STEVEN DOWNES on how the meddling of Tory politicians and the Croydon Establishment managed to ensure that the redevelopment of Croydon town centre was never going to run smoothly
Questions were asked in the House of Commons last night which saw Croydon, the Westfield centre and Brexit all mentioned in the same breath. Things must be bad.
In one important respect, the gloomy predictions about the outcome of Brexit and Westfield’s dalliance with Croydon town centre have been linked from the start.
Because both have had considerable input from an Oxbridge-educated public schoolboy, who has never held down a proper job in his life, and landed his latest state-funded position because of who he knows, rather than what he knows.
Since he was keen to claim the credit for it, through some virtue-signalling, look-at-me tweets more than seven years ago, much of the blame for bringing Aussie supermall developers Westfield to Croydon can be laid at the door of gaffe-prone Gavin Barwell.
Barwell was the Conservative MP for Croydon Central and presumably fancied making a name for himself when in 2011 he intervened on behalf of his chums at the Whitgift Foundation, the borough’s biggest land-owners.
Barwell decided that he knew better than the shop-keepers, traders and tenants who inhabited the fading grandeur of the Whitgift Centre, and who had already engaged Hammerson, the owners of the nearby Centrale, to come in and give their shopping mall a shot in the arm.
Britain’s economy was just emerging from the worst of the global financial crisis, and the public were beginning to part with their hard-earned once again on fashion items, make-up and the kind of consumer products that had been retailed in the Whitgift for half a century.
But the shops in the centre were all-too-aware of the leaking roof and the run-down facilities. Allders, the Are-You-Being-Served era department store which anchored the centre, was struggling.
Modern shoppers expected, wanted more. And the growing trend for the convenience of online shopping had made the Whitgift Centre’s need for that modernisation all the greater.
Hammerson had a steady track record in running shopping centres, as they had shown at Bormingham’s Bullring.
Perhaps Hammerson were not flashy enough for Barwell, though, and did not offer the kind of big bucks profits for the freeholders which might be brought to the table by the big-shots from Westfield, who just before the London Olympics had opened their second centre in the capital at Stratford.
Barwell at this time sat on the board of trustees of the Whitgift Foundation, the owners of the freehold of the shopping centre (a conflict of interest for the local MP which he tried to ignore for years).
Initially, Hammerson had the advantage, in a legal agreement with the leaseholders. For a time, it looked like a stand-off, with the leaseholders on one side with Hammerson, and the freeholders the Whitgift Foundation with Barwell and Westfield on the other. Any progress on redeveloping the centre was put on hold..
A propaganda war ensued, with Westfield trying to attract public support with a caravan parked on North End and handing out leaflets which promised a wonderful new, “prosperous Croydon”. Thousands of new jobs, they said (a mere 5,000 back then), new flats (just 600 under those proposals), and improved public transport were all solemnly promised by Westfield and their partners, Barwell’s mates at the Whitgift Foundation.
This was in 2012. Larger chain retailers, the people who pay top-dollar for the best sites in Westfield’s and Hammerson’s supermalls, were already beginning to complain about a shift in consumer habits, from visiting shops to buying ever more goods online.
Interested spectators at the time were Croydon Council, then under the control of Barwell’s former Tory colleagues from his own time as a Town Hall Conservative councillor.
The council was preoccupied with coping with the first round of austerity cuts handed out to them by the Tory chancellor Gideon Osborne. Westfield’s promised massive boost to the town centre might go some way to re-energising the Croydon economy, and helping the Town Hall coffers, they will have been assured by Barwell.
Besides, it was Big Business, and Big Business always knows what’s best for the community, don’t they?
Barwell, the council and the Foundation were keen not to pay too much attention to some of Westfield’s not-so-flashy achievements, though. Any warnings about what happened with “Wastefield” in Bradford, where a massive hole in the ground dominated the city centre for a whole decade, were firmly ignored.
The arm-wrestle over the Whitgift Centre looked deadlocked, until Barwell had what he thought was a bright idea, and he went to his Tory mate Boris Johnson.
Johnson was the London Mayor who had the Midas Touch, in reverse. Everything he touched turned to shit.
It was Johnson who as Mayor cancelled the planned and funded Crystal Palace tram extension. Johnson OK’d the Dangleway, the pointless and under-utilised Thames crossing at Greenwich. Johnson introduced to the capital at immense cost the Boris Bus, a nostalgic doubledecker which fails to function adequately in a number of performance areas.
The Boris Bikes have been a success, though the plans for the cycle hire scheme had been set in progress by Johnson’s predecessor as Mayor. It was on Johnson’s watch as Mayor that TfL squandered tens of millions on the Garden Bridge. The water cannon that can’t be used in this country? A Johnson initiative.
And so it was that Barwell turned to Johnson to break the stalemate between Hammerson and Westfield. What could go wrong?
Hammerson needed the Mayor’s permission to expand its existing shopping centre at Brent Cross. Some backroom deal was done, and one morning, in the Fairfield Halls, with Barwell standing in the wings watching, Johnson walked out with owners, chairmen and chief execs of Westfield and Hammerson, to great Tory acclaim. Peace in our time!
Hammerson and Westfield would work together in Croydon. It would be a bigger, better, more expensive supermall. Centrale would be included now.
For Croydon, it has proved a marriage made in hell.
Progress on large-scale, complex developments is notoriously slow when dealing with just one developer.
But while they were always polite in public, the relationship between rivals Hammerson and Westfield, in the BoJo- and Barwell-brokered “Croydon Partnership”, has never been an easy one.
