KEN LEE reports on the seismic shock that has rocked the council
Westfield today announced a decision to “review” the £1.4billion project to redevelop Croydon Town Centre, blaming Brexit and uncertainties over the retail sector.
In so doing, they immediately claimed 2019’s No Shit Sherlock award.
The scheme to rebuild the ageing Whitgift Centre and link it with the Centrale mall on the opposite side of North End in Croydon town centre has been promised by Westfield and Hammerson since 2012. It was originally supposed to be open for business by 2017. There must now be serious doubts whether it will ever go ahead, despite some reassurances today from Westfield.
It is more than a year since Westfield were granted a second set of planning permissions – this time with a much larger residential element, with nearly 1,000 homes planned in five tower blocks to be built alongside the redeveloped shopping centre. And Croydon Council has completed its Compulsory Purchase of the land around the site.
The Croydon Partners, the joint venture formed by what is now known as Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield and property company Hammerson, are believed to have spent more than £300million so far just on preparations for the scheme.
Work was supposed to begin to demolish the Whitgift Centre this September, but last month even that was further delayed, and now the Evening Gideon is reporting a spokesperson for the developers as saying, “There are challenges surrounding the UK economic and political outlook and the structural changes facing retail have put some UK retailers under pressure.
“We are reviewing the scheme to ensure it responds to changing retailer requirements and is appropriate for the future.”
Inside Croydon raised the spectre of the impact of Brexit on the Westfield project as long ago as 2016.
Unmentioned in today’s newspaper report is the dire situation which Hammerson finds itself in at present, with its shares losing huge amount of value on the stock market over the past year.
The Gideon does quote a retail analyst saying, “I suspect the developers are now having second thoughts about both the choice of anchors and the major space users in the centre.” Which gets the silver medal in the 2019 NSS awards.
The newspaper reports that the Croydon Partnership, “insisted that it remains committed to the centre, which will have a John Lewis department store and a major Marks and Spencer branch, and still plans to open it in 2023”.
How they intend to achieve that on a project that now will not begin until 2020 at the earliest was not explained.
The review by Westfield is the latest huge set-back for the Whitgift Foundation, the borough’s largest landowners and the owners of the Whitgift Centre’s freehold. They have endured struggling rental revenues from the centre for seven years now, money which the charity would look to use for the running of their almshouses and private schools.
And it will be catastrophically worrying news for Croydon Council, for whom council leader Tony Newman has been an uncritical cheerleader for the developers’ plans, and where the chief executive, Jo Negrini, owes her position to Westfield’s over-weaning influence.
It is possible that Negrini will be forced into revealing her contingency plans, perhaps at an emergency meeting of the full council, if one can be summoned by the opposition Conservative group – who were, after all, instrumental in inviting Westfield into the borough in the first place.
Such a council meeting could be the only way to force the chief exec to be answerable to the borough’s elected representatives: Negrini has been refusing to answer questions about the on-going delays to the redevelopment for more than 18 months.
For its part, Croydon Council appears content to continue to sleepwalk towards disaster, while the town centre suffers a slow, lingering death.
A council spokesman told the Gideon: “We remain encouraged by Westfield’s commitment. Despite a fast-changing retail market and economic uncertainty related to Brexit, the council has delivered on finalising the land assembly and final compulsory purchase order process. We now look forward to Westfield announcing a start date for next year.”
“Encouraged”. So that’s alright then.
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