before.
And that’s not the only problem in Negrini’s in-tray in her Fisher’s Folly office. There is the mounting overspends on the £30million Fairfield Halls scheme, while the New Addington Leisure Centre – which typically ought to have cost less than £12million – is more than a year late and thought to be costing £25million. Both projects have been overseen by Negrini’s Brick by Brick housebuilders.
What with Croydon’s head of finance, shrewd accounts operator Richard Simpson, leaving his job (“He can’t take any more of this shit,” was what one Fisher’s Folly source told Inside Croydon), and Aussie mates like Burton departing Westfield, Negrini appears to be left with no one to cover her arse, apart from her increasing beleaguered staff.
On Tuesday, in the absence of any hard facts about when work on the Hammersfield project might start, Newman was left to resort to bluster. “The Westfield project with it’s new French ownership is looking very strong indeed,” he claimed.
“Are people looking hard at what is happening out there in the retail environment and what’s happening nationally at the moment? Yes they are. But in a very challenging retail environment Croydon is as well placed as anybody is at the moment both with projected future investments and retaining those stores we have.
“The council has absolutely delivered in terms of the planning process and the CPO process, so I think on any major projects there is always going to be some challenges.”
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