By 2013, they’d put together a scheme to go to the council for planning permission. In 2014, there was a change in political administration at Croydon Town Hall, though there was no change in attitude towards the “Hammersfield” project, as the Blairite leadership of Tony Newman warmly embraced the Tory-inspired scheme.
Perhaps too warmly, and rather than behave like a critical friend, scrutinising the proposals in the interests of the whole of Croydon, Newman opted to become a cheerleader for the development.
As with Barwell, this was Newman’s chance to make a name for himself.
The scheme needed a gathering together of parcels of land in and around the Whitgift Centre, and a Compulsory Purchase Order of that kind of magnitude requires a public inquiry. That was held in February and March 2015.
The government planning minister accepted the planning inspector’s report, which recommended that the CPO and the development should go ahead.
The decision was embraced as epoch-making by Newman, who was so keen to associate himself with the project, he even had a video of himself plastered across the council website.
And that was it, surely? Work could begin now, couldn’t it?
That was September 2015, which was around the time that Barwell was putting the finishing touches to his execrable memoir, How To Win A Marginal Seat.
Barwell had hung on to Croydon Central, just, in a General Election which his party won when promising to hold an in-out referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. And so the second strand of what would undermine the redevelopment of Croydon town centre was underway.
Back in the Whitgift Centre, where the once proud Allders department store had long closed and been turned into a bizarre bazaar selling cheap fashion knock-offs and where the leaks in the roof had only got worse, there was no sign of progress.
Weeks, months would pass by without any updates on what was happening from Westfield. And this on a scheme which they had originally said would be completed by 2017.
Store owners on short-term leases were given renewals to last them through the usually lucrative Christmas season, as demolition work was postponed more than once.
Come 2016, and finally the silence was broken, as Westfield announced that they weren’t happy with the plans (their plans), and wanted to have another go. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson spent most of the first half of the year touring the country in a bus emblazoned with false promises about the future after Brexit. If only the nation had listened to the Croydon experience of Johnson’s false promises.
The referendum came and went, as did David Cameron as Prime Minister, while Westfield decided that in Croydon, instead of a massive temple to retail with a bit of residential development tacked on, they now wanted to do a slightly less ambitious retail centre but with twice the number of “luxury executive apartments” in tower blocks along Wellesley Road.
Instead of a £1billion scheme with 5,000 jobs, they now talked about spending £1.4billion, and a shopping centre creating 7,000 jobs. Not that anyone in charge ever bothered offering an explanation of what these jobs would be.
The council’s planning committee nodded the revised plans all through with barely a murmur. Croydon had been waiting for Westfield for so long now, the councillors daren’t do anything to delay its progress (as if…). It was, by now, 2017, the year when Westfield had first promised that they would deliver their wonderful, shiny new supermall.
And then, somewhere halfway up a mountain in Wales, Theresa May, Cameron’s replacement as PM, decided to have another General Election. After all, Labour were now led by Jeremy Corbyn, so they were no threat, obviously.
At the election Barwell, who had risen without trace to the position of housing minister, was booted out as Croydon Central’s MP, replaced by Labour’s Sarah Jones. That’s gratitude for you, after he had done so much for the place, bringing in Westfield, and all those new jobs and transport links and lovely new shops…
Nationally, May’s gamble backfired, and the Conservatives no longer had a majority in the House of Commons. The advisers who had let her call the election left Downing Street, and she replaced them with Barwell as her chief of staff, probably because he was at a loose end and available.
And so we arrived at a situation where the man who played a large part in bringing Westfield to Croydon has spent the last 18 months advising the Prime Minister on her political strategy, in the Commons and the nation at large, to deliver on a promise to see Britain exit the European Union. Which all seems to be going so well, too.
Then yesterday, Westfield announced that they are “reviewing” their Croydon scheme, in large part, they said, because of the uncertainties created by… the Barwell brand of Brexit. Oh.
Nothing now will happen on site until 2020, if it ever does.
Thing is, there are other property developers and owners in Croydon, and many of them are increasingly unhappy at the way Westfield have been given such precedence, and yet been allowed to jeopardise their own prospects. Schroders, for one, announced before Christmas that they were halting their own £500million development because they were fed up of being dicked about by Westfield.
There are home-owners who have bought “luxury apartments” for £350,000, or more, on the basis that they would soon be living alongside a vibrant, lively town centre with its very own Westfield, full of bars and nightclubs. With no prospect of the town centre redevelopment happening any time soon, such property owners might now struggle to re-sell their highly mortgaged flats at close to the price that they bought them for.
Sources within the development industry say they saw this all coming, and when Westfield say they are “reviewing” the Croydon scheme, it is actually barely disguised code for “dropping” the Croydon scheme.
“They’re letting you down slowly,” said one.
They suggest that Westfield’s Aussie owners selling out to French firm Unibail-Rodamco last year has shifted the balance away from the scheme – few of the Westfield senior management who were committed to Croydon remain with the company.
“I have no doubt that Westfield could have ridden this all out if they really wanted to,” they said. “They are using the retailing slump and Brexit as an excuse.
“But it’s clear, having dealt with Croydon over 20 years or more, there’s a serious issue with the council, too. Remember the Croydon Arena development which never happened, or Minerva’s proposals that failed to materialise. Croydon are always too eager to swallow the promises of these schemes whole… They’re over-ambitious, and deluded, and they will continue to get the rug pulled out from under them.
“This has been another seriously big dent in Croydon’s reputation.”
Meanwhile, Gavin Barwell, remains in his £140,000 per year job in Downing Street. For how much longer is, of course, uncertain. What is increasingly clear, as the country, under his boss’s leadership, hurtles towards Brexit, is that Barwell won’t be in his job by the time that Westfield finish building their supermall in Croydon.
